steel band tradition by Lionel McCalman -3

The demise of the pan-around-neck tradition:
A number of factors mitigate against the pan-around- neck tradition.

(1) The first is the belief that the steel pan sounds better on stands than they do around the torso of the individual. If sound is the determining factor, then this is probably a very understanding reaction against the genre. However, this is not always true. It is without doubt a different sound that traditional bands have, but the quality and texture of the pans also have a lot to do with it.

(2) Second, many believe that the pressure of carrying this additional burden (the weight of the steel pan) is not worth it, when the end product is taken into consideration. A pan-around-neck steel band is limited in its musical range, being a ‘single-pan band’. Double-instruments cannot be used band as such, the full range of the steel pan instruments cannot be achieved. It is true that a conventional steel band with its triple Chellos, double tenors/ seconds and guitar pans have a different tonal quality – as is factored into the steel pan manufacturing process. A clearly distinguishing factor is the fact that conventional instruments are heavier, having been made by drums that are thicker-gauged. Most traditional steel bands are more careful to acquire lighter (thinner-gauged) drums as the players need to carry these drums for lengthy periods/ long distances.

(3) Many pan observers and commentators believe that people do not want to go back to pan-around-neck steel bands because they see this as harping back to the past. Progress involves increasing efficiency, faster rhythms, louder steel pans, and more complex arrangements; ingredients that are not always evident in pan-around-neck bands.

(4) There are more females playing the steel pan today than ever before. Taking this factor into consideration, the pan-around-neck tradition may not be an attractive musical journey for women and girls.

A Narrative on Pan

I have been a member of a traditional steel band for over twenty years. My first contact with a pan-around-neck steel band was at the carnival (Mashramani) celebrations in Guyana, as a boy of seven or eight. We would stand by the street corners and watch the bands as they played their way through the procession. There were steel bands on trucks, playing their music from the high platforms that this allows. There were bands on racks, pulled along by a well drilled team of efficient pushers and supporters. The pans were suspended from the racks – with three feet of walking space for each musician. This allowed the children (and spectators) to get close enough to see the players display their skills at ground level. However the metal racks did present a boundary and the bands were, to put it mildly, very regimental. Then there were the pan-around-neck bands which, in my opinion – were the real attraction within the parades. We, the audience could stand shoulder to shoulder with the players, and we were not prevented in any way from touching them, looking at them as they played. A few of the players even allowed selected children to ‘have a go’ on their instruments, an open gesture that would not be seen anywhere else within the steel pan fraternity.

We had what I would describe as a musical environment at home. None of my parents were musically trained but there was always singing, and musical activity in our home. We were encouraged to play a musical instrument, and of my four other siblings, only one is not today actively involved as a performing musician. Three of us are pan musicians and a fourth sibling is a late convert to the genre.

The Notting Hill Carnival; Steel Band and Community Cohesion

In 2005, The Notting Hill Carnival was adopted as an ‘Icon of England… and Englishness’ and now holds a central position alongside other icons… such as the flag of St. George; Hadrian’s Wall; Pride and Prejudice; Blackpool Tower; The Globe theatre; Cricket; … and the mini-skirt. Popular culture aside, it is clear that recognition is not given for its strategic role in popular culture in the UK. The Notting Hill Carnival contributes up to £93m each year to London’s economy and supports the equivalent of 3,000 full-time jobs. 1.16 million people who attend Carnival spend a total of £45m over three days. (Nindi 2005). The Carnival, as well as being a powerful symbol of ‘community’, is also a unique brand of modern carnival aestheticism that resonates across the world.

It is widely accepted that community cohesion, as a concept today, provides the impetus for interaction (Gilson and Dewpoy 2000, pp. 213) and explains the power of communities to operate and develop in accord together than in warfare. It is strongly connected to concepts of equality and diversity, a sense of closeness, affection, love, – and social bond at the level of interaction. For these reasons, “… community cohesion then, becomes established on the basis of trying to create shared experiences and values, rather than continuing to entrench separation and to recognise and reinforce differences” (Cantle 2005; p.11). However, the debate around community cohesion has become more entranced as opposing sides debate its capacity to connect us to a wider and more globalised and hegemonic world.

One argument – put forward by detractors claim that: “the whole trust of community cohesion represents the death of multiculturalism – of any acceptance of cultural pluralism and a lurch back to the ‘assimilationism’ of the early 1060s, which assumes that immigrants must abandon their distinctive ethnic cultures to become British” (Kundani 2000, cited in Tomas 2007, p.436).

In exploring the relationship between carnival and community cohesion, it is essential to identify the communities that support it, within competing racial, ethnic and class loyalties.

• Over 40% of Londoners in the 2001 census were not white British.

• The increase in this component of the population is set to continue, making London one of the most diverse cities on the planet.

• With a disposal wealth on over £32billion in the UK our ethnic minority communities are becoming an ever increasing market.

• Mixed raced relationships are now so common place (1 in 10 children in Britain now live in such households) that one prediction is that some ethnic groups, particularly Caribbean, will virtually disappear (Burton, Nandi & Platt 2008).

Community cohesion (a new government concept within race relations), asked a number of questions and came up with clear answers. ‘What would it take for all groups in our society to have a vested interest in each other’? ‘How can we assist the process in getting people to get on with each other, and therefore – develop a shared common identity’? ‘Is our society being fragmented by people not mixing outside their groups’? (Worley 2005; p. 2). Consequently, the idea of a ‘common vision and a sense of belonging’ seem to be the main tenant of the policy. Can the Notting Hill carnival through its shared cultured participation deliver within the different social segments? Philips (2005) seems to think so, as he argues for attention to be re-routed from social class division to cultural and ethnic action. Is the steel band an inclusive genre?

At the last audit of cultural groups within Nostalgia Steel Band, it was discovered that there were more than 17 nationalities within the membership of the steel band. The nationalities are British, Columbian, Spanish, Serbian, Trinidadian, Dominican, St Lucian, Guyanese, Irish, German, Gambian, Libyan, Jamaican, Swiss, Nigerian, Cameroonian, Dutch and Grenada. This shared musical interest promotes strong ties and common respect within the community. The band is proud of its intra-culturalism, reflected in its costumes, its music and its carnival themes. As one member explained…

“We are black, we are brown, we are white, we are beige. We are the colours of the rainbow”. (Interview)

Narrative of discovery

I was at the Notting Hill carnival 25 years ago when I encountered a pan-around-neck steel band slowly drifting down the carnival route with the rhythmic traditional sound of calypso on pan. This was Nostalgia Steel Band. I remember that most of the male pan players were elderly Caribbean men with a splintering of young white female players, which, to my mind was quite unusual. I later came to realise that all the females were Swiss, and that the leader of the band, Sterling Betancourt, was their teacher. I followed the band for about one hour and a half, then became convinced that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play in a pan-around-neck steel band. I asked a member how I could join the band and he gave me a business card. After the carnival, I called the number and was invited to their weekly rehearsals. I became a member of the steel band and a convert to the pan-around-neck steel pan tradition.

With new ideas, developments and progress in the manufacturing and tuning of the steel pan, pan-around-neck steel bands are very rare within the steel band gene as a whole. Pan-around-neck steel bands, though limited in their range contained an element of contact with the people. They could engage with the musicians, walk with the musicians, talk and interact (dance even) with the musicians, drink rum with the musicians and even join in (iron beaters, drummers, and maracas-shakers) when the band is out on the road. No one is excluded. It is a misconception, when seeking to disentangle the meaning of the ‘concept of change’, to accept that all change is, by its nature, ‘progress’, resulting from the application of such change. As McCarthy (1984) pointed out;

“The theory of social evolution, by virtue of its location of historical change in an evolutionary framework – enables us to see history itself as a learning process. Whilst the development of technological knowledge and production capacity is often viewed in this light, it must be noted that the history of morality, politics and social organisation can no longer be regarded as mere change – but as part of the historical process. In summary, the theory of social evolution uses a teleological account of history to provide both a narrative-theoretical basis for the analysis of the present, and an interest in the future” (McCarthy 1984, pp. 269-271).

If one wishes to lift the debate to a philosophical plane it may appear that to lose this traditional art form is to abandon the life and soul of the genre. If social evolution is at work, it appears that much of the confusion associated with the concepts of ‘change’ and ‘progress’ is distorted, the extent that one tends to conceive of it in a realist manner. Conventional steel bands may be louder, more sophisticated and – to a larger degree – more technically advanced than traditional pan-around-neck steel bands, but, should one progress at the expense of the other? To understand the meaning of change is to accept that it takes its meaning from the function it performs within the community. We must stand by our tradition.


Music and art offers an exciting chance for engaging the public through celebration, weather it be carnivals and festivals such as the Cultural Olympiad. By recognising that multi-ethnic London more and more diverse, The City of London, The Arts Council England and the Grater London Council must also recognise the enormous wealth of Caribbean community cultures. We need to work hard, to ensure that the pan-around-neck steel band has a place in the cultural strategy for The London 2012 Olympics, the Cultural Olympiad, and other major / national events. Communities have the potential to be a resource for understanding socially related issues such as carnival, religion, language and expressions of cultural and musical solidarity. There is no single question which would provide the insight into the pan-around-neck steel pan tradition, but, in conclusion, I would like to advance seven modest proposals for moving the genre forward.

Seven Modest Proposals
1. Examine our own ethical code(s) as a collective, working together and helping each other: What are we doing for the pan-around-neck art form; strengthening the awareness of carnival as an art-form and strengthening the critical debate? (There is a need to be a lot more aware of what is going on in the political carnival arena).

2. Review existing statements on ‘community cohesion’: Do they stand up to their promises of ‘equality of opportunity’?

3. Identify what strategies we should employ to ensure that ALL carnival traditions survive, and that pan-around-bands get adequate levels of support within the carnival fraternity.

4. Plan collaboration to share resources for inter-culturality

5.Seek representation on the Carnival Trust as Board Members in our own right. Insist that we are consulted (represented even) on the panel that assesses bands.

6. Encourage training exercises for the art form, similar to the exchanges between Nostalgia Steel Band and PanKultur (Dortmund), and The Coventry Steel Pan Academy – underpinning an ethical professionalism.

7. Support collective action: the carnival administration must re-examine its obligations.