Highest Of The High

Dr Brian Copeland, left, Tony Williams, centre, and Bertie Marshall after receiving the Order of Trinidad and Tobago from the President. —Photo: STEVE MCPHIE
Dr Brian Copeland, left, Tony Williams, centre, and Bertie Marshall after receiving the Order of Trinidad and Tobago from the President. —Photo: STEVE MCPHIE

Innovation, Respect Or Just Plain Politics?

By Orville Wright

The 46th anniversary of Independence brought overdue prominence to the national instrument of Trinidad & Tobago, as two important pioneers and one engineer received the highest award—The Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, for their contribution to the development of the steelpan. From my perspective, it is important to differentiate Mr. Anthony Williams and Mr. Bertram “Bertie” Lloyd Marshall from Dr. Brian Copeland and ask the question—are Mr. Anthony Williams and Mr. Bertram “Bertie” Lloyd Marshall really in the same category as Dr. Brian Copeland and/or vice versa? For the remainder of this article, I will refer to Mr. Williams and Mr. Marshall, as Tony and Bertie respectively because, in the steelpan community, these are the names by which they are honorably and fraternally addressed.

Prior to the actual 46th anniversary day, there was copious chatter about giving the country’s highest award to Dr. Copeland, and based on what I read and heard on the airwaves, Tony and “Bertie” were not mentioned at all. As a matter of fact, the President made the announcement at the award ceremony for the 45th anniversary in 2007 when he said, “I would like to advise the nation that Dr Brian Copeland will be receiving the nation’s highest award.” This was reported in an article penned by Michelle Loubon in the Trinidad Guardian on Saturday September 1, 2007.

Dr. Copeland is being recognized for his association with the innovation of the G Pan. But given the status of the G Pan; the age and current usage of the G Pan, as well as its overall non-acceptability by the pan community at large, should Dr. Copeland receive equal recognition alongside Tony and “Bertie”?

On July 16, 2007, the Prime Minister unveiled the G Pan. At that time, most of the reports stated that the instrument was still in its embryonic stage. Thirteen months later, the G Pan is still in developmental mode. I base this statement on the fact that only the National Steelband is utilizing the G Pan. If his association with this innovation makes Dr. Copeland worthy of being recognized with Tony and “Bertie”, why aren’t more orchestras using the instruments? Why isn’t the Ministry of Education supplying the new schools’ steelband programs with the G Pan?

Is it because the G Pan is not available? Is it because the G Pan is too expensive for orchestras to go through a comprehensive re-configuration of their stands—and obviously—pans? Could the steelband community be upset about the fact that Dr. Copeland and his research team determined that a number of currently used instruments are extinct—when they really are not? Is Dr. Copeland’s work merely an extension of Tony and “Bertie’s” innovation and they refuse to buy into the notion that Dr. Copeland and his research team are really innovative? Let me try to answer each of these questions.

I had the opportunity to visit the lab at UWI where the G Pan is being created in September 2007. I signed a NDA (non-disclosure agreement), so in spite of the fact that the instrument was unveiled and awards are being given for the instrument, if I talk about the G Pan I could get myself in trouble. There is incongruity here and I don’t understand what the NDA is all about. If the instrument/s have not been fully developed, then obviously, they cannot be available. In the case where there has to be mass-production in order to meet the needs of all the steel orchestras in T&T, there is a perception that supplying all the bands in Trinidad & Tobago was not thought of at all. Maybe I have been living abroad too long and have a different point of view on something like this.

Allow me to draw an analogy to the iPhone that Apple developed. When it was unveiled, millions of units were made available for consumers. Now, I fully understand that the iPhone is a small component compared to the G Pan, but the ideology has to take precedence here. When Digicel made its way into the T&T market, they had to have phones available for consumers. If they hadn’t, crapaud smoke dey pipe.

The G pan is a four-pan family comprised of soprano pan, double-second, three-pan set and a six-bass. The soprano pan is an over-sized pan and the skirt is also longer. During the carnival season, there can be conservatively as many as 10 – 30 lead/soprano pans in a band depending on its category—small medium or large. This means that a band must now make 10 -30 stands to accommodate the new pans. If a band has a sponsor that is willing to foot the bill for the pans and the stands, re-configuring the front line of that band may not be a problem. However, there are many bands without sponsors and the cost of acquiring these instruments could run into thousands of dollars. Additionally, what is going to be done with the extinct instruments? Was this sort of expense put into the equation for all steel orchestras when the G Pan was in the planning stages?

The steelband community has not been overtly receptive to Dr. Copeland receiving the highest award for the G Pan, and there are many reasons why he is getting the cold shoulder—many of which have been voiced by the executives of Pan Trinbago, the steelband fanatics and the general public. In spite of the technological improvement Dr. Copeland and his team have brought to the instrument, one of the issues I had with the G Pan is: how did they determine that some of the instruments used in the present day orchestras have become extinct?

Sean Nero’s article on July 16, 2007 of the Trinidad Guardian declared, “Based on the research and development of the government-appointed team, popular instruments such as the double tenor, the double guitar, the quadraphonic and the four cello are now extinct, following the improvements to the tenor, double second and three cello.” What was the hypothesis? The mere fact that the majority of steelbands are still using the double tenor, the double guitar, the quadraphonic and the four cello totally refutes Dr. Copeland’s team outcome. Add to this, the reality that the G Pan (in its present instrumental configuration) cannot emulate a Bradley, “Boogsie” or Samaroo arrangement, and this alone conjures up much of the resentment on the part of the steelband community. I would love to hear All Stars play their arrangement of Woman On the Bass on a G Pan configuration. If it has all the nuances of this classic arrangement, then everybody should support the award for Dr. Copeland.

The decision to give the highest award in the country to Mr. Anthony Williams, Mr. Bertram “Bertie” Lloyd Marshall and Dr. Brian Copeland—for pan innovation is an enigma. When you take into consideration the 40+ years of work that Tony and “Bertie” did in pan-and for pan- should Dr. Copeland’s paltry involvement with the instrument be measured against, or compared to the work of Tony and “Bertie”? Remember, Dr. Copeland’s work is yet to be completed, and frankly, the assessment of Dr. Copeland’s work really cannot be measured as I write this piece.

The only time that the work of Dr. Copeland can be assessed is when a plurality of steelbands in Trinidad & Tobago gets the G Pan, plays them, but more importantly, puts them through the rigors of two or three Panorama seasons where they literally get beat. There should be random interviews with pannists from all the bands, and then we can see where it goes.

A report by Julien Neaves in the Trinidad Express of September 1, 2008, states: “On the criticism by Opposition politicians and some members of the pan fraternity that he did not deserve the award and it was the Prime Minister who specifically selected him, Copeland said he did not read any of it and anyone who had a problem should take it up with the Prime Minister or the selection committee.” Since both the Prime Minister and the President made the announcement a year ago, should it be the 2007 selection committee or the 2008 selection committee?

I met Dr. Copeland in September 2007, and firmly believe that his heart is in the right place with regard to the national instrument. In conversations with him he was genuine about his work. But as an academician—one who understands, and has done research, that is not the kind of response you offer to criticism of a product that is so close to Trinis. If I were in his shoes, I would have seized upon the opportunity to praise Tony and “Bertie”, and then explain—from a technological point of view—what I am doing to further cement the future of the national instrument as a true Trini ting. That sort of flippant response hurts his cause more than it helps, because I know he has to be aware of what preceded him. On the other hand, he may have signed an NDA too, so he cannot talk about what he is doing. Tony Williams introduced the spider web pan and it is on that foundation that Dr. Copeland is able to embellish what’s being done in his lab. Had it not been for the work that Tony and “Bertie” did, there is no way that he would have gotten the highest award.

If Dr. Copeland came up with a new (note) configuration of a pan with the technological advances that he is working on, and every panman was knocking down his door to get the pan—that is a different thing. Give him more than the highest award.

The Prime Minister is from south, Dr. Copeland is from south, and so there is a perception that it is a ‘south ting’. So, whoever said that the Prime Minister “specifically selected him” might be aware of the political connection to the award.

The decision to give Dr. Copeland the award was made in 2007. That is a fact. Tony and “Bertie” were added this year because somebody got through to the powers that be—the Prime Minister and one of the selection committees—and told them, all yuh crazy or what, how yuh go do that? Maybe it is time for the Selection Committee to review its criteria for determining deserving recipients of the nation’s awards in general, and the nation’s highest award in particular.

Leave a Reply