Pan Conqueror From Tobago

ORVILLE WRIGHT Begins His Panorama 2010 Series of Interviews With arrangers

RBTT Redemption Sound Setters at Panorama Finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah.
RBTT Redemption Sound Setters at Panorama Finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Winston Gordon, the arranger for RBTT Redemption Sound Setters from Tobago has, since 2001, matched the level of musicianship with his Trinidad counterparts by appearing in the finals of Panorama eight times.  The band placed fourth in 2002 with Music For The Soul by Hollis Wright, and while they have not been able to break the ceiling to get to the top prize for Panorama, under Gordon’s leadership as arranger, Redemption has consistently shown that it has as good a level of musicianship and skill-set on the instrument as pannists in Trinidad.
I have always been impressed with his arranging skills and fondly recall the crowd reaction when he first fused phrases from other tunes into his arrangement. On the Friday before the 2010 Panorama finals, I sat down with Gordon to get a peek into his mind as an arranger and to discuss his successes.  

OW: What process do you go through to select the tune for Panorama?
WG:  We do it the usual way as we have done in the past.  I gather as much music as I can from whatever source, mainly Alvin Daniell.  A group of us sit down and listen to the selections and we come up with what we think is most suitable, most likeable for us.  Of course, I give them some guidelines as to what we are looking for.

When you say them, whom are you referring to?
WG: A group of my members: the captain, the vice captain, and some of the key players- and we sit and listen.  Before we do that, I remind them- and as you would bear me out- any tune is a good tune; it all depends on what the music director can do with it.  I’ve seen some good tunes with an arrangement that is not so good, and I’ve seen some party tunes with a good arrangement, so it depends on who is the music director—what they can do with it.  Notwithstanding, my advice to them is that when I am looking, I’m looking for a melody line—the shape, the highs, the lows, the curve in the melody—I look at the chord structure and the progression that supports that melody. 
I look for certain idioms that I can use for my melodic and motivic development as well.  If there are tag lines, I look to see how effective they could be.  I look as well at the composer—how popular s/he is and how much airplay s/he could get with the tune, and I look at what kind of reaction I could get from the crowd. Is this a tune that people are inclined to sing along with—which is quite different from some composers—because when “Boogsie” composes a tune, that’s his tune.  If he composes a tune in March or August of the previous year, that’s what he going with, that’s his tune. So he looks at this thing differently—same applies to Pouchet, and all the other guys who did their own compositions.  You must have heard the rumour that “Smooth” had problems this year with his own composition and it almost divided the band.  I heard through the grapevine they had weeks of argument and discussion and eventually they settled on his tune, but they were not happy with it.  I understand they had a similar problem last year too. I will go far back and tell you, and maybe you don’t know that, but that is what broke up Starlift into Phase II and a group called Third World Symphony. Ray Holman was insisting that they play his tune.  He is the first man that started you know own tune kind o’ thing.

Pan On The Move?
WG: Yes, Pan On the Move, Pan On The Run, and he got to about fifth or sixth doing his own tune. He did a tune called Super Pan, and the guys didn’t like it after he did verse and chorus they felt they did not have a good selection because of the then perceived aversion to own tune. There was a big meeting and it went on and on with different arguments for and against….  He was insisting that the band play his own tune, but never won with it; “Boogsie” was the first person to have won with own tune kind o’ thing. 

This year, there were about forty-two tunes composed for pan or Panorama; how many of those tunes—percentage wise—do you think you, Winston Gordon, could have gone with?
WG: I didn’t listen to a lot because I had to make a decision some time around November, so what was available to me—of the forty-two tunes you heard—some of them came out in December and after. I didn’t want to wait, and percentage wise it would have been pretty low. I heard about five or six and I had to make a decision including the very Smooth Sailing.  Smooth Sailing and Pan On Fire were available to me, and  De Fosto sent that to me separately.

When you tell these key members in your band what you are looking for, do you see that as influencing them in any way in terms of leaning towards a particular composition for Panorama?
WG: No. I don’t try to influence them.  What I try to do is give them a sense of direction. It’s like judge and jury—a jury is supposed to make its mind up—but with direction from the judge, before a verdict.  You give them a summary of what the law is; what the guidelines are, what do you follow, and this is how we come to a decision.

You mentioned earlier that part of the process involves the crowd reaction to the choice of tune.  Is there any correlation with that reaction from the crowd and what the judges do when they listen to your arrangement?
WG: No. No, no, no.  To my mind, it’s a crowd pleaser and I am sure that the judges are influenced by it at times.  The crowd hears music differently to judges; but they are not musically educated and they can’t explain what they hear in an arrangement. But they are adjudicators in their own way, and represent a good barometer and sounding board.

But what I mean is- and I am only pursuing this because you brought it up- after you’ve completed your performance and the crowd is going crazy, crazy, crazy over your performance, as one who has adjudicated, do you think that reaction can have any impact at all on how the judges mark your performance?
WG: It should not.

It should not. But does that happen?
WG: It happens.  And I’ll tell you, if you take a band like Desperadoes—one of the more popular bands, All Stars, Phase II, big, big crowd support even with their own tune, 99.5% of them can’t even remember the damn tune the day after Panorama—they can’t even sing a line.  But because it is their favourite tune, favourite arranger, favourite band, they go with it.  I don’t have my own tune, so I have to go with a tune that gets a lot of air play and puts me in a position to get a good reaction from the crowd.  I am not doing this with the hope that the crowd reaction will influence the judges.  It should not be.  I have judged many times and I will not allow the crowd to influence my judgment.  But, there are times when a judge is compelled to listen to the reaction of the crowd.  It hit me last year with Silver Stars.  In the semis, midway into the tune, people were clamouring for certain movements made by Silver Stars.

When you say certain movements, what do you mean?
WG: Certain parts of the tune. The crowd was clamouring, they were roaring, and they were applauding, and the tune ain’t finish yet—some dynamics they may have used in between the tune and they sounded good and rightfully so; and if this happened two or three times during the performance, the judges are inclined to follow.  They are only human beings—passion, emotion and feelings at work.

There are not many bands that have a female as the leader or captain of the band.  What is your relationship like with Marie Toby that has supported your longevity with Redemption Sounds?
WG:  I don’t know.  Sometimes in life there is a chemistry that works that cannot be explained, and I think that works for us.  There is not any particular love between us, we disagree a lot, but we agree to disagree and we rationalize our disagreement.  She would call me half past twelve in the night and say, I really think that tune playing too fast, yuhknow, and she would tell me why—as a matter of fact that is one of our challenges right now, but I’ll deal with that later on.  I have to say to her—firmly—don’t expect me to temper my music with regard to what I would like to accomplish in the arrangement. I am not going to come down to what they consider their standard that they can work with, I want them to come up to my standard, which I think is the standard that I have to go to competition with, and I am very strong on that.

While we were walking to the room even before we started the interview, you talked about the fact that this year the judging is not what you expected.  Can you talk a little bit about what that other person said to you that prompted you to make that remark?
WG: I must admit as an arranger- and I would imagine most arrangers and bandleaders who don’t make it into the position they hoped for- are very suspicious about the judges. The judges are the ones who bear the brunt of all the frustration and get the blame.

What do you think is the cause of that?
WG: I have had, umm, my thoughts with respect to the ability of the judges to properly adjudicate on the performances and I say this because I don’t think they can hear everything because there is a lot of music going on in eight minutes, especially if you have to listen to seventeen bands in the large band category.  I respect every arranger that does some work going at a metronome marking of 120 beats a minute, and sometimes I get the impression that the judges can’t hear all that music going on during a performance. They might make notes about some tenor lines not being clean; the bands might sound a little messy and they may say that, right, or some bass movements are a little bit muddy and that needs to be cleaned up and that kind o’ thing, but a lot of good things  are happening and I don’t think they hear it.  There is not another way to judge a band except to have really good people there, but I am never convinced that the judges—I don’t want to call names for this interview—but there are some judges in my mind who are not as capable as I would hope to efficiently adjudicate on all the music. I heard of one judge who made reference to a minor section in an arrangement, and there was no minor part of the arrangement.  I could use examples because I believe a lot of good music goes to waste because the judges did not spend time- or had the capacity or the ability to determine exactly what was happening. And up until the last year when Silver Stars made a breakthrough, it was generally known that six places- five minimum- were already allocated for five bands.  As a matter of fact, you could say the same thing for Panorama 2011.  Their places are already booked.  I guess because of track record and big name arrangers.

Are you talking about 2010 or 2011?
WG:  2010 and beyond their places are booked. No judge in my mind prior to this year when one of the big bands did not make it to the finals- no judge was capable or had the testicular strength and the belly to say, Band X, you ain’t make it this year. It was like that before this year too.  Silver Stars made a breakthrough, which gave a lot of bands hope.  We could make it if Silver Stars make it.  We could make it to the top, but that is only to the top. Again going back to judges, we have judges who, and this is one of the key things, who don’t have a clue about what goes into putting a steelband arrangement together.  They are called upon to sit in an arena and listen to what hits them, and it happens so fast.  I heard an adjudicator said the first time they heard the melody of a certain tune is when he sat there in the forecourt to judge.  But you can’t understand my creativity if you don’t know what the basic lines are, so you are being unfair to me.  And the administration is responsible for that.  Sit them all down in a room.  When the bands start to practise, it’s very easy within the first week or three to know which band is going with what tune. Have them submit it by email or telephone—the name of your tune, the composer and you can get that together.  And when you have your judges—your sixteen judges or whatever, single pan, medium band, large band, have a session one day, and just as I give guidelines to my people in selecting a tune, have a head judge who must not be an administrative judge—must be somebody like Orville Wright or whoever and give guidelines.  Let’s listen to tune number one.  Here is the lead sheet, play the CD so that they could follow the key that the tune was played in; they could hear the fillers and they could see the chords.

This year there were five bands from Tobago in the competition finals.  Do you think that a band from Tobago could win Panorama in either large or medium category?
WG: Yeah!  They are close to it now.  If the judges are brave enough, the band that came first, Steel Explosion, could win it.

What’s the highest you have come in the competition”
WG: Fourth, fourth in 2002 with Music For The Soul.  You know something that I would like to boast about, we have gone to the competition with as few as 92 players, but there are bands that play with more than 120.  You know that? Every year there are bands that do that!  That is a miracle because power matters in that Savannah! Power makes a difference.  This year I have 97 players and we sounded big and made it into the finals. In 2002, I had 92 and we came fourth.  Yeah, the big name bands sneak in a few more and they dodge and hide when the people coming to count. I heard one time a band went with 144! It happens—and now they start doing a closer check, but the fellars know how to hide. I told Patrick Arnold a way to beat that is to give out these wrist-bands on the night of the competition, and if a band has 120 players, give the captain 120 wrist-bands and have them put it on.  When you take it off it’s destroyed, you can’t mess with that! And before you play, put up you hand to get counted.  If you ain’t have no wrist band, (OW interjects: “yuh kyah play”) not you kyah play, get off! Walk with two Regiment soldiers or some kind o’ thing so—no wrist band? Off! You coming to help push pan on stage? Ok—off, off, off!

Let me just interrupt you for a brief minute and let you know that everything you are saying, I totally agree with. But I also want you to know that a few days ago, I met with the President of Pan Trinbago and offered some criteria that judges should meet before they are seated as Panorama adjudicators.  He was very open to what I had to say and he promised to have a symposium some time after Carnival.
WG: Orville… Orville! What’s difficult about having this done in one day before Panorama and develop the judges’ capacity and their ability?  You have a lead person- like I said an Orville Wright or whoever- to lead them through just like I did when I gather my guys together to listen to the choices we have for Panorama. And I have the perfect example of the judge telling me that the first time he heard the song was when they played it just prior to the band performing.

That’s not good.
WG: That’s not good! And this is in the absence of a music score for Music Festival.  You think a man could sit down and judge Beethoven’s 5th without having the score in front of him?  It go sound good in yuh ear.  But is that what Beethoven wanted.  So in the absence of a score in front of him, he must have heard the melody or some of the intricate parts that you expect to come out.

So along those same lines, do you think it is beneficial for the adjudicators to hear the arrangement before they get seated on a panel?  The question is based on what you said earlier that there is so much music going on in the arrangements. As you well know, if an adjudicator is seen in a panyard, they are going to be viewed as biased towards that band.
WG: Well, if executives of Pan Trinbago supervise them, that’s okay. This year the adjudicators went to the panyards to give comments, you know that?

Yes, how was that process for you as an arranger?
WG: I took it in good spirits.  As a matter of fact I know some people were pushing a head—no it could go bias and that kind o’ thing…  But I thought if a judge tells me something, I would try as best I can to follow and take some of the comments he gave me.

Did all the adjudicators speak or was it just one.
WG:  No, all three spoke and gave comments.  One judge even told me that I could create some more fire in my arrangement if I played the tune at a faster metronome marking, and I did that. It worked.

Talking about metronome marking… when you talk about a pannist learning a piece of music, a lot of it has to do with retention, but a substantial part of it has to do with positioning.  You, as an arranger, when you give a tenor player a part, are you capable of playing the part that you give to the tenor player or do you expect the tenor player to just learn the part and play it.
WG: Well I’ll tell you, I use myself as a benchmark.  If I could do it, they could do it better because it’s their pan—their instrument.  For instance, I use a double second at home to prepare my music, and all the tenor part lines I do it right there, and if I could do it on the double second, they should be able to do it on a tenor.

Regardless of positioning?
WG: Some of them have problems because they were never schooled in how to play the instrument.  They just come and learn, and one of the problems that came out very clearly is the hand positioning, not the position of the notes.

When I talked about position, I was referring to hand position, not note position.
WG: Okay. You find the more experienced ones would know how to do this on one side of the pan, and then some people who are not properly schooled have problems doing that on the whole pan.

Seven, eight or nine years ago, I believe you were the first arranger to fuse fragments of other…
WG: (Interrupts) This morning I was thinking of that and everybody is doing it now.  If you heard Valley Harps, and I heard bands using pieces of 1812 Overture- I think they used something from 1812 Overture- I remember when we played War and Skiffle Bunch played the same tune, Liam Teague used something from 1812 Overture, somebody else used Star Wars theme, and Despers also used parts of other tunes. Boy, I got so much criticism in Tobago! People were asking me if I was playing a medley, and they knocked my ass to pieces.  Some judges, including judge (name called) condemned me for doing that; you know him? When I did Rain Melody by Preacher—that is the first time I did it—and I wondered what snippets could I put in this arrangement and Stormy Weather came to my mind.  I also remember Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head by Dionne Warrick and a few more rain songs I put in the arrangement, and boy people condemned me for that!  They condemned me before that in 2002 when I did Music for the Soul.  I did Rain Melody in 2001, and I did Music For The Soul in 2002 and I came fourth.  You were there for Rain Melody in Tobago and it had real rain that night.  You were supervising in 2001 and I put all kind of music into that arrangement including Mary Had A Little Lamb, and I was the first man to do that and it has taken off now—everybody doing that now.  I go’ tell you something with more history.  When I first started to arrange for a steelband, I had 10 – 15 guys in Port of Spain, and there was a competition for steelbands on the East Dry River side; my band was located on Picadilly Street, and they had this competition at Odeon cinema and there were about 5 – 6 bands.  We beat the s*** out of everybody—everybody.  You know what? I did not come first in the results—I got disqualified, and you know why? History in the making! I used an instrument they said was not steelband and on the basis of that, you had an advantage over the other guys.  You know what instrument I used? Drum set! No steelband had ever used it before, none.  Way back in the day when they had Anna and Southern All Stars when they used to have Music Festival—nobody used trap set, drum set—Winston Gordon had it and they throw meh ass out of the competition—no results, no marks.

(I got a big chuckle out of this story, and even as I transcribe now, the manner in which Winton said this still has me chuckling.)

Now that there is a new leadership team at the helm of Pan Trinbago, do you foresee any change in how the executive interacts with people like you and other stakeholders?
WG: We need that change.  There is a lot of talk still, and Diaz hasn’t been tested, but he means well, and every president means well, but meaning well and doing well is not the same thing, and it depends on the administration and the administrators who you have surrounding and supporting you.

Well, Winston, I know that this is an extremely hectic time for you and I appreciate your taking the time to chat with me.  Good luck with your performance tomorrow night.

EDITOR’S NOTE: RBTT Redemption Sound Setters placed ninth with 264 points in the Panorama Finals (Large Band category) which was won by Silver Stars with 291 points.

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