steel band tradition by Lionel McCalman

We Stand By Our Tradition
We Stand By Our Tradition: An examination of the Pan-Around-Neck steel band tradition, The London Notting Hill Carnival, and the concept of Community Cohesion in the UK.
Lionel McCalman

For over four decades, the pan-around-neck traditional steelbands have placed themselves as the cornerstone in the Notting Hill Carnival. Bands like The Russell Henderson Steel Band, Nostalgia Steel Band, and The Tony Charles Steel Band forged ahead an agenda that politically mobilised the UK Caribbean people to embrace the systematic dynamics of this cultural art-form. In this paper I will argue that the pan-around-neck genre is a particular inclusive vehicle to promote community cohesion, as it includes all the elements for intra-cultural bonding. I will also argue that the old-fashioned conveyance is not just reassuring, but its ability to intrigue audiences and to entertain humans in streets, matches its pulling power to the many (culturally diverse) people who embrace it.

The Notting Hill Carnival, predominantly a Caribbean styled festival celebrates the diversity and the blends of history through an ‘island’ perspective, – a poly-ethnic fair with undercurrents of self-volition and contradictions. To some, it encompasses ‘bonds of slavery’. Naipaul (1989), cited in Nixon (1991) conveyed a disdain for the Caribbean carnival expression, calling it “a version of the lunacy that kept the slave alive”. This is probably a minority view, as many commentators, (Cohen 1993) (Barnes 2000) were more concerned with delving into the socio-cultural, political and power dynamics of carnival. This paper will set out, firstly, to examine the cultural history of the Notting Hill Carnival, and the Pan-around-neck steel band tradition, through an extensive analytical literature, exploring the issues of carnival and the steel pan, and how it adds to the pervasiveness of policy discourse around community cohesion and integration. Secondly, I will explore the relationship between the Notting Hill Carnival and the pan-around-neck steel band, as one of carnival’s enduring disciplines.

The pan-around-neck steel band is a marching band that encompasses a creative vision within different cultural components. It is employed in regional festivals, wedding celebrations, protest marches, funeral processions, corporate functions, workshops and carnivals.

Reviewing Trinidad Carnival’s contribution to popular culture, Ho (2000) identifies the distortions of ” …the enterprise of empire building in the past and nation building in the present, precisely because of its ability to articulate emotions and its capacity to connect us to a wider world” (Ho 2000, pp. 3). No less obvious, a glaring omission of these claims is the carnival as an avenue for personal expressions of social rebellion. From its origin in the carnival, it generated considerable controversy as a highly charged political event – invoking anarchy and challenging the status quo through its focus on the collective power struggle (Cohen 1980) and the development or otherwise of working-class consciousness (Russell 1993). The cultural landscape of 1960s Britain could be characterised by increased immigration from the Caribbean, some class/ social resentment from some aspects of the white working class, which correlated significantly with pride of one’s own cultural capital. Within this paradigm, each sub-cultural group within the Caribbean community, took it upon themselves to organise around a single carnival discipline, mapping out their own interpretations of these, and rehabilitating the image of African and Caribbean societies, both in the eyes of Caribbean and non-Caribbean people.

The most enduring characteristic of the Notting Hill carnival is its conservatism in sticking with the established form. The disciplines, Costume (mas bands), Calypso, Steel bands, Soca sound systems (both mobile and static) made up the strands of influence within carnival culture. But is this culture a direct result of the African heritage? And does the evidence lead to a culture brought over in the Middle Passage and preserved – maybe modified in religion, folklore, satire, social commentary, or even in political and economic forms?

In the Caribbean, there is a time honoured tradition that when it comes to established forms of cultural practices, musical expression, folklore, etc, community identity demands that respect is due. Tracing an African cultural origin, from the drum, to Tamboo Bamboo, then onto the steel pan – the consensus is – pan goes back to its African roots, to Shango and the African Orisha (gods) – and the drum rhythm that evokes them (Grant 1999:p.2) (Aho 1987). More recently, with an increasing understanding of scientific knowledge, the influences of globalisation and the ‘psychological’ state on the utilization of educational knowledge, traditions are sometimes forgotten and abandoned. Some practices, e.g. the pan-around-neck steel band tradition seems to be neglected, or even relegated to pasture-land, and to the traditionalists, this conjures up all kinds of emotions that are too deep for words. We stand by our tradition.

The established practice of clinging to the past can be immensely reassuring, as ‘traditions’ involve continuity with the past, rather than just the restoration of a given practice, after a break. As Terry (1995) explains,

“It sees the past extending unnoticed into the present – and projects a naive viewpoint: The more deeply a tradition is rooted in the subconscious, the more listeners perceive change as destructive rather than evolutionary. What had previously appeared to them as self-evident truths, to be taken for granted, is suddenly being challenged by a new set of norms” (Terry 1995, pp. 30).

Another paradigm explained by Terry (1995), is that of ‘Restoration’ which seeks to renew contract with a tradition. This presupposes that the tradition was broken , and a link is now being sought which would restore the glories of the past and redeem the present situation. This, attempt at a restoration, the author contends, brings with it ‘an aura of sentimentality’. The presence of a third phase – which the author conceptualizes as ‘conservatism’, sets out to preserve existing traditions. The starting point of this investigation was to test the validity of the ‘Pan-around-neck’ steel band tradition by seeing how the subsequent course of this tradition has impacted on other European cultures, i.e. Swiss and German steel bands, who have developed a special affinity to this art-form, and are part of a radical movement to preserve it, having themselves been introduced to the ‘pan-around-neck’ tradition by Trinidadian musicians. The paper, appropriately titled, We stand by our tradition surveys the cordial landscape of the steel band in Carnival, and contends that this disowning of the past by Caribbean pan players, could result in a cultural sensation of severance.

Western musical traditions are seen as the standard from which others are judged. However, we must ask to what extent we are justified in applying Western concepts and methodologies of historical-social musical investigation in other cultural contexts. The steel pan musical genre was previously seen as an inversion of this trend since it is Trinidad’s gift to the Western world. The Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s biggest street festival and brings its own ‘new immigrant perspective’ to contemporary British life ( Ferris 2005), (Thompsett 2005).

Crowley (1999, p. 218) in an attempt at an explanation of the origins of carnival, contends that, “… the street parade, the masks, effigy-burning, the transvestitism, the political and social satire, even the throwing of water, flower, powder, … dates back to the Classical world. Huge horse-drawn floats representing ships were reported in early Medieval Spain”. One might argue he has not gone back far enough, and that the characteristics he refers to could be found in Ancient Africa, where carnival originated (Nehusi 2000). He demonstrates that in the earliest known records from the Nile Valley, there were festivals, which displayed all the elements of carnival. These practices were taken to Europe and Europeans added their own dynamics to these festivals. In an age which values African Culture more highly than before, Crowley’s opinions might seem a bit out of touch with reality, and indeed some might even view his comments as an example of intellectual imperialism.

Too much has being made of our carnival’s connections to Western traditions. Steel Bands are now referred to as ‘Steel Orchestras’ and in every pan competition, the classical rendition finds itself alongside the perquisite ‘soca’ and ‘calypso’ selections. The steel orchestras are seen as ‘progressive’, as they convey something larger about the shift in Caribbean’s consciousness towards the literary minded professional listener, and away from the ‘un-refined’ culture of working people. As Caribbean people seek to extend their own way of life to encompass others, it would seem to me, in contrast with that of the Western tradition than seek to bring all others under its existing boundaries.