As goes the steel pan, so goes the nation
Imagine a heavenly tropical sound arising from the cumulative actions of 35 people tapping metal pans in what appears to be a totally random way… kind of like consciousness arising from matter. Then imagine your grandpa getting caught up in a dance with a neon elephant in the lobby. It’s the 50th Anniversary of independence for Trinidad and Tobago, and this uniquely Trini experience was what I was able to enjoy on Saturday night to celebrate it.
What I was actually watching was the National Steel Symphony Orchestra at the National Academy for the Performing Arts in Trinidad. There are several awe-inspiring elements to this event. First of all: the venue. Port of Spain’s National Academy for the Performing Arts (NAPA) was opened in 2009 and cost (US) $77 million. The incredible structure is like nothing I’ve seen in the Caribbean, and houses concert hall and theatre spaces for art performances, some classrooms for arts-related learning and even a small hotel for visiting performers. It is just one of what has become a long list of projects built in the Caribbean funded with a concessional-rate loan from the Chinese and built by a Chinese-state construction company; a symbol of China’s increasing involvement, influence, diplomatic and financial ties in the region.
It was really gratifying to get to experience such a fantastic piece of cultural infrastructure in the Caribbean, where such projects typically get pushed to the back of the government’s agenda. The ability to watch a national symphony orchestra of the Caribbean perform in a 21st century facility, with an instrument of their own creation, but refined to such a degree as to be world-class, is not something that happens overnight. It made me think about how important it is for the soul of a nation (apologies if that sounds cliched, but it’s the only way I can think of to express the point), to have a venue where cultural expression of a high standard is dignified with the proper capacity to be heard and appreciated.
Before I get too far off-topic, let me get to the other great part of the experience on Saturday night: the Steel Pan itself. The steel pan instrument was invented in Trinidad. Supposedly the only acoustic instrumet to have been invented in the 20th century, it started its life as a portion of an oil drum, cut out and played by Trini revelers of the 1800s. Today the steel pans I would’ve seen in the orchestra are no longer made from oil drums, but to specification from scratch, and they are extremely versatile in their musicality. Particularly interesting from a historical perspective is the fact that the Steel Pan was once outlawed while Trinidad and Tobago were under British control, after outbreaks of “disturbances” at Carnival events where it was being played, most notably in the “Canboulay Riots” of 1880. The British were not fond of the Bacchanalian expressiveness of Carnival, which had come to Trinidad in the 1800s with the emigration of French planters and their slaves from Martinique – the banning of an instrument being a ludicrous testament to the fear that any kind of unified expression among the oppressed could elicit on the part of those who were seeking to maintain control over an island that should never have been theirs in the first place.
In this sense, I liked this quote which I found somewhere tonight, which said that the steel pan developed from “a rustic invention of the urban poor into an astonishingly versatile musical instrument, a transformation that for many Trinidadians symbolizes their progress from colony to independent nation.” After being banned, the Steel Pan reappeared in the 1930s-40s and has gained a position of great prominence in Trinidadian cultural since. Dozens of Steel Pan bands play across the island, and massive competitions (read also: Yet another brilliantly creative excuse for another huge Trini party) take place.
Meanwhile, Steel Pan’s popularity has been exported all over the world, and today, in addition to performances like this:
You also get stuff like this:
But for the finale, I will leave you with this great moment from Saturday night which we came upon on the lobby of the National Academy for the Performing Arts after we emerged from the show. I have no idea what the deal is with these elephant men/women….but I liked their style, and I loved the old guy even more (all the people not dressed in wild costumes are just members of what was the audience inside the concert hall, who were passing through the lobby on their way out of the building after the orchestra’s performance finished when this crazy carnival-type performance broke out):