Written by Ted Goslin
Few community steelpan programs last. The ones that do struggle with maintaining membership as getting gigs and keeping players interested is a constant challenge, depending on the area. It also doesn’t help when the area your band occupies is targeted by a terrorist group. Calypsociation, a community group of steelbands based in Paris, France, has had to deal with all of those challenges but has overcome them all thanks to strong leadership, dedicated players and above all, a love for music.
With a turbulent year behind the city of Paris, with two terrorist attacks having occurred (one in January and another in November 2015), the group still managed two achievements. The group traveled to Trinidad to perform in the first-ever ICP Secretariat (International Conference and Panorama) in August, and recorded a full-length tribute album to the legendary Calypso Rose which featured arrangements never before recorded from the artist.
Founded in 1993, the organization was born from a trip that Guillaume Kervel and Barthelemy Fougea took to Trinidad with friends. The duo fell in love with pan immediately and when Phase II Pan Groove toured France, the group sold its low pans (guitars, cellos and basses) to the two Parisians. Having brought back a few drums from the islands already, the group now had enough to start Calypsociation.
Since then, the group has become one of the hottest bands in France, performing at festivals and traveling to other countries, including Belgium, Switzerland, Turkey, Guadeloupe and Trinidad. But like most successful acts, it needed a catalyst to jump-start its popularity.
“In 1998, we organized a concert in Paris with 150 players from France, England and Trinidad for the 150th anniversary of slavery abolition,” said Mathieu Borgne, captain, arranger and drummer for Calypsociation. “Then in 2000, we organized the first pan European steelband competition.”
In that same year, Borgne and Laurent Lalsingué (player and arranger) took over musical direction of the group and would form the recording group, Calypsociation Steelband, which is heard on all subsequent albums.
“We arrange traditional Calypsos, Panoramas and bomb tunes, jazz and classical music, as well as original music for the band,” said Borgne. “We started the Calypsociation Steelband by teaching pan to non-professional musicians, adults or youth, in a “Trini” way, without scores or musical theory, only feeling the rhythm with open ears and lots of practice!”
The band has released four albums, including the Calypso Rose tribute and an album with Andy Narell called, “The Passage”. The group first encountered Narell through a trip that Borgne took to Trinidad in 1999.
“In 1999, I was in Trinidad for Panorama, playing in the finals with Skiffle Bunch. We played ‘Coffee Street,’ written and arranged by Andy Narell. When I came back to France, the band wanted to play that tune, so we asked Andy to give us the score. He said yes and came to Paris in 2001 to hear his tune played by our steelband,” said Borgne. “He was surprised by the level of the band and proposed to teach them several tunes. From this cooperation, we recorded ‘The Passage.'”
Since then, they have collaborated on several projects, including a tour of the United States in 2005 and a television show in 2010 which featured Narell, Lord Relator and the WDR Big Band of Germany. The performance is included on Narell’s Alive! DVD. Narell is also married to Anita Bonan, a long-time member of Calypsociation.
Members of the group travel to Trinidad regularly to perform with Birdsong Steel Orchestra in order to obtain the full Panorama experience and solidify their knowledge of pan. As an organization, Calypsociation has three different groups of varying skill levels. The groups practice twice a week and pay an annual fee to play in a band.
“In total, there are about 100 players in Calypsociation’s three steelbands,” added Borgne. “Calypsociation’s panyard is in the suburb of Paris, in a town called Romainville, which is easy to reach by tube. It is the only panyard in Paris and around. Three times a year we are organizing big parties in our Panyard to promote the art form and find new members. We are renting the place and as we don’t have any sponsors or financial help of any kind, members pay a fee to come and play and we do as many concerts as we can to make money.”
The group utilizes the services of different tuners and has acquired more instruments from some of those tuners as the years have passed. Tuners include Toussaint Clark and Dodley Dixon from England, Gilles Daney and Yann Brabant from France and Darren Dyke from the USA. For the past few years, Laurent Lalsingué has been the primary tuner, with help from Mickaël Fécil.
In order to stay on top of the latest innovations in the global pan movement, a member of the group, Aurélie Helmlinger, an ethnomusicology in the CNRS (a French public research agency, does field research in Trinidad, specializing in the subject of steelpan and its bands. She shares her findings with the group having played with Calypsociation in the past. She is also a founder of the French Steelband Association.
Due to the rental situation, the group will have to find a new home in one or two years due to the owner planning to demolish the property and re-purpose it for another use. The group hopes to overcome the issue by sticking to its core values, which will allow it to grow and find a new home.
“Our main goal is to promote steelband music in France. And to get more people playing the instrument,” said Coline Hammel, president of Calypsociation. “Also, we want to promote our music at the International level.”
Starting a community band in any circumstance requires the right kind of motivation. Borgne emphasizes the importance of utlizing the same passions that created the instrument and its music in the beginning.
“Anyone starting a program like this should start from the top with a real Calypso vibe in the way to teach, practice and play in a steelband,” Borgne said. “This is the best way to reach a level in pan music that will give you the choice to play all the music you want, with a nice sound, a nice groove, and without being afraid of how skilled the Trini’s are. The best advice: go to Trinidad!”
For more information on the group and to purchase recordings, visit www.calypsociation.com/en/.