Silver Stars Steel Orchestra
19 March 2004 | Trinidad, West Indies
It was barely dusk. A nearly full moon was rising behind the large breadfruit tree in the Silver Stars' pan yard. A pair of green-backed parrots landed on the upper branches of the tree, squawking noisily, as if to announce themselves. And about 90 pannists played their various steel drums in perfect time and beautiful harmony.
The tune was "Pure Party", the lively Calypso tune that Silver Stars would play in the annual Panorama competition, the "Olympics" of Trinidad's steel band competitions. We played the tune again and again. Out of the 58 bands in our category, we had come in 1st in the Semi-Finals. After 2 months of practice, and with only 3 days of left before the Finals, the mood was serious, intense, and wonderfully excited. And I was just thrilled to be a part of it.
You cannot imagine the sweet, sweet music the Trinis make from these old, discarded oil drums. If you closed your eyes, you could distinctly hear each of the instruments of a symphony orchestra being played. The melody is played on the "tenor pan". The "guitar pan" is a set of 3 drums, and chords are "strummed" like on a regular guitar. The "cello pan" is a set of 4 drums, that when played sounds just like a cello. I was playing the "tenor bass", a set of 4 drums with 5 notes each, playing the "counter melody" part of the tune.
On the night of the Panorama Finals, the Silver Stars Steel Orchestra, and 15 other finalist bands, played in front of an enthusiastic crowd of about 15 thousand people. The 6 hour long competition was broadcast worldwide on satellite TV. Pannists from all over the world came to Trinidad to experience the ultimate in steel band competitions. For me, playing Panorama gave me the opportunity to become immersed in a wonderful part of the culture of Trinidad. And it was an absolutely incredible experience. An experience made all the sweeter because WE WON!!!!!
Ever since we first visited Trinidad, Rick and I have been fascinated by the steel band orchestras here. Silver Stars has always been our favorite band, differentiated by their unique musical arrangements and upbeat tunes. After years of listening to their music, it was wonderful to be in it, to be part of it. I was the only beginner in the band, though, and it was a real challenge to learn how to play the tenor bass, and to learn the intensely complex 8 minute tune that had been arranged specifically for the Panorama competition.
Panorama is held in the Queen's Park Savannah, on a huge outdoor stage. Each band "pushes" their 200 or so steel drums on large metal racks, down a long "track" leading toward the stage. All of the competing bands are lined up on the track in order of their appearance on the stage. Thousands of fans come to the track to hear the bands practice and warm up before performing. We would play the tune once or twice, with people crowded so close around us, with cameras, kids, and an incredibly intense level of excitement. We could hear the other bands on the track playing their tunes as well. Then we would push the whole ensemble a ways down the track, closer to the stage, and play again. After 4 or 5 hours of playing on the track to this excited, impromptu crowd, we were high on adrenaline by the time we reached the stage. For me, this was one of the most wonderful parts of the whole experience.
The Panorama Finals are held on the Saturday night before Carnival. The Trinidad Carnival is the best in the world, though not well marketed to the world like the Rio Carnival. The Carnival season really starts after New Year's, with competitions for the best musical artistes in Calypso, Soca, Pan Kaiso, Chutney, Limbo and Extempo, as well as competitions for the King and Queen of Carnival costumes, and for the best kid's costumes. The King and Queen costumes were huge, and elaborately decorated. Rick went out with friends nearly every night, enjoying many of the competitions, and especially loved the clever and entertaining Extempo singers, who make up impromptu Calypso-style songs about topics offered up by the audience.
Carnival starts at 2 am Monday morning, and for 2 full days Trinidad explodes in unbridled joy as thousands of "masqueraders" parade down every street in beautiful costumes. Feathers, beads, and sequins adorn the flamboyant headdresses and colorful costumes. The streets are congested with steel bands and "sound trucks" playing the latest Carnival Soca tunes. It was an absolutely incredible experience, one to be remembered forever.
We both feel fortunate to have been able to experience this most wonderful part of Trinidad's culture. But after 4 months in Trinidad, we're ready to move on. With an eye on the weather, we'll prepare to sail north to the Grenadines, where we'll welcome quiet days of swimming, snorkeling, and reading. It may take a while for us to fully recover from the intense energy of Panorama and Carnival!