With a mere 15 percent of the 147 bands registered for Panorama 2019 having the financial support of a title sponsor, guava season economic conditions are hitting the steelband movement hard and forcing a collective rethink of the future of the Steelband and the Steelpan’s path to growth.
The financial impact of reduced private sector sponsorship, grants and donations has been worsened by a $500,000 reduction in the state subvention to the competition organiser, Pan Trinbago, which responded by, among other things, cutting out the $1,500 player stipend for 2019 and 2020.
The hardest hit are the most vulnerable bands operating on the margins of the Steelband economy. Many are on life support waiting to be saved by the mobilisation fee given as a grant by Pan Trinidad. Some have not made it. Of the 60 bands originally registered for the Single Pan competition, only 47 actually made it before the judges. While some may have other reasons for not appearing, Pan Trinbago President Beverly Ramsey-Moore conceded that late payment was a factor due to the National Carnival Commission’s delayed release of funds to Pan Trinbago.
On Friday, two days before today’s Single Pan finals in Arima, Pan Trinbago finally delivered $10,000 cheques to each of the 47 bands. This year, Pan Trinbago is waiving the 10 percent deduction usually taken from the fee.
Meanwhile, conventional bands in the large, medium and small competition categories are yet to receive their $12,000 mobilisation fee. Ramsey-Moore said bands can expect their “assistance” cheques this week.
Those best placed to ride the rough tides are the superstar bands whose successes have given them the brand power to attract corporate sponsors. Almost 70 percent of bands with title sponsors are concentrated in the large band category with 15 of the 17 large bands having major corporate sponsors. The only two without a sponsor are Birdsong and Harmonites. While Harmonites was once known as Solo Harmonites, sponsored by Joseph Charles Bottling Works, producer of Solo soft drinks, Birdsong has never had a sponsor in the 46 years since it was started by a group of students at the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies. This year, even the small donations that might oil its path to the Queen’s Park Savannah are scarce.
“It has never been so acute, never reached this level,” admitted Dennis Phillip, Director of Birdsong, as he described the challenge of preparing the band with half the budget available to the sponsored competition in the large band category.
Even with costs cut to the bone, Birdsong’s Panorama expenditure is estimated at around $400,000, said Phillip. How this will be met is part of the mystery that keeps steelbands in the competition when economic logic would suggest otherwise. Birdsong, a non-profit entity, has weathered the years because it diversified its operations. It runs a small enterprise, providing cleaning and clearing services, which helps to support its core year-round project, the Birdsong Academy, which provides music literacy courses to children at no cost. Despite Phillips’ ambivalence about Panorama, Birdsong has entered the fray with the big guns. It has brought in top drawer arranger Robbie Greenidge in the hope of hooking the judges with Farmer Nappy’s “Hookin meh”. For Phillip, competing with the big bands is a case of either go big or go home: “If you can’t reach there, what is the point?” was his cryptic response.
The situation gets positively dire in the medium and small band categories where 92 percent of bands have no title sponsor. They are the ones worst hit by the dwindling financial support for art, culture and community projects across the board. Of the 83 medium and smalls bands registered for Panorama, 76 have no title sponsor, leaving them to cut and contrive in order to survive.
Vitally, these smaller bands constitute an important feeder system through which talented pan players migrate from communities all over the country in search of opportunities with the big bands on Panorama’s biggest stage.
The disappearance of the $1,500 player stipend has intensified the increasingly challenging problem of player availability. With the preliminary round of judging due to start on Tuesday, several bands still have no idea of the number of players they can count on to turn up for the crucial first round. The problem of itinerant players hustling fees from band to band is anathema to bandleaders who grew up in the age of steelband rivalry based on band loyalty, but all accept it as a signal for urgent change. “We are in an existential crisis,” was how Dennis Phillip put it, bemoaning the “caricature” that the steelband movement has become.
Although they might not all describe it in such strong terms, the future of Trinidad and Tobago steelbands, as a movement and as industry, is a preoccupation played out globally on When Steel Talks, an online platform to which pan lovers the world over gravitate.
Few are as intimately familiar with the world of pan lovers as Nestor Sullivan, manager of the steelband, Pamberi, which was launched in San Juan just over 38 years ago. While players are being drilled in Andre White’s arrangement of Blaxx’s ‘Gyal Owner’, Sullivan and his team are pounding pavements and knocking on doors, hoping to drum up a few dollars to keep Pamberi’s Panorama hopes alive. But more than most, Sullivan understands the imperative for change. Pamberi’s survival as an unsponsored band for over almost four decades is largely due to its exploration of global horizons, mainly in Europe and Japan, and its willingness to experiment with the music familiar to its overseas audiences.
Along the way Sullivan has seen enough to be convinced of the many pathways for pan beyond Panorama, especially in education. “In total, the United States has about one thousand steelbands,” he said, arguing the case for linking training and elements of the steelpan industry, such as pan manufacturing and tuning, to the global market.
With so many steelbands caught in a financial vice, and the very sustainability of steelbands under serious question, Sullivan and other leaders within the steelband community are convinced that the current financial crisis squeezing the movement could be a final opportunity for change.