It all starts with an idea. Maybe a person is frustrated with the way things are and they want more. They look around for others who share their opinion and find some. The form a collective consciousness and soon decide to form a partnership. The partnership develops its ideas until those ideas become ideals. The ideals need a home, so the partners become founders of an organization. The organization preaches those ideals to others to attract more partners and expand their beliefs. And soon enough, after all the hard work of forming the group has taking place, the purpose for which that group was founded can finally come to fruition through mobilization. This story is not unique, as it describes how birdsong Steel Orchestra and its academy came to be. But there’s more to the story.
Dennis Phillip is the director of birdsong Steel Orchestra, coordinator of birdsong’s International Program, and chairman of the academy’s bAGI Social Enterprises Project, which is focused on food-crop production. When recently asked about birdsong’s Panorama goals, his answer was, “We just simply want to make music.” His answer sums up what the legacy of the band represents: a commitment to musical integrity within the global pan community.
This vision is an important reason why they have sustained a partnership with jazz musician Andy Narell to arrange for Panorama for the past four years, spurring much controversy and no finals bids. But the birdsong organization is much more than a large category competition band that has become known for “rocking the boat” during Carnival season. The organization is a multi-faceted community foundation that aims to be a center for global musical excellence and whose mission, as stated on its website, is to persist in “challenging the boundaries of steel pan innovation in music, music education, and self-sustainability.”
The Beginnings of Change
The organization was founded as a band in the early autumn of 1973 by several people, including Ian “Teddy” Belgrave (who recently passed in 2014), at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in St. Augustine. The founding members sought to integrate the UWI campus community with the surrounding areas of Tunapuna and Monte Grande. With that intent, the members of local bands in those areas (Echo Diamonds of Tunapuna, Tunapuna Hilltones, and Turban Starland) were invited to join birdsong in 1974.
From its inception, the band has aimed to distinguish itself as a unique musical force—both by way of the intentional lower-case spelling of the name and via its poetic allusion to the sweetly harmonious sound of bird calls. “Hence our philosophy that all persons are equal, all have the same weight and all have a valid voice,” the organization states on its website.
Throughout its 43-year history, the band has been to the grand stage at Queen’s Park Savannah more than 40 times and has participated in the National Steel Band Music Festival every year since 1980. The band moved to Tunapuna in 1985 and constructed its pan theatre in 1987 to host members of the band.
In 2004, the birdsong Academy was founded as an educational and youth development project that served young musicians in the community ages 12-18. It began as a free five-week summer music camp where students spent half of the day on campus at UWI learning about theory and technology and the other half in the panyard where they played a pan and one other instrument. “Some students just had a good time, played, and left, but others were so excited that we started a weekend program during the school year,” reported birdsong Foundation Board Member Dr. Clement Imbert in an 2013 interview with Percussive Notes.
Not only does the Academy provide instruction on steelpan performance and technique, but they also provide a well-rounded curriculum of applied and theoretical instruction for wind, brass, guitar, bass, percussion and vocal students as well. Since 2004, the Academy has provided free instruction to over 600 students in the surrounding communities. “We have some corporate donors and a couple of programs funded by international foundations to help pay our tutors. Not much, but something,” Phillips said in the aforementioned 2013 interview.
In the past decade, the birdsong Foundation has cultivated both an official not-for-profit (2005) and “Registered Charitable Status” by the Trinidad and Tobago Government in 2010. As a result, it has established several community-based employment, improvement, and agricultural projects. In 2009, it began a scholarship program to assist students in pursuing advanced training in music. It raised money for this scholarship fund and for the birdsong Foundation in part by holding an annual benefit concert, which is how Dennis Phillip was introduced to Andy Narell in 2012 by long-time keyboard and voice instructor, and occasional Panorama arranger for birdsong, jazz pianist Rafael “Raf” Robertson.
“Raf was one of the most intelligent, perceptive, poetic, and funny people I’ve ever known; a serious jazz musician and teacher, someone who made the daily commitment to being a positive presence in his world; a caring, generous, and humble person,” said Narell of his friend Robertson after his untimely death in December of 2015. “He loved Calypso and had a deep understanding of the work of Lord Kitchener, which he shared with everyone.”
Over the four decades that the band has participated in the National Panorama Competition, birdsong has worked with arrangers including Selwyn Jones and Earl Wright in the early years, Cary Codrington in the 1980s, the Headley Brothers in the 1990s, Eddie Quarless in 2007 and 2008, Rudy Smith throughout the late-1990s and 2000s, Raf Robertson in 2011 and 2012, and Andy Narell from 2013 to 2016.
“Traditionally, all of our Panorama arrangers have been given very free reign because we select people on the basis of their musical integrity,” Phillip recently explained. Earl Wright, an arranger in the 1970s for birdsong, had not only learned pan and piano as a young man near Tunapuna, he had also begun arranging for the Hilltones when he was only 16. Cary Codrington of “The Codrington Pan Family” took birdsong to its first Panorama finals in 1984. Distinguished steel pan ambassador and jazz pannist “Two Left” Smith arranged for the band for more than a decade until Robertson arranged in 2011 and 2012. It was at this time that Robertson recommended Narell to Phillip as the next arranger.
“Raf was a long time colleague of Andy’s and we brought him down for a benefit concert, invited him to play. Annually we have a benefit concert for the scholarship fund, so we invited him…and out of that event grew a relationship,” Phillip recalled. “Raf indicated that he [Narell] was not averse to working with us for Panorama and we discussed it and said, ya know…”
Narell had made Panorama history in 1999 as the first foreigner to arrange for a large (conventional) band when he composed and arranged “Coffee Street” for (Hydro Agri) Skiffle Bunch, taking that band to finals and placing 8th that year. Although he returned to Skiffle Bunch the following year with another original tune, “Appreciation,” making finals for the second year in a row, the band took last place at finals and Narell took a decade-long hiatus from Panorama in Trinidad. He arranged for the New York Panorama in 2001 and 2002, and for the European Steel Band Festival in 2002. Narell continued to return to Trinidad to perform throughout the 2000s, but it wasn’t until the invitation from Phillip and birdsong in late-summer 2012 that he’d return to the national competition as an arranger for a large conventional band.
Andy Narell is a controversial figure in the context of the Panorama competition and draws heavy criticism from many people because the style of his music is so radically different than the other conventional bands. With the exception of “Pan Magic” (2015, by Nyol Manswell), he has arranged his original compositions, or ‘own tunes,’ for Panorama following in the footsteps of legendary arrangers Ray Holman and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe. “The Last Word” (2013), “We Kinda Music” (2014), and “Dis 1.4 Raf” (2016) are all original compositions created for Panorama by Narell since he started arranging for birdsong. The original composition, or “own tune” as called by country locals, had been controversial in the early 1970s when Ray Holman first began creating original calypso material for his Panorama arrangements for Starlift. Len “Boogsie” Sharpe (Phase II Pan Groove), Edwin Pouchet (Silver Stars), Pelham Goddard (Exodus), and Robert Greenidge (Desperadoes) have since standardized this once-criticized approach. But it is not merely that Narell writes and arranges his own compositions for Panorama that draws criticism from hardcore Panorama traditionalists.
‘Not In Our Town’
Narell’s arranging style includes a tendency toward sonorous jazz harmonies and modal figures, cooler tempos, precisely orchestrated groove patterns derived from Afro-Caribbean dance genres, and pre-composed jazz forms. Arguably, many of these elements are what make Narell’s style unique and appealing to many listeners in Trinidad and worldwide. However, many traditionalists take issue with the suitability of Andy’s musical choices within the framework of the iconic and prestigious competition. For example, Narell’s 2014 arrangement, “We Kinda Music,” contained a section in a scandalous 6/8 meter, a time signature that is virtually unheard of in Panorama. Narell’s use of the 6/8 was interpreted variously as innovative by supporters and as offensive by traditionalists.
“What 6/8 time in a Panorama tune? Is this carnival music or what? Even the noted and respected arrangers … won’t do that @#$!” said one commentator in a 2014 When Steel Talks discussion forum. “I have a lot of respect for Andy Narell. I think that he is a very good composer of steel band music—one of the best. However, as a Panorama arranger, he may be lacking the ‘killer instinct.’ Remember Panorama is a competition, not a concert. No one goes to the beach in a tuxedo. I love his arrangements but its more of a ‘sit and listen’ vibe, whereas, for example, Bradley’s music makes you want to wine and do crazy things with your body even though it is laid back,” another person wrote.
Even Dennis Philip was cautious about the radical use of the unusual meter, asking Narell to remove a similar section in his 2016 composition, which he reluctantly agreed to do. “We experimented with that a couple years ago, and… the music had lost energy at that point. It is alien to the culture,” Phillip said.
Birdsong nearly made finals in 2015 with “Pan Magic,” placing 11th in the semi-finals, only five points shy of finals qualification. The piece would be the only one of Narell’s arrangements that he did not compose while working with birdsong, as the piece was written by birdsong Academy graduate, Nyol Manswell. In 2016, the band placed 15th in semi-finals with “Dis 1.4 Raf.” Narell again utilizes categorically uncharacteristic grooves in this arrangement, specifically the Afro-Cuban gandinga mondongo y sandunga rhythms.
A Different Kind Of Welcome
The relationship between Narell and birdsong has helped to further cement the band’s reputation for unconventional, out-of-the-box thinking when it comes to Panorama. Additionally, the academy has been running a successful international program that brings a significant number of players to the group each year for a fee that includes housing, sight-seeing excursions, some food and a guaranteed spot in the band for the duration of the competition, which can last up to three weeks.
“The execution of the last two years have been excellent. The point is that given how far outside the box we are, we absolutely can’t leave things to chance. You know, if you’re going to try and rock the boat,” shares Philip, “you have to turn it over. You can’t just rock it gently.”
But birdsong has a community and international profile, one that is distinguished by a commitment to musical excellence and outreach, that goes far beyond the context of Panorama. It’s reputation has been bringing foreign players to the group, despite those familiar with the musical and political landscape of the event knowing it’s chances of making finals, let-alone winning.
Considering it’s reputation for taking musical chances in its arrangements, the group has struggled to attract local players. Thanks to its continued relationship to UWI, the university has arranged for the band to use many full-sized apartments to house foreign players, with a fee that is well-below what travelers would pay for hotel rooms and most local rental properties. In addition to the performance and sight-seeing elements, the program included a higher-paying option to include workshops by Narell and Calypso giant, Lord Relator, during the week of semi-finals for 2016. The rates ranged from $325 to $575 U.S. for the 11-day program this year.
To help players come fully prepared to play the arrangement, Narell, with the help of Phillip and coordinator Dr. Jason Koontz of Eastern Kentucky University, sent the arrangement out digitally several months ahead of time to all those who had already signed up. The inclusion of written music is a rarity in Panorama given its history of players learning music byrote method. Players were expected to show up already having the full piece memorized to prepare for any further changes Narell would make on the spot (of which there were several).
For semi-finals, the band topped out at 90 players, which is short of the 100-player maximum allowed for semi-finals. For the finals, bands are allowed to have 120 players perform. Phillip noted there is a disadvantage regarding the size allowance difference, along with the drop in foreign players from the previous year.
“It’s significant that, in the large band category, there were different maximums between the semi-finals and finals. We had a maximum in the semi-final of 90 players, so in terms of numbers, we are at a significant disadvantage,” Phillip said. “It is skewed at this point in time. Last year, we had twice as many foreign players; we had over 60.”
Before the international program began, foreign players were acquired through a more word-of-mouth approach from countries with large steel band contingents, like Denmark and Sweden, where the steelpan art form has grown significantly over the years to include hundreds of steel bands and several festivals. Reaching a broader base, however, required a different approach. “This is the first time we’ve pursued it so formally, the last four years, because we understand the globalization of pan,” Phillip said.
With the band’s exit from this year’s semi-finals, being tied for 15th place, the organization decided to make a change, making Trinidad & Tobago native, Mia Gormandy, the arranger for the 2017 Panorama season. Gormandy is a PhD candidate in ethno-musicology at Florida State University who began playing pan at age five, winning her first solo competition at age six. She is also the co-founder of Pastiche Steel Ensemble and the Virtual Steel Band.
Birdsong isn’t the only band working to bring more foreign players, as (PCS Nitrogen) Silver Stars made an effort to accommodate them in the past few years, by helping to arrange housing, although without a formal program element. Dr. Chris Tanner of Miami University, for example, brought several of his students with him to perform with the group this year, thanks to an invitation from arranger and Northern Illinois University faculty member, Liam Teague, who believes in pushing the boundaries of Panorama music in a similar way to the birdsong program, acknowledging how Panorama and steelpan is viewed in his home country.
“We are so blessed to have this instrument in Trinidad and Tobago. We take it for granted. We don’t celebrate it. A lot of folks are just here for the lime. I don’t think I’m saying anything incorrect,” Teague said on CCTV after Silver Stars’ semi-final performance this year. “These are works of art; they need to be treasured. When panorama is over and done with, a lot of these works of art are going to die a natural death and that’s very, very sad. So I listen to this and I celebrate music. Whether it’s Silver Stars, whatever band. I truly respect it and I wish the majority of Trinbagonians would do that.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Phillip believes that to promote the instrument, music and culture to the world, the country needs to be more open in general. “I think the message to the pan community is that if pan is our gift to the world, then we embrace the world who is embracing us. Secondly, is that what has become quite evident over the last five years, is that we here in Trinidad are losing the passion for the instrument that nurtured the development of the thing; we have lost that passion.”
With the number of players taking on the instrument in both bands and solo settings around the world, Phillip also noted that the problem of promoting pan and Panorama does not lie in a lack of talent.
“It is a development process deficit. Many of the arrangers have not yet developed their musical vocabulary. They have a good ear and technical ability, but musically they’re not staying up with what the world wants to hear,” Phillip emphasized. His and birdsong’s collective hope is that birdsong becomes shining example of how a school infrastructure with multiple education levels for developing young steelpan musicians and arrangers can work in the broader context of Panorama and steelpan progress in general.
“It is hard to ask people to go against the dominant national culture. So the attrition rate is very high,” Phillip added. “In the context where the dominant culture is in another direction, what we are increasingly asking students to do is reach above their head.”