A few years ago, Caribbean Beat published an article noting: “Trinidad Carnival is not a spectator sport but a participatory event. Or a series of participatory events.” Among that series of events is the annual Panorama — a music festival and competition that acts as a gauge of steelband player and arranger creativity, dexterity, and acumen. It is also a cathartic release that signifies a nation’s musical originality and, for many, dignifies the efforts of early islander innovation — what one researcher called “the audacity of creole imagination”.
Another preface to the Panorama is the “panyard crawl” — a nightly jaunt by a willing public into and among those rehearsal spaces before the final competitions. A walk among the steelbands and the people in the panyard is more than a contemplation of music. But for a busy mind, it is another side of an island experience beyond revelry and rum. It has become a way of connecting with a community and — for visitor and resident alike — a means of seeing how art is created in these islands.
We have heard and read that decades after the idea, origin and evolution of the steelband, its panyard was to be a place of learning and commerce.
As I walk towards the Phase II Pan Groove panyard in Hamilton Street in Woodbrook — a Port of Spain environ — myriad thoughts and recollections fly around my mind on a cool tropical night as sounds grow with each step towards discovery or discordance, music or magic.
Port of Spain has been a UNESCO City of Music since 2019. A state-funded experiment — the Live Music District — begun in 2018 on the popular Ariapita Avenue was upended after a few iterations by the pandemic in 2020. Unfulfilled government initiatives of education and land tenure — the Music Schools in Communities Collaborative Project and Panyards as Learning Centres, along with the Panyard Regularisation Project — contrast readily with the entrepreneurial spirit that a panyard possesses now.
The brilliant Trinidadian economist Lloyd Best saw the panyard as “a natural zone of community mobilisation, individual industry, discipline and talent through the production of music … a platform for generating direct services in music, of course, but also a range of other related activities and trades.”
He didn’t lie, but I challenge myself not to overthink — instead to listen and feel.
I have arrived here at the end of the cul-de-sac, approaching a brightly lit space with steelpan racks (metal stands for the instruments) arranged in structured rows — shiny chrome-plated tenor and double seconds pans in front, painted blue bass pans to the extremes, and inside the full orchestral spectrum of steelpans: quad-pans, cellos, guitars.
The percussive “engine room” rises on a high rack where rhythm is king, and iron brake drums, congas, and scratchers (metal graters rubbed with a stiff wired comb like a guiro) to move the masses.
In the large high-ceilinged metal shed, that congregation of the curious — oblivious to music practice — talks loudly and drinks the heady mix of beers and stouts and rum with chasers available at the bar. A small merchandise table offers tee-shirts that reflect the theme — one linked to the song or a new vision for what the band can be.
This is a self-contained community, commercial and contented. One is witness to celebration before any steelband competition has begun.
Metallic clangs align with a percussive drum beat that varies in tempo as the band learns the calypso/soca music piece by rote — no sheet music, slow at first, then increasing in tempo until there is a recognisable correctness to what the arranger needs to hear. Musical motifs are replicated, but we are not merely Naipaul’s “mimic men”.
It has become a way of connecting with a community and — for visitor and resident alike — a means of seeing how art is created in these islands
Early on a visit, you’ll hear particular sounds: arpeggios and tedious wrist exercises to help players flawlessly execute dynamic music at 140 beats per minute. I am within touching, talking and watching distance of musicians. Could I do this in a commercial orchestra in public anywhere else? Not this casually.
All visitors’ senses are engaged. At the Phase II panyard, and in the end of the cul-de-sac that has become the economic extension of the panyard, smells wafting through the space are in competition with sights and sounds: the spicy curry of the doubles vendor doing brisk business near the gate, or the corn soup flavours that challenge empty bellies to “get a small bowl”. Home-made bake-and-shark is on sale tonight. A nuts vendor sells “salt-and-fresh” and honey roasted peanuts, cashews.
It’s all here. The juxtaposition of sound and scent, commerce and community is enhanced by who is there. You are not alone.
Here is me overthinking again. I read that early calypso tents went out of their way to encourage wealthier clients to frequent the tents, which lead to a democratisation of patronage, up and down the social ladder. This panyard is following suit.
Our ability to mix and mingle in the name of culture is on full display here. It’s no longer a fad to frequent a panyard, but a rite of passage. Conversations become the starting points for reflections on the Trinidad & Tobago aesthetic — one which says that despite our differences, two can become one.
I see faces of strangers, I see faces of friends. Black, White, and everything in between. Demographics are diverse — young players, older patrons. I am not lost in a cacophony of loud talking, steelpans and iron percussion, but immersed in an atmosphere of being present … and listening.
The experience of being in a panyard before Carnival is one of wonderment and awe. Is one listening to fragments of a new classical orchestral music or is one hearing plangent tones from repurposed oil drums as a kind of affirmation that something actually was created in the West Indies, with apologies to Sir VS Naipaul?
Perspective is a hell of a thing. English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor described the flambeaux-lit All Stars panyard of 1950 in his classic travel book The Traveller’s Tree as “a piece of waste land … jammed between the embankment and the back of houses.” He effectively described the band as squatters who installed themselves there, “and turned into a stronghold”.
The music and the sound of the practising band were described variously to be “almost agreeable”, and “a deafening hullaballoo … It was full of young Negroes hammering out, on extraordinary instruments, the noise I heard.”
That early effort of transcribing a unique Caribbean experience was notable. Bias may be read between the lines, but experiences are always personal. Fermor’s subjective reality and objective observations are from a different era. All Stars’ modern panyard is a disciplined sanctuary for creation. Modern panyards are safe spaces in neighbourhoods that either challenge or welcome. But they all belong to the people.
What a walking visitor to a panyard hears and feels in 2024 may not have changed much physically, but how we in Trinidad & Tobago make sense of it all is to acknowledge the silent grace of living or being present in this island. Carnival represents release. Each new discovery is a satisfaction.
Tonight, this exercise of seeing, listening and being in a panyard will be replicated at other panyards in Port of Spain, and around the country. Night becomes morning at the practice sessions of steelband players days before the Panorama finals. Stamina is necessary. A connection to these people is inevitable.
Beyond the iron and steel of the instruments, we recognise endless possibilities. The simple becomes grand. We become sated.
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