Evolution of Steel Pan in Guyana

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DPI, Guyana, Thursday, January 17, 2019

Once considered a dying art form in Guyana, the resuscitation of the steel orchestra or steel band as it is commonly known is one decision which both government and the general public greatly appreciate and continue to push forward, especially during Mashramani.

Speaking with the Department of Public Information (DPI), Mashramani Coordinator Andrew Tyndall said that in the early 50s almost every community had a steel band, particularly pan tuners, a movement that took the country by storm.

Mash Coordinator, Andrew Tyndall.

However, the number of steel bands in the latter half of the 80s and 90s began to diminish and continued to. This, Tyndall said, was caused by the different route used to create and manage a band.

He explained that in the 50s, tuners were once considered the owners of the band, but over time band managers and musical composers became a must. However, their management style was nothing to be desired.

“The cost for procuring the instruments become a challenge and even the cost for maintaining the instruments became a challenge so you saw a decline in the number of the bands and as a result, a decline in the interest of the art form,” Tyndall said.

At that time, the country had six steel bands which included two large bands, namely Banks DIH’s Innovators and Guyana Police Force’ (GPF) band, according to the Mashramani Coordinator.

This soon reduced to four steel bands including one large band; Guyana Police Force (GPF) with Parkside Steel Orchestra slowly emerging from the shadows to help revive the art form.

In 2008, Guyana got the opportunity to, once more, host Caribbean Festival of Arts/CARIFESTA. This event, Tyndall believes, led the government to resuscitate the art form through the mass procurement of instruments and the formation of a 100-piece National Steel Orchestra for Carifesta X. It also led to the Joint Services procuring and establishing 100 strong bands.

“This spin-off caused a renewed interest in the art form by former and current players and even by persons who were interested in what they saw at Carifesta X. Soon, we(government) were able to forge a relationship with Republic Bank for the re-introduction of the Mashramani Steel Pan competition, which was last seen in 2006 with just about 4 or 5 bands participating… So, in 2009 the competition was launched after a three years hiatus,” the Mashramani Coordinator explained.

Soon the government placed more emphasis on reviving this art with the introduction of the School’s Steel Pan Development programme. A collaborative effort between the Ministry and the Unit of Allied Arts. This saw band instruments and instructors being placed in various schools to provide students with the opportunity to learn how to play the instruments.

According to Tyndall, this led to a gradual increase of interest and soon Republic Bank became more than a sponsor for the competition but played a more integral role in training through World Renown composer Ray Holman from Trinidad.

This workshop catered for composers to develop and improve their techniques and understanding the family of instruments, which saw great improvements, according to Tyndall.

These new developments help pushed the government to invest more to ensure that those interested in Steel Pan were able to access these services, hence the introduction of the Republic Bank Pan Minors Music Literacy Programme, in 2010.

Conducted during the July and August months, it aimed to allow young people the opportunity to develop their musical skills playing steel pans. They were introduced to techniques and fundamental elements of music. Thus far, a total of 1,345 youths across Guyana have benefitted.

“Over the years, the Republic Bank Pan Minors Music Literacy Programme would have created a new cohort of composers and what we find is that those young composers are now working with bands, mainly school bands to present in the competition,” he added.

With the change of government in 2015, a decision was made to intensify the school steel pan programme and saw the establishment of three school bands each year, nationwide. Currently, there are twenty-four (24) active school bands, a transformation that the government hopes to continue especially through its Pan-O-Rama competitions.

“We have gone from the early 2000s where just 200-300 persons were attending a Steel Pan competition to now thinking about a new venue for the event due to the large volume of persons who play and those who are now a part of the audience in this activity which is now one of the premier activities for the Mashramani festival,” Tyndall said.

While this year’s competition will be held at the Cliff Anderson Sports Hall, Government is currently evaluating where to host the event next year and onward.

Sweet pan music will be available for your enjoyment and listening pleasure at many of the activities slated for Mashramani 2019. Among them are the Chutney Dance competition on February 9, Republic Bank’s Steel Band Panorama Minor Categories on February 14 and Steel Band Panorama competition on February 17.

Neola Damon.

Images:  Giovanni Gajie.