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Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Ballad of Andy Narell

Pan Man War

Dr. Lester CN Simon-Hazlewood

Anyone who likes music and loves the steel pan should find time to go to and read the comments by, and responses to Andy Narell following the 2014 Panorama in Trinidad and Tobago. It is highly recommended reading with implications for steelbands in Antigua and Barbuda. The thesis, arguments and responses are almost as fierce as a real, old-time steelband clash, with the irons in front and the steel behind.

When we remove the periphery of this very interesting discussion, the central points from Andy Narell are that "Winning Panorama and creating music have diverged"; the great, winning Panorama arrangers pushed the limits; year after year we hear the same chromatic runs and gimmicks; and "the discouragement of innovation has been going on for decades".

Andy Narell is saying what many musicians and pan lovers are afraid to say. He has made similar observations before. I share his central remarks on Panorama as I stay awake year after year, to the very end, straining my ears and my sleepy self to hear something more, something different; something I have not heard before.

We have to separate the core of Andy Narell's message from Andy Narell's response to his own criticism. I listened to a recording of the semifinal performance of his arrangement this year and I think it should not be in the finals, as the judges at the semifinal decided. I listened once because I did not want to listen a second and third time to be more analytical. Judges listen once. I understand the harmonic ideas he said he included in his arrangement. And I share his desire to want to hear this short of harmonic complexity in Panorama. I love the African 6/8 rhythm section in his arrangement this year. The arrangement reminded me of Coffee Street and I even rudely referred to it as Bush-Tea Street because of the similarity of concept.

Andy Narell is facing a very interesting problem to which there is an equally interesting solution. When an arranger sets out to arrange for steelband, the crucial, inescapable, musical fact is that despite the difference in pitch and range, the similarity of sound from all the different steel pan instruments is in stark and obvious contrast to the wide variety of the types of sounds from the instruments in a symphony orchestra. Hence" Carnival of the Animals" by Camille Saint-Saens will probably not work as well in a steelband adaptation.

Arrangers for steelband will probably be better served, initially, by regarding the string quartet than the entire symphony orchestra simply because the string quartet has a similar handicap in variation in sound qualities. Harmonic and rhythmic interplay must take charge when variation in sonority and timbre is narrow.

The difference between Panorama arrangement as it is now and what Andy Narell is clamouring for, is inclusion of more harmonic and rhythmic complexities and less of the banal, formulaic, predictable, chromatic runs and other gimmicks. You can even predict when some of the gimmicks will be played, and go to the bathroom or refrigerator, or catch a quick nap and get back up, losing nothing much.

Andy Narell said it was just a few ticks faster than Clive Bradley's arrangement of High Mass, but I was not moved much by his arrangement this year. I must confess that this is probably because I think his Coffee Street arrangement is of such a high class that it was not surpassed by this year's arrangement of We Kinda Music…then again, to be fair, I have listened to Coffee Street more than 100 times.

What Andy Narell may be saying or wishing is for the top, winning Panorama arrangers to do what, to my mind, he does not do very well. Take out some of the simple musical gimmicks and add more harmonic complexities and variation in rhythm. What Andy Narell may be saying is that he knows the top, winning arrangers can do precisely that but they have locked themselves into this winning formula and refused to push the boundaries. How annoying it must be for him that others refused to do what they can do, to my mind, better than he. Panorama deserves it.

A local musician, George Jonas, suggested that if Boogsie Sharpe had done precisely what Andy Narell did this year, the judges and pundits would have hailed it as the best slice of bread and sleight of hand to have happened to steelband arrangements for Panorama. My feeling on this is that as Boogsie Sharpe continues to stretch the boundaries of rhythm, the boundaries of harmony will remain dissatisfied, frustrated and unfulfilled without similar stretches. Time, the heartbeat of music, will tell.

What Andy Narell is saying to us, in the final, reasoned analysis of this wonderful argument and subsequent melee, is to be ourselves, to be West Indian, to be like the pan instrument itself: different, and innovative.

Being creative and winning and pushing boundaries are the fundamental, unique and defining qualities in our cricket, music, language and style and fashion, and even our badness. Those Trinidadians and Tobagonians who are annoyed and are heaping buckets and gallons of scorn on Andy Narell are probably unknowingly upset that a white, foreign, pan player (who was introduced to pan by an Antiguan and Barbudan, my recently deceased cousin, Rupert Sterling) is reminding us, just reminding us, how to be West Indian.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Death in the Family

For Cousin Rupert Sterling, a.k.a Spanky

He lies there all by himself
On some cold gurney
The big, foreign cities prepared him for the cold
Didn’t even know he was sick
Didn’t even know he was above me
On a ward in the same hospital where I work
And he was family

The first time I came across his exercise book
All those trigonometric signs and symbols
He must be bright, the brightest, I concluded
With handwriting so clear, the pages looked unworthy
I must go to school to become as good or better
Because he was family

How did we find place and pride at the top of a new village?
And fall from grace and place in one generation?
Some thing, some sin, some contract
Must have come our way
Or maybe some of us are just too smart
Too smart for our own good
And too dangerous
For family

And yet he taught the world's best steel pan player, arguably
Arguably the best but not arguably the teacher
And to think my father was responsible for him in his first steel band
When my father reportedly drank a drum full of "brebritch"
To win a bet I presume
And how many other bets were wagered
One for my maiden mother?
And so for my immediate
Family too?

He gave me my first saxophone
So I should go and play at his funeral, if asked
To say thanks and ease his tortured soul
Because with his earthly passing
The grief, hurt and destruction heaped on members of this family
Will not be buried with him
But we have to move on
And live on
And learn that good and evil comprise us
Because whatever he was, he was one of us, inside us