PAN Magazine Editor, Ted Goslin, describes his experience rehearsing and performing with birdsong Steel Orchestra for Panorama 2016.
Written by Ted Goslin
When I was 13 years old, a steel band came and performed at my school. I didn’t know it then, but that one moment would change my life forever. The band’s leaders would eventually be my mentors and our fates would be inexorably intertwined. It’s hard to describe when you see something or someone that you know will matter more than anything in the world to you. For me, the steelpan just clicked.
As I entered high school, the first thing I did was join the steel band in the summer prior to freshman year. All new players were asked to walk around during sectionals and see what instrument they wanted to play. After seeing tenors, double seconds, quads and bass, I found what would be my first primary instrument: triple guitars. After that, I was hooked.
Throughout the rest of high school I played in the marching and concert bands, but never took my sights off of pan despite those other endeavors, playing around three gigs a week with the high school group, playing with the local university steel band and joining an all-star group in which I got to tour Finland and various states in the U.S. over the next few years. I also co-founded a band of my own with some musician friends that continues to this day.
Instead of listening to pop music on the radio, I spent time listening to the latest Panorama music coming out of Trinidad & Tobago. I also played it with most of the groups I played with, giving me as close of an experience to the real thing as I could get where I lived. But no matter how many crowds I helped make dance, how many backyard parties I played or people whose lives I helped with the power of music, none of it made me whole. None of it was Panorama.
Despite my love of the music and culture, for some reason, I let life sidetrack me. In fact, I thought, unless I won the lotto, I might never go to Trinidad given my low-paying jobs and habit of spending all my money instead of saving it. I’d learn later that I wasn’t the only person with that concern. It would take me just over 20 years to finally make the trip.
During my daily checks of various social media groups, I came across an offer from birdsong Steel Orchestra to come to Trinidad for Panorama in January 2016. The trip was said to include housing, a guaranteed spot on an instrument of my choice, several excursions and various workshops throughout the course of 11 days. Being a master procrastinator, I realized that this trip wouldn’t be possible if I stuck to my old ways. So I jumped all over the opportunity immediately, researching flights and asking questions of the trip coordinator as soon as I thought of them.
The organizer was Dr. Jason Koontz, director of percussion studies at Eastern Kentucky University, who has been working with birdsong Steel Orchestra since 2013, coordinating the travel and accommodations of foreign players, which have helped round out the band where local resources may have lacked. During my initial contact I was given an information packet to fill out that included my name, address, contact info, top three choices for instrument to play (since it was provided for me there) and the name of another attendee who I’d want to bunk with. The trip would include four masterclasses with Andy Narell, including one where he is joined by legendary Calypsonian, Relator, nightly rehearsals leading up to preliminaries and semi-finals, and several excursions to local sights like Maracas Bay Beach, Las Cuevas Beach and Port of Spain for shopping.
Packing so much into such a short time seemed like a lot, and looking back, it was, but somehow it all managed to fit nicely into itself, with all moments captured in segments in my mind. Soon enough, I’d be on my way. After months of practicing Narell’s original composition on a set of low E double seconds I borrowed from a friend, I would finally embark on the biggest goal on my bucket list: Panorama competitor.
A New World
Before one travels, it’s customary to do research. In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, I felt it was important to research some of the local customs, cultural history and sayings that I might encounter on the trip. I learned about words like bacchanal (a wild party), jouvert morning (the morning after Panorama finals that commemorates the start of Carnival), and prepared myself for how daily life might differ by reading various travel blogs on sites like Trip Advisor and The Lonely Planet. None of it mattered once I got off the plane.
I’ve been to other countries, but nothing prepared me for what I would experience. And I’m so happy that was the case. The first shock after the 12 hour travel day (which was light compared to some trips I’ve taken), was the way food is sold: fast and random. There are restaurants and even chains like Subway and Kentucky Fried Chicken (which was surprisingly good) but the best places to eat were independent restaurants and street vendors. Luckily, I wasn’t alone on my plane ride, having been booked on the same flight as the EKU group, which included Dr. Koontz and five of his students.
The first thing we, as a group did when we arrived, was hop into a Maxi Taxi, which is the local cab service. Due to the exchange rate, this ended up being rather inexpensive for the duration of the trip, only .50 cents U.S. from every couple of miles or so. After we piled in, luggage and all, I chatted to the driver about local culture, government and business infrastructure. He seemed well-educated and was very open to sharing info.
Soon enough, we arrived at our first stop: a street vendor selling a popular Caribbean dish, Doubles. The dish consists of two main elements, bara, a type of fry bread that acts as a kind of soft taco shell, and channa, the filling, made of chick peas (garbanzo beans) and various sauces and spices, including cumin, curry and saffron. Check out that recipe and many others HERE. Our birdsong representative told us this was THE spot in the area.
There were a lot of people gathered around the cart ordering out of turn, despite the line that formed in front of it. Luckily, the two people running the cart churned out the Doubles quickly enough that it didn’t matter. Once I arrived at front, having gotten a sense of how to order from those in front of me, I asked for two, and was given them quickly, after someone from the side barged in to order his first. At first I wasn’t sure of the price since many Trinis speak quite fast and in a local version of English which requires some getting used to for a foreigner. Once I took my first bite, being hungry as hell and fairly exhausted from traveling, I knew I was home. I wish I could say the same for some of our group, however.
One person, who I won’t name, felt the culture shock pretty quickly as the fast-paced, loud and seemingly chaotic environment was a bit much for her. “Can we go anywhere else to eat? I’m not sure I like this,” she said, slightly exasperated from her travels. The question seemed to come mostly from not knowing what the dish was made of. After a good night’s rest, however, she and the rest of the college-aged group settled in for the trip of a lifetime.
Once we ate, we were taken to our apartments, which, thanks to the relationship between the University of West Indies and birdsong (which has existed symbiotically since its inception), were extremely nice and large enough for up to 9 people (more if they slept on the couch). Unfortunately for me, the clicker for our electronic gate (most compounds had these) didn’t work and I was left stranded from my assigned dormitory. After some phone calls and apologies from Dr. Koontz, we arranged for myself, and my late-arriving roommate, Dr. Brandon Haskett, to stay at another apartment for the night.
Safety In Numbers
Over the next couple of days, more players would arrive from all over the U.S. and other countries like Sweden and France. I would also be introduced to my roommates, all professional musicians and educators, all American, and half of which, were first-timers to Trinidad, along with myself. One person, in particular, drum corps guru and Director of Percussion Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. John Wooton, had been once before, having played with the Solo Pan Knights under the direction of steelpan legend, Robert Greenidge, known for his complex arrangements and his long-time status as the official pannist of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefers band.
“Playing with that band was a much different experience than this since there was no sheet music, which meant we had to learn the piece by rote. I also had to find my own housing,” Wooton said. “What I enjoy about this experience is that the music is provided before hand and we have housing provided with roommates, which makes it much safer when walking around at night.”
During his previous visit, Wooton suffered an attempted mugging in the middle of Queen’s Park Savannah, the location of Panorama. The assailant tried to take his fanny pack, and when he resisted, the would-be-thief pulled out a knife. Luckily for Wooten, his driver, a large Trinidadian man, saw the incident and intervened, cursing out the younger, smaller man and lecturing him on how poorly this action represents the country. Needless to say, after Wooten told me this story, I was on my guard whenever I was walking alone, which wasn’t very often.
It turns out that Tunapuna wasn’t a dangerous area at all, given the fact that we walked around through the streets and a park close to the panyard on a nightly basis, either to go to the local bar for a beer during break, or to check out another band nearby, which happened to be a personal favorite of mine, Exodus. That yard, designed as an ampitheater with stone steps and a grass area, was particularly cool thanks to the lack of carts and the dual drumsets, adding to the powerhouse sound of the group. Not to mention, the corn soup was one of the best things I ate. The real dangers, we were told, were in the Savannah and Port of Spain, particularly at night.
During the days leading up to prelims, most of the foreign players had to adapt to more than just culture. Once we entered the panyard for our first day to practice, we were told someone would assign us drums. That someone never came. Instead, it was a free-for-all, with players going into the instrument room where all of the tenors, double tenors, double seconds and quads were stored. Once I found a set that looked good (large, visible notes), I realized not all the notes were labeled with a Sharpie, which wouldn’t have mattered had the layout been turned one note to the left in my right-hand drum. For those unfamiliar with the challenges of playing a memorized piece for Panorama, muscle memory has a lot to do with it. Effectively, it meant I had to relearn the tune from scratch in terms of getting it up to tempo. I had the tune down cold at home, but I figured this might happen, so I dove in hard, as did many other players. Thankfully, my planning paid off and I was able to adapt within a few days. Some of the other players struggled as well, but moreso due to their pans being low F and F#s, which makes it even harder to adapt.
Thankfully, the challenge of playing an epic 8-minute arrangement also comes with an ever-present perk: the people. Aside from the many players from various backgrounds to talk to and learn from, there were also those who visited the panyard. There were vendors like the woman and her children who sold doubles on the corner table (which was also a solar panel cell phone charging station), the peanut guy who sold bags of hot, roasted nuts at the yard for players to grab as snacks during breaks, and the birdsong employees themselves, like Kento (Kent Le Platte), the facilities manager since 1998, with long, white dreadlocks, often seen dancing around during rehearsals. There was also the dynamic double tenor duo of Koonta and Rama, who took charge of the pan room when pans would be placed out of order. I was even commanded by them to fix the mess, despite not having anything to do with the disorder. But I didn’t mind. I was more than happy to help given I was just a visitor. They’ve been here for years and will continue for years more, ushering birdsong into the next era of panorama as more foreigners like me pass through year after year.
As the rehearsals moved forward, it became clear to all involved what the endeavor would entail: lots of grueling work. The rehearsals consisted mostly of running sections over and over to ensure players captured not just the notes, but feel of the piece, that Narell intended. Unlike traditional Panorama pieces, Narell purposely breaks tradition with complex chord work and the infusion of world music styles, such as a Cuban groove he likes to use, the name of which no one but him can pronounce. There was also a 6/8 groove that was scrapped because it was too far outside the mold.
The piece itself was written by Narell over the course of several months. He would explain that parts would come to him over time and he would develop them, saving each for a rainy day, not knowing what the result would be. As he crafted the piece, first with a jam section, followed by the main melody and bridge, the piece formed, but lacked a title. Even as it was distributed to played in October of 2015, we only knew it as the 2016 birdsong Panorama piece. It even lacked an ending until about two weeks before my flight. Then in December, the unthinkable happened: Raf Robertson, co-founder of birdsong, passed away. Not only was he a past arranger for the group and current teacher at the school, but he was also a noted jazz pianist in T&T, as well as Narell’s best friend. Soon enough, the piece had an ending, and a name: “Dis.1.4.Raf.”
When the night of prelims came, which was about four full days after my arrival, energy and excitement were high. My nerves were kicking in a bit, forcing me to check and re-check my hair just before performance time. As it turns out, it was all for nothing as I was told by a returning band member that prelims “don’t really matter; they are just used to make sure there is a band with a complete song to play at semi-finals.”
Here’s how the competition works: there are 20 spots for each class of band in semi-finals. There are four divisions: single pan, small band, medium band, large band. The other categories had more bands than 20 competing to make semi-finals, so they had to worry about their performance on prelim night. Since only 17 bands were competing in the large category, we were in automatically.
The judges visit panyards in stages, beginning in a particular region of the island. There are South, North, East and West, effectively. While the judges visit each band, the other bands rehearse their pieces, not knowing exactly when the judges will arrive, while getting regular updates on their location through word-of-mouth. Shirts were given out to band members, bearing the birdsong logo, while visitors gathered around the band and on the grand stand to watch the performance. During this time, Narell made his final moves to arrange the band to, as he put it, “create a stereo sound” for the judges. Each section needed to be accurately placed to create the most balanced sound possible, despite us being outside where sound travels everywhere.
Once the judges arrived, they were set up at a table in front of the band where a nice table cloth, flowers and glasses of water were awaiting them. Due to the number of bands the judges hear, prior to the performance, each band is required to play an audio recording over a sound system of that band’s original piece. Since the arrangement comes from a song, that song must be played prior to the performance to familiarize the judges with it. Then came time for the performance. The band was on point, finally sounding cohesive, executing the feel of the piece at its highest level up to that point.
Once it was over, the judges left and crowd dispersed, the band was left to celebrate the performance with a discussion of what went down and what would come in the following days. As the group waiting for its Maxi Taxi bus to take each group of roommates back to their assigned dorms, Andy, as he prefers to be called, stood alone by the grand stand, relaxing after an exhausting day. I approached him to find out how he felt it went. “It went well,” he said. He didn’t elaborate. I made small talk until the band captain, Marvin Walker, also a local police detective, approached with the judges sheet.
“How’d we do?” Andy asked. Marvin smiled and nodded excitedly. “Just read it,” he said. The judges loved us. Not only was it a shock to Andy to receive such positive comments, considering how in the past one of the judges gave a note saying that the arranger needed to “develop his themes better,” but the types of comments that were said.
“An excellent arrangement indeed. The introduction beautifully foreshadows the memorial theme of the song,” one adjudicator wrote. “There is an irony, however, as the arrangement accommodates the spirit of carnival with the [memory] of sadness which is evident in the players as they move to capture the spirit of carnival. Great music with a jazz emphasis,” they added.
As Andy read the comments out loud, both Marvin and I looked at each, then again at Andy, catching a glimmer of a tear in his eye, along with a grin, filled with both relief and joy. Regardless of whether we would make finals, being present in this moment for each of us already felt like victory.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “The Panorama Experience” next month.