Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Steelband "Own Tune": Nationalism, Festivity, and Musical Strategies in Trinidad's Panorama Competition

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

The Steelband "Own Tune": Nationalism, Festivity, and Musical Strategies in Trinidad's Panorama Competition

Article excerpt

Between its beginnings around 1940 and Trinidad and Tobago's independence from England in 1962, the steel pan developed from a rustic invention of the urban poor into an astonishingly versatile musical instrument, a transformation that for many Trinidadians symbolizes their progress from colony to independent nation (Stuempfle 1995, 235). Paradoxically, one of the most serious challenges to pan's continued progress, in the opinion of many, is also its most exuberant and popular expression, the annual Panorama competition. Since its founding in 1963, at the first carnival after independence, Panorama has become the most important steelband performance venue in Trinidad in terms of its prestige, prize money, and private sponsorship. Approximately sixty to eighty steelbands, each composed of a hundred players, compete in Panorama every year, and the major steelbands today expend most of their time, energy, and money on this competition. Panorama has thus come to exert a powerful effect on the trajectory of steelband music generally. (1)

Frustration with Panorama's constraints has become commonplace among steelband musicians, particularly since alternative performance opportunities such as carnival fetes and masquerade largely dried up in the 1970s and 1980s. (2) Musicians often direct criticism at Panorama judges. Arranger Ray Holman (1993) complains, for example: "We used to play pan because it's a pride you have you want to play this tune. It didn't have no judge, the people is the judge. You would know when you play well. But now you have to sit down in front of these five people and they pushing [their agenda]. I hate to hear this thing now." While the judges are an easy target, Holman's frustration also implicates broader institutional constraints. For example, Panorama's requirement that steelbands play arrangements of calypsos only (i.e., songs that are composed and recorded by professional calypsonians every year at carnival time) reflects an intellectual concern, particularly strong at the time of Panorama's founding, that carnival celebrations should integrate the "national arts" of calypso, steelband, and masquerade. This institutional priority has in turn fostered new musical models and audience expectations--often conceived of today as a "Panorama formula"--to which steelband musicians must respond.

Despite imposing certain restrictions, however, Panorama has greatly expanded the scope for steelband arranging and composition. Thus the frustrations of arrangers such as Ray Holman have to be measured against their new opportunities. The innovations of influential arrangers continually challenge (and even shape) the criteria of Panorama judges, and so their musical ambitions tend to work against the conservatism of the institution. One of the most obvious ways that arrangers have challenged Panorama's institutional constraints is through the composition of their own music or "own tunes," a practice that began in the early 1970s and reached a peak of popularity during the 1990s. Because of the way it pits individual creative ambitions against institutional ideologies, the own tune provides a particularly clear example of the political implications that result from thinking musically and challenges scholars to consider the agency of individual musicians as it relates to both musical and social change.

I begin with a consideration of the significance of individual musical strategies, both in relation to ethnomusicology in general and to the steelband literature in particular, I then provide some background on the significance of repertoire in the steelband's development and the sometimes contradictory values that were attached to "foreign" repertoires around the time of independence. Next, I sketch the contributions of particular arrangers to what has become regarded as a Panorama style or formula and identify the important pioneers of the own tune. In the final section, I present an analysis of form in Len "Boogsie" Sharpe's 1993 own tune "Birthday Party" and consider how his musical strategies respond to and influence both the constraints of the competition and broader aesthetic conventions. …

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