Nostalgia Steelband celebrates 40 years on the Road

Nostalgia Steelband, London’s Standard-bearer of ‘Pan-round-Neck’ celebrates 40 years on the Road.

by Haroun Shah

In 1969, Philmore Davidson coined the name ‘Nostalgia’ for a steelband whose roots are embedded in the history of the legendary Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO). Its eminent founders, Sterling Betancourt and Russell Henderson arrived in England in 1951 with TASPO to play at the ‘Festival of Britain’ but following their tour of Britain, stayed back in London and went on to form the ‘Russell Henderson Steelband’, the first home grown steelband in Britain. These pioneers appeared on radio and television and played at numerous venues to bemused audiences. In 1963, while playing for a Children’s Neighbourhood Carnival in London’s Notting Hill area as a ‘pan-round-neck’ band, they drifted onto the streets and, in so doing, saw the birth of the world renowned Notting Hill carnival.

Nostalgia celebrates 40 years this year and marked the event by wining the ‘best musical band on the road’ award, at the Brighton carnival in July, 2009. Throughout the years, its members have almost single-handedly promoted and maintained the pan-round-neck tradition in England despite the immense logistical problems.

For example, the notes of each steelpan must be condensed onto a single pan for mobility while still retaining the high quality, purity, rich tones and colourful rhythms that are now expected of steelbands. Thus, apart from its tenor pans (sopranos) which are standard, all others steelpans need to specially made for the band. However, the key element of pan-round-neck is the freedom and mobility given to the panists. This in turn enables pan playing to be more visible and accessible during street carnivals; breaking down the mystery and, allowing audiences to intermingle and freely participate.

Nostalgia is therefore called upon to perform at a variety of events. A poignant moment was the wild excitement created in the closing hours 1999, when the mobility of pan-round-neck steelband music enabled the huge enthusiastic crowds to join in a carnival procession along London’s Embankment to see in the millennium. Nostalgia has led similar street carnivals in most of Britain’s major cities; a particularly exciting recent event being the street carnival in Huddersfield, June 2008 in which Nostalgia led a huge band of revellers though the streets of the city centre, between 1am -3am on Saturday (carnival) morning.

The picturesque historic Somerset town of Bridgwater is home annually to a magnificent spectacle of lights, costumes and music and is regarded as the largest illuminated parade in the world. Despite the near zero temperatures in November, from 2003, Nostalgia Steelband players have been proudly carrying their pans around their necks through this three mile carnival route (which takes between 3-4 hours) and cheered on by some 150,000 spectators who line both sides of the route. The impact of this music, as the only steelband in the carnival can be seen by the curious and excited expressions on their faces. So popular has this been that Nostalgia has been requested each year to join this carnival.

Despite the expected metamorphosis of the band over the years, Nostalgia Steelband has never deviated from its responsibility to hold steadfastly onto its ‘pan-round-neck’ tradition; playing at many varied events throughout the UK and Europe, actively teaching and developing programmes in numerous schools and universities, helping to start up new steelbands, holding workshops to promote this art form and organising and participating in steelband conferences. Members are currently leading a number of projects by providing instruments and tuition and nurturing many new steelbands in various parts of London. These include activities at the Performance Arts and Media Centre, Paddington, Hay Lane School, Rokesly Infants School, Chiswick Community School and a large number of steelpan workshops and community projects in several East and South London schools. More recently, Nostalgia members have tutored, helped funded and made its steelpans available to the Shern Hall Youth Gospel Choir. This resulted the development of Shern Hall Methodist Youth Steelband which performs as a pan-round-neck band, both independently and together with Nostalgia.

A similar project in the Midlands has witnessed the successful establishment of a Steelpan Academy led by Diana Hancox. Nostalgia’s members have worked closely with the group to develop the Midlands pan-round-neck steelband, helping to preserve this part of pan history and culture outside London. The band is now performing regularly in the Midlands whilst also joining Nostalgia at Notting Hill Carnival. Projects such as this are being endorsed by Nostalgia to continue to promote the tradition of pan-round-neck.

Nostalgia by virtue of its pan-round-neck mobility, its location in the heart of the Notting Hill carnival route and the versatility of its members, has over the years, acted as a magnet for steelpan players from Europe and around the globe. Groups from Switzerland and Germany in particular have consistently teamed up with Nostalgia to ensure the continued presence of pan-round-neck at the Notting Hill carnival.

Switzerland has been one of the first European countries to have adopted, developed and vigorously promoted steelpan and, now competes at the highest level. With over 150 of steelpans listed on websites, the country is recognised internationally as one of the leading proponents of steelpan. Most are concentrated in Zürich, Aargau, Thurgau and Bern. Zürich’s two best known pan-round-neck bands, Sandflöö and Bollito Misto are more 30 years old. Sandflöö was invited by Nostalgia to play together at Notting Hill Carnival in 1987. In 1995 they jointly participated in the Panorama competition and delighted audiences and players alike with their dexterity and competence. However, unlike Trinidad which has a category for pan-round-neck bands at Panorama, such bands are currently barred from entering London’s Notting Hill carnival. Nostalgia has had very fruitful collaborations with many Swiss steelbands particularly ‘Funland Serenaders’ in Bern.

Nostalgia has been privileged to have many proficient players, such as Junior Gill, Paul Francis, Tamla Batra, Rudy Smith, Yves Maino, Monika Nicoletti and many others who join the band annually to participate in many activities in London. Karen Stark’s ‘Sterling’s Angels’, a dedicated pan-round-neck band, has also played alongside Nostalgia Steelband for many years at the Notting Hill Carnival.

Germany has had carnivals for centuries in cities such as Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin but only relatively recently has steelband music begun to make an appearance in these events. Among the pan-round-neck bands, Pankultur, in Dortmund has been inspirational in its drive to make this city, in Germany’s industrial heartland, the hub of this Caribbean art form. Other bands include ‘Walking Steel’, a professional small pan-round-neck band that was founded in 2000, the all girls pan-round-neck bands, ‘Ladypan’ (formed in 2006) and ‘Pans’ n Roses’. Members of these bands have played with Pankultur and Nostalgia Steelband at the Notting Hill carnival for many years. It is also here in Dortmund where the foundation of exhilarating and inspirational carnival is being carefully nurtured from its roots. PanKultur has been joining forces with Nostalgia since 2000 to play at Notting Hill carnival.

In 2005, Nostalgia teamed up with PanKultur to participate in an interesting experiment that will one day grow into major street carnival. Up to 40 panists led a carnival parade into the market place and through the tiny cobbled streets of the city; taking this music into the heart of the city to very curious and astonished onlookers, most of whom had not seen a steelband before but, nevertheless, lined the streets and waved on the pan players. This event now occurs annually and is followed by shows such as ‘Caribbean Night’ that features live pan-round-neck performances together with larger steel orchestras from various parts of Europe.

The First European Steelband Conference in 2006 which was conceived and ran by Nostalgia Steelband served as focal point for many enthusiasts to meet. Supported by Arts Council England, BAS and Pan Podium, the meeting was held in the impressive Docklands Campus, University of East London and brought together representatives from the UK and various parts of the world. Some of the themes covered by the various presenters included Pan in Education, Pan and Global Networking, Experiences of particular countries such as the UK, Trinidad, Germany, Canada, Japan and France, Throughout the meeting the obvious lack of standards and uniformity of instruments across the globe was repeatedly mentioned.

Thus, a major outcome of this meeting was proposed and accepted by all that a national accreditation system (similar to those for other classical instruments) should be established for steelpan musicians in the UK. At another conference on steel pan at the Bucks New University, High Wycombe, UK, (2007), this was taken a stage further and in collaboration with the University of the West Indies, Trinidad, the development of a graded examinations system, led by Jacqueline Roberts of SV2G is now well on the way.

In 2008 Nostalgia followed this up as the only steelband to participate at an international conference (see Pan Podium, Issue 18) at York University, Canada and 5 papers were presented on it projects in London schools and the University of East London. In keeping with its programme to organise/participate in a university-based meetings biannually, at the next conference in 16-17th October, 2010 we will endeavour to foster the globalisation of steelpan while maintaining a keen interest on the seeing the development and burgeoning of pan-round-neck tradition around the world.

Nostalgia Steel Band