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Saturday, February 26, 2005



Dr. Lester CN Simon

I wish to thank Sam Roberts for all the steel pan music played on Sessions in Steel on Observer Radio. Like most lovers of pan music, I was enthralled by Phase II Pan Groove for their overwhelming display in Panorama 2005. Their rendition underscored a fundamental element of the steel pan that is worthy of discussion.

Some people do not like steel pan music even though they like many other types of music including jazz and classical music. I think one reason for this is because steel pans have an inherent peculiarity. Despite the fact that steel pans vary in pitch, they all have a similar sonority. This presents a problem in arranging for a steel orchestra. If proper attention is not paid to this fact, the entire steel band can sound like a bundle of noise. This turns off people. The arranger cannot simply adapt the basic approaches that are tried and proven for classical music or jazz big band orchestras. These ensembles have a variety of musical instruments with a variety of musical sonorities.

It is my opinion that one of the best sources for insight into, and inspiration for, arranging for the steel pan is the classical music string quartet. The reason for this is because, similar to the mono-sonority of the steel pans, the string quartet comprises all string instruments. Even though the violin, viola and cello vary in pitch, the sonority is not that different compared to a full orchestra with sections of strings, brass, woodwinds, etc.

The composer or arranger of the string quartet relies heavily on the interplay between the instruments. This is the key. It’s almost like listening to a room full of people with different conversations among different groups and yet, if you listen carefully and try not to concentrate on each spoken word, you can hear the harmony of all the different conversations. This is why I was bowled over by Phase II Pan Groove. Boogsie had the band in that perfect state of harmony in which the different sections were in separate but related conversations with each other, and with the various motivic developments and overall theme.

But there are similar lessons to be learnt from the jazz fusion music of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Groups like Weather Report, Return To Forever and Mahavishnu Orchestra emancipated the bass instrument and allowed exciting, operatic interplay among all the instruments. This was similar to what classical composers did with the string quartet and what jazz musicians did in earlier, Swing music in which different instruments were improvising simultaneously. And lest we forget, the drums of Africa mastered this multiple level of conversation eons ago.

Pan arrangers and players must free up the double seconds and the other middle pans. Indeed they must free up all the sections, including the bass. Harmony does not necessarily require strumming all the time. A master like Boogsie can make the different sections interplay and bring out the rich harmony that interplaying allows.

The future of pan music requires more of this freeing up, more of this polyrhythmic, poly-melodic, inter-conversation between the sections. This will require new theoretical knowledge and practical skills such as counterpoint and the deft ability to really play pan rather than simply beat pan.

For those who do not have a natural affinity for pan, we must draw them in by exposing the wonderful science, art and history of pan. Panists must learn to read music and engage more critical discussions about, and analysis of pan music. We must understand that there are only two whole tone scales in Western music: C to C and C sharp to C sharp. The D whole tone scale is just a displacement of the C whole tone scale, etc. Hence a set of pans like the double second pan is tuned so that each pan has one of the two whole tone scales. There are only 3 diminished chords in Western music and hence each pan of a triple set of pans, like the triple guitar pan, carries a single diminished chord. Similarly, there are only four augmented chords. With one augmented chord in each pan, the set of quadraphonic pans was an inevitable development. Since all twelve notes of the chromatic scale can be aligned in a cycle of fifths or fourths, the circular shape of the pan entitles the single tenor pan to this tuning pattern perfectly.

Regarding local pan history, Samuel Simon (“Likkle Man”, the bass man) tells me that his band, North Star (from New Winthropes) was the first steel band recorded by Emory Cook. This seems logical to me because North Star was the resident band at the nearby Bucket of Blood at the Fullers, with whom Emory Cook stayed. But when you have town bands with names like Hells Gate and Brute Force, you have to change the name North Star to something like Big Shell. What else was changed? Likkle Man also said that Hells Gate was so popular, when steel band competition was held at Boys School, the general feeling was that Hells Gate would always win, even if they did not compete!

There is also a claim that North Star was the first steel band to play in church (St. George’s) since the Anglican minister, Reverend Yarbrey (sp.) was more liberal than most and Likkle Man had the singular good fortune of being on the church choir and
co-leader of the steel band. Then again, Likkle Man, the bass man, also claimed that he did not really drink the whole bass drum full of “brebich”! But back to the future.

As we look at the future of pan, the search for the Holy Grail in pan music, as in Caribbean life, will intensify. To hear oneself yes, but to listen to others at the same time so as to behold the consonant beauty of the inviolable, harmonic whole. This is the cardinal or fundamental gift the Boogsian approach of counterpoint and interplay in pan music gives us, especially the youths. How we can live together, separately and yet as one composite whole. As the song made famous in the movie Casablanca says, “The fundamental things apply; as times goes by.” Play it again Sam.

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