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Sunday, December 9, 2007

Too Much Noise At My Head


Dr. Lester CN Simon

One of these days, someone will say there are a lot of people who hate steel band music. He has been holding back the bad news because he knows from personal experience that there are many types of music some people dislike; like country and western, or classical music. The keeper of this awful secret will let out the bad news because steel band music is not a musical genre. Steel pans are musical instruments. All genres of music can be played on the steel pan. The precise problem is that many people, including many West Indians, feel that music played on steel pans is nothing but a clutter of noise. He thinks he knows why.

It was round about 1966 when he consciously decided that classical music was the worse thing in the world and unworthy of his attention. He had recently acquired his first saxophone (from a cousin who introduced Andy Narell to steel pan). It came with a book of classical sounding music, which was as foreign to him and as distant from him as the premier moon landing a few years later.

Over 10 years later, he embarked on a journey to understand country and western and classical music. He was undertaking a music course and trying to come to grips with music theory and practice in all its forms. His epiphany came via the response to an interviewer who condescendingly suggested to a great jazz player that some musician played jazz like folk music. Charles Mingus responded that all music was folk music because horses don’t sing. Country and western music and calypso became thematically identical.

His about turn around classical music might lead to a similar turn for those who despise steel pan music. The vexing conclusion is that the main reason for your dislike of steel pan music lies primarily not with you but in a fundamental problem with many, but thankfully not all, steel pan music arrangers and players.

Despite becoming aware of music theory, he made a deliberate effort when he started to listen to classical music, to listen as he would look at a movie for the first time. Relax and see if he enjoyed it; if it made sense. To this end, he stayed away initially from the noise of the classical music symphonies. He started with the concertos, music surrounding a particular instrument. Loving the sound of the cello, he listened to many cello concertos. Fortuitously, the first one was Dvorak’s with the French cellist, Paul Tortelier. He swore he heard Tortelier played a run of notes in the allegro that was like dancing to calypso music.

Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of a cello pan or tenor pan concerto in steel band music. He thinks we need it. He does not refer to the cello pan playing a classical concerto. We need composers to write cello pan concertos for calypso music not classical music. This format will force the pan players to pay attention to the single most important thing that underlies the dislike for steel pan music by many West Indians.

His next stop was the classical string quartet. Here, he made a simple but amazing discovery. All four instruments of the string quartet have a similar timbre or sonority even though they have different ranges or pitches. The key to good string quartet playing is the interplay between the instruments so as to effect a musical conversation. Any composer, arranger or player of classical music string quartet or jazz saxophone quartet or steel pan quartet must understand that without this interplay and conversation, the result is nothing but cheap strings, noisy sounding brass and a cacophony of tinkling cymbals.

In steel pan music, we have a format near enough to the equivalent of the string quartet. It is the five-a-side format made popular by Moods of Pan. It comprises 4 pan players and a drummer. As he listened to Moods of Pan this year, he felt they should drop the drummer. We do need a drummer in the full steel orchestra with close to or over one hundred players. Steel pan music is in dire need of a steel pan quartet without the drummer, leaving the single tenor, the pair of double second pans, the triple guitar pans and the bass.

Such a naked steel pan quartet will force the arrangers and composers to rely on the interplay and the conversation that is at the heart of not just good pan music, but define the very soul of the only pan music worth listening to, particularly because of the nature of steel pans. This lack of interplay and conversation, leaving you with cluttering noises, is highlighted a hundred fold when you hear the full steel pan orchestra, unless you are lucky enough to hear the works of a master arranger. And they are few and far between.

Whilst mastering the interplay and the conversation, we must continue research into materials for the steel pan and the properties of the rubber for the pan sticks. If you think steel pan music is loud and noisy, ask some veteran steel band players if it is loud and noisy. Unfortunately, they would either say it certainly is not, or they would just look at you quizzically: Because they are deaf, or as we say here, “diff”, or “hard a hearing”. The ENT surgeon knows this. There is a lot of work to do to realize the potential of the steel pan.

Now, when he listens to some classical music symphonies or a classical orchestral playing Jerusalem by Parry, a quintessential English song, he can recall with emotional and motional quiver the days when his primary school teacher took them outside the concrete, multi-classroom jungle and sat them down on the grass. It was there that musical interplay and conversation defined what singing was all about.

To borrow a mixed metaphor from Professor Rex Nettleford, our steel pan musicians must harness and release the subterranean and submarine motifs of our ancestral folks to enrich our music with more interplay and conversation. In so doing they will help to remove the dislike for steel band music and summon the love and familiarity of all forms of our folk music, including the calypso of singing horses.

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