Pan portrait: A celebration of Guyana's cultural heritage
By Lloyd Kandasammy
February 19, 2004
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Culture knows no boundaries. Music is one of those elements of our civilisation, which, once it has been planted, continues to flourish, and thereafter must be regarded as an integral connection of the way of life of a community. With the spirit of Mashramani firmly entrenched, revellers will fete to the popular sounds of the calypso, soca and the steel band.
The steel band today is known to be capable of playing a wide range of music, sweeping people off their feet with its tropical rhythm. It originated in Trinidad, where the pan was born out of the necessity to form musical instruments to assist in the celebrations in Port-of-Spain that followed the end of the First World War. It is reported that the people went wild grabbing all the old dustbins, parts of discarded motorcars and other metal material to make a noisy din as they celebrated in the streets of Port of Spain. The unusual but distinctive sounds symbolised the birth of a new musical instrument, which swept the West Indies.
To play the fine compositions of music, bins or drums are cut horizontally in half. They are then scraped and heated. Those to be used for the lighter type of music, called the first and second pans to dispense melody and timing, are heated for about four to five minutes and then chilled in water and prepared for the grooving process.
This is accomplished with a hammer and a chisel, used on the face and the back of the drums. From this procedure the various notes are returned to a particular scale. To produce deeper notes - the tune bass and drums - the bins are heated for approximately eight to ten minutes, with larger grooves being made.
Sweeping British Guiana
The Casablanca, an eight-peace combo, headed by Big Bay Williams, was the first Steel band formed in Guyana (British Guiana). Its popularity was infectious and there was an insurgence among musicians in the colony. This was chiefly as a result of the interchange of the peoples of Trinidad and British Guiana who share an equal love for music.
In 1947, the Red Army, Trinidad's first steel band, visited British Guiana. Musical enthusiasts were immediately infected as the band paraded the streets dressed like pirates of a pantomime. One year later, in 1948, the first local Steel band competition was staged at the Georgetown Cricket Club. Three bands Casablanca, Tripoli and St. James Suffers, competed. In 1951 and 1952 the All Stars and the All Girls Pat Steel band from Trinidad visited Guiana and performed with several local bands.
With the establishment of numerous steel bands not only in the City of Georgetown and its environs, but also along the East Coast and Berbice, the Steel Band Association was formed, some seven years after the emergence of the first steel band.
Between 1949 and 1957 Steel Band tramps during the Christmas season attracted a large cross-section of the Guyanese community. In 1952 costumes were introduced, and revellers clad in costumes added splendour and colour to the streets of Georgetown. Band-stripping, one of the games played by bands on the road, often led to violent clashes which alarmed the colonial authorities who imposed severe restrictions.
Band-stripping was a sort of musical war, with rival bands and revellers approaching an intersection from different points. The first band to meet the intersection would be given the right of way, while the other band had to remain in one location playing at its very best to keep its followers and hopefully attract those of the other band. Shouts of 'Band at the corner, Hold your Partner', would be heard from among rival groups and members of the audience.
The band, which suffered in the clash, usually, changed its tune and spent the night following the other band, hoping to restore its glory at another clash at an intersection. The direction of the band while tramping was determined by a banner-carrier who marched at the front, waving the banner in time to the music. At the rear of every tramp were groups of cyclists, who rode at a slow pace, waving at friends as they passed. In 1952 restrictions were imposed prohibiting tramping in commercial areas, on account of reports of looting and other acts of vandalism. As a result, the progress of the steel band in Guiana was briefly impeded.
1953 was referred to as the year of Steel band music; over twenty bands (nineteen male and one female) were formed. The Texans, winner of the 1953 Steel Band Festival, Tripoli, first runner-up, and Quo Vadis, the twenty-six piece, (the largest in Guiana during that period), and the Crusaders were among the most popular bands of that period.
In 1955, costumed steel band tramps accentuated the Coronation Day celebrations. According to one report, shortly after midday, the best- dressed steel band - the Quo Vadis marched as units of the Royal Navy and with a following of over one thousand took to the streets of Georgetown. Striped 'Admirals' in navy blue led the bandsmen who were clad in white. The Chicago Steel Band resplendent with the Union Jack stopped at Government house in Car-michael Street and played a perfect rendition of 'Rule Britannica' and 'God save the Queen' for Lady Savage," the wife of Governor Alfred Savage. At Camp Street the Texans and Tripoli, each with a following of over two thousand, clashed. However, unlike in previous years, they did not stop, but continued to play their music with the hope of attracting supporters from the other side.
In 1958, on the occasion of the visit of Her Royal Highness Princess Margaret, the Government of British Guiana assisted the Steel Band Association with a grant of $1,200 for the purchase of costumes for a special tramp. Bands such as the Trouba-dours and the Kaietukans were attired in costumes made out of Royal colours in a three-mile tramp along Main, Lamaha, Parade, Camp, Young and High Streets. Special 'sessions of steel', a series of concerts by steel bands, were also staged at the Sea Wall Bandstand. Unfortunately, however, the Steel Band Association entered a period of decline during the late 1950s as a result of administrative and financial problems.
Many bands disappeared. The Steel Band Association, which had been established to organise activities for bands, found itself in financial ruin and unable to attract membership and sponsorship, crumbled. Many bands, however, took matters into their own hands and staged concerts. Notable bands such as the Invaders, Tripoli, the Texans, Pelcans, Eldorado, Ebonairs and the Kaietukans toured West Indian Islands, while others staged popular concerts at the Olympic Cinema and the Town Hall during the 1960s.
In 1968 the Police Force formed the People's Army Corps of Drums and Steel Orchestra. In the rural areas there was keen rivalry between the Beterverwagting Syncopators, the Buxton New Yorkers and the Golden Grove Corps.
Renewal of Life
At a meeting on 29 July 1960 many prominent members of five active bands (X. M. All Stars, Fascinators, Ebonairs, Invaders and El Dorado) were invited by Mrs. Iris Leitch, Secretary of the Association, to examine the constitution of the body and resuscitate steel band activities in Guiana. In October of that year a Carnival-like tramp was organised. It would be the last of such tramps for that decade.
Eight years later, in 1968, a competition was organised by the National History and Arts Council to showcase the talent of Steel bands in Guyana. Two sets of judges were used for the preliminaries and the finals. Competitors were required to play the National Anthem, a classical selection and a test-piece of the Guyanese folk song 'Way down Demerara' at the Queen Elizabeth National Park.
Viewed by a large audience, the Demerara Tobacco Silver Tones "clad in peacock blue shirts with vivid red monogrammed pockets and black trousers whipped the crowd into a frenzy with their rendition of Handel's Messiah." They emerged as the victors from among a group of competitors, who included Chase Manhattan Steel Orchestra, the Demba Invaders, the Harmonaires, the Texaco Symphonettes and the Kaietukans.
Sponsorship and Government intervention
In 1971, two major events the National Steel Band Festival 31 July - 2 August and the reintroduction of the Steel Band Tramp, both organised by the National History and Arts Council and the Steel Band Association, reinvigorated new life and interest in this aspect of Guyana's culture. Prime Minister Forbes Burnham, in addressing the Steel Band Association at Critchlow Labour College, declared that "every public corporation in which the government has a majority shareholding will sponsor a steel band."
Unlike previous tramps in the 1940s and the 1950s, revellers or trampers were not clad in costumes, but in t-shirts depicting the band they were following. Another notable change was the absence of band-stripping.
In 1972, Steel Band Week from 1-7 April was staged by the Guyana National Steel Band Music Association to promote Steel Band music in Guyana. Among the activities staged were an exhibition of steel-band equipment and booklets on the lawns of the Public Free Library, a Sunday morning Church service at St. George's Cathedral where the Silvertones delivered a sterling rendition of the 'Hallelujah Chorus,' and concerts at the Luckhoo Pool, the Sea Wall Bandstand and an open-air concert at the National Park.
Though imported from Trinidad, the Steel band with its distinctive rhythm can be regarded as a novelty of Guyana's culture. Throughout the 1980s National Steel band competitions were staged and dates were shifted and coincided with mashramani celebrations. The 1983 competition was described as a "musical extravaganza in percussion music". In addition to steel band music, the audience also witnessed the Masquerade Flouncers competition.
Today there is a mere handful of steel bands when compared to the large number of bands that existed in the 1950s. Though much work is needed to revive interest in pan music, all is not lost. Comprehensive planning and the reintroduction of music education to schools will serve to develop this aspect of our cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations.