Is British steel going down the pan?

By Phil Wood, North Stars Steel Band Huddersfield
14th June 2005

First the good news. There are more Steel Pans and more people playing them in Britain today than at any time in the past, all over the country. And the quality of the Pan being played is probably better than it has ever been before – we have some superb bands and individual pannists in this country.

And yet Steel Pan in Britain is in a mess.

Where is the evidence for this? I’ll give you three cases. First the cancellation of London’s attempt to host the World Steel band Music Festival and its transferral to Madison Square Gardens, New York. Second, the fact that at least four of our leading orchestras are actually, or on the verge of becoming, homeless. Finally, the chaos which annually surrounds our national showcase the Notting Hill Panorama.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of our recent humiliation as President of Pan Trinbago, Mr Patrick Arnold, took the decision that the first World Steelband Music Festival ever to be held outside Trinidad would not now be held in the UK after all, but would be switched to New York.

Let’s be clear from the outset that there is absolutely no personal blame being levelled at the individuals who worked tirelessly to bring the championships to London – they did their best and that needs to be recognised. The question that does need to be asked, though, is whether it was ever in the slightest bit realistic that the British Pan movement could host something of this scale and prestige. Obviously with hindsight we know the answer, but I think many people could have predicted that an ignominious climbdown was always on the cards. The Steel Pan movement in UK neither has the internal strength, cohesion or organisational capacity, nor has it the credibility and connections to ever dream that it could pull such an undertaking off.

No-one should be criticised for having a dream. Thinking that we could pull it off was admirable in its ambition but let’s be honest – it just wasn’t realistic. Perhaps the one good thing that might come out of all this is that the British Pan community will finally recognise the need to start asking itself some serious questions.

Another problem for British Steel Pan is its fundamental insecurity. We hear worrying news that three of the UK’s finest bands – Mangrove, Ebony and Nostalgia are in danger of losing their Pan Yards. This on top of the continuing homelessness of London All Stars. How can this be? Every Steelband in Britain knows that rehearsal and storage space is absolutely vital and every band manager in the country must look at this news with a shudder and say ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. There can’t be a Steelband in the country which at some time or other hasn’t had to worry about finding a secure place for their Pans.

Each of the bands I mentioned faces their own unique set of circumstances and I wish them all well, but I think we ought to be asking ourselves whether there are any common conclusions to be drawn from their individual plight. The first is that after our players and our Pans themselves, the most important thing for any Steelband has to be the roof over their heads. So why aren’t we spending more time thinking about how to get ourselves on a sounder footing? What can be learned from bands who have got more secure tenure on their premises? What can be learned from organisations in other artforms? We don’t know, and I’ll tell you why we don’t. Because we never share information on this or hardly anything else with each other. The Pan movement in Britain retains a level of secrecy and internecine rivalry that reminds you of the heyday of the KGB and the CIA.

And the question has to be asked, when Pan is in so precarious a position wasn’t it a bit of a distraction to be thinking that we could organise the World Championship?

The truth is, everyone loves a big gig, a fete, a carnival – and nobody likes dealing with the boring stuff. One of the problems Pan is that we have all neglected too much of the boring stuff for far too long and now it is coming back to haunt us.

One of the problems we have is the difficulty of seeing ourselves as others see us. The world of Pan is tight and enclosed. Like any aspect of life it has its own rules and codes of behaviour, its own heroes and legends, but it seems to me that in Pan these are particularly mysterious and inaccessible to the outsider. I can understand why this has happened. Pan has for many years seen itself as misunderstood, under-appreciated, even under pressure or a real threat. The natural reaction to this is to turn inwards, to put up defensive barriers. To stay tight with those who know and to spurn those on the outside.

Pan in Britain grew up in society which was at best indifferent and at worst racist. In that climate it is no surprise that the Pan movement became suspicious of outsiders. But that was then and this now. It’s time to open up and let some light and fresh air into the closed world of Pan.

What do I mean? Well take our showcase event – the Panorama. The whole event feels like a private party – even to many people within the Pan movement itself, never mind those who might just be finding their way into the music for the first time or who might be potential future recruits or audiences. The feeling Panorama gives off is that if you are in the know then you will know what it is and what’s going on, but if you have to ask then you shouldn’t be there anyway. I have nothing against music and fashion movements creating an aura of exclusivity in order to keep out the squares – that’s how a lot of great movements have begun. But this is Pan we’re talking about and let’s face it – it ain’t going to be the next Garage, Punk, Hip-Hop; or Drum ‘n’ Bass is it? Pan is a mature art form that’s been around 60 years and which is played and appreciated by millions around the world. It’s time British Pan to start acting like a grown-up.

I take as evidence a piece from The Independent newspaper a few years back. The paper ran a preview of the upcoming Notting Hill Carnival. They let the reader in on ’10 things you won’t know about the Carnival’. ‘Best-kept-secret number one’, the reporter confided, was that on the Saturday night before Carnival all the Steel Bands come out on the street and have a final rehearsal for the two days ahead. Rehearsal?! You’re talking about the finest exhibition of Pan talent anywhere outside Trinidad performing pieces they have honed over for four weeks of solid practice, in a fiercely intense competition. You think that’s a rehearsal Mister? Tchhh!

Of course he’s not the first journalist to get Steel Pan completely wrong – and he won’t be the last. Why should we care?

Well it’s time we did start to care about getting our message across clearly and accurately. The public image of Steel Pan in this country is awful. We are at best invisible and at worst a figure of fun. And who’s fault is it? It’s nobody’s fault but ours.

Of course, until London Panorama becomes a much better organised affair, by learning some lessons from Brooklyn for example, perhaps we oughtn’t to be drawing too much attention to it anyway. But I’m not here to have a rant about Panorama. Every Pan player who has ever taken part in it probably has the same love/hate relationship with this annual shambles which nevertheless excites and motivates them more than anything else in Pan.

I would like to call a halt to the self criticism at this point and start to look at what we in the Pan movement can do about it.

As I said, it is time Pan came of age and started to behave like a mature cultural movement. We don’t even have to look outside the Pan world to start with. There are things we could learn from the way Pan is organised in Trinidad, the US and Europe. But we also needed to look further afield to the way people run things in other aspects of the music business and the cultural industries.

The first thing should be to look at how Pan is organised as a music industry. Yes, I said industry, because that’s what we are. We produce a product for a market, employing large numbers of professionals, training and developing thousands of young people and entertaining millions. Every other professional music industry is run on a professional basis -why can’t ours be? So my first aspiration has to be the appointment of a professional, salaried management team who are independent of any individual Steel Band. In order to do this it might be necessary to employ someone who has never even been in a Steel Band. Shame, you cry. How can a non-pannist understand what we are all about? My retort is that maybe Pan is just too important to be left to Pan people alone. A good manager can manage anything – maybe it’s time we gave one a chance.

The second innovation is to put some knowledge at the disposal of these managers, because knowledge is power. I started out by saying that there are more people playing Pan in Britain than ever before. Actually that could be true, but it could equally be a lie. Can you prove it one way or the other? No you can’t and no-one else can either because we don’t have the information. Depressingly, as a Pan movement we know virtually nothing about ourselves. Beyond a list of about 30 members of the BAS we don’t know who is playing Pan, where, to what standard and with what effect on their local community. We don’t know how many people are employed in teaching, playing or making Pan, nor what they earn nor their impact on their local economy. We know jack! So why is it any surprise that no-one takes us seriously? So my second recommendation is that we need to conduct an audit of Pan in Britain followed by a social and economic impact study.

Thirdly, the way we work together has to change. Pan is a national movement but the BAS remains pretty much a London club. I fully acknowledge that the capital still hosts many of the best bands and players but things are changing and the BAS has to deal with this, not just pay lip service to it. At present it is almost impossible for anyone from outside London to participate in BAS business and, given that most of the business is London-centred, one would wonder why they would wish to. So BAS has to get itself on the road and start talking and listening to Pan people the length and breadth of Britain. My recommendation would be that BAS needs to set up a regional structure and appoint a representative from each region to serve on a new executive committee, with meetings that are held all around the country.

Professional cultural industries set standards. These define what is an acceptable level of quality of practice in terms of things like craft skills, and providing a service to the public. Only by setting standards can you begin to gain the respect of an otherwise indifferent world. Only by setting standards can you begin to weed out those who persistently under-achieve or cheat, and to identify and celebrate those who consistently excel. So I recommend BAS should draw up a set of good practice guidelines to which we can all subscribe. This could then be followed by a BAS-sponsored quality assurance rating and a database of Pan making, playing and teaching, so the general public has a better idea of where they can get quality Steel Pan services.

Every industry has to deal with issues like how people make a living and get on – with important questions like how expertise and experience is passed down from one generation to the next, and how fresh young talent is brought in and nurtured. In short, professional cultural industries create a career development structure for their members. On this issue I fear Steel pan in Britain is currently staring into the abyss. Over the next 10 years, the first generation of Pan founders (the people who through enormous self-sacrifice built this movement up from nothing) will slowly fade from the scene – and who will replace them? One thing is certain – young people won’t put up with the ‘pay and conditions’ their predecessors did, and who can blame them? If we don’t get this question of continuity right we can forget about everything else because there won’t be any major Steel Bands left in this country. It’s that serious! So I recommend we need a special project on the subject of Steel Band management, to find out what is going on around the country, who is getting it right and wrong and what we can all learn from them.

Professional cultural industries are always looking to the future and to the next generation, particularly through education. This is one of the things Pan does well – we have lots of fantastically talented and dedicated Pan teachers scattered around the country. But that is just what they are. Scattered, isolated, pressurised and exploited, feeling themselves, misunderstood with no-one to turn to. These people, and the kids they are teaching, represent the future of Pan because without them it will fade away in the space of a generation. Maybe I am wrong but I’m not aware that anyone has ever tried to talk to all of these people or to get them together and ask them what they think. What a powerful thing that would be.

So my next recommendation would be that we organise a conference on Steel Pan education in Britain. It seems to me typical of the Pan movement’s problems that the only time it gets together is in the competitive and emotionally-charged atmosphere of a Panorama. Why can’t we get together for something around which we can unite and realise the enormous power that comes from strength in numbers?

OK, you are saying. All very nice… can-t really disagree… BUT… where is the money going to come from for all this? Well I-m not saying there-s a big pot of gold just waiting to be claimed, but I am saying there is money out there if the Pan movement got its act together. There is also a lot of money in the Pan movement already but maybe we don’t make enough of it through lack of planning. It’s all about choices and priorities and spending money a bit more intelligently. A bit more bread and a few less circuses.

But I also think that if the Steel Pan movement did adopt some of the ideas I am putting forward and started to present itself in a more professional manner, it would find that the doors of various funding providers, which are currently locked and bolted, might start to open up. But Pan won’t survive on handouts and sponsorship alone. It must also become more commercially sophisticated and start generating more of its own income.

So this is my manifesto for Pan in Britain. Not a glorious or inspirational manifesto you might say. A call for more meetings, talking, paperwork and business planning is never going to get anyone-s pulse racing, least of all Pannists-. But it is because we have avoided doing so much of this in the past that we are now in the mess we are in. We need to swallow our pride, get together, share our secrets, our anxieties and our skills and make a fresh start. Doing nothing is definitely not an option. The choice as I see it is pretty stark – does the Steel Pan in Britain continue sleep-walking into oblivion or does it wake up and start to fulfil the enormous potential of this wonderful instrument and the many talented people who are devoted to it?

It’s in our hands.
Please contact me with your ideas. Phil Wood

Phone +44 (0)1484 53549526 West View Huddersfield HD1 4TX