Sheer Pandemonium

3 minute read
Michelle Patient

Locals in Trinidad and Tobago call it “the big lime”—Caribbean slang for a serious shindig. But the national semifinals of Panorama, an annual music festival that this year takes place on Feb. 12, serve up something headier than fruit juice. The exuberant competition pits around 30 professional steel bands of 60 to 120 members against each other in front of a crowd of 15,000. Fans sing, cheer their favorite bands, and catch up with friends and neighbors while picnicking on pelau (a rice and peas mixture), macaroni pie, souse (a spicy soup made from either pigs’ or chickens’ feet), jerk chicken and plenty of local beer and rum drinks.

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The musicians—who all play their instruments by ear—have eight minutes to impress the eight judges seated in the main Grand Stand. The “engine room,” or rhythm section of each steel band, includes at least one conventional drum kit, tumba drums, maracas and “irons”—scrapped car-brake drums hit with metal rods. The engine room sets the tempo, the panmen follow, thumping and reverberating, and the North Stand, a rather rickety structure of standing-room-only bleachers erected especially for the competition, explodes with energy—the wooden planks bow precariously as they’re rhythmically pounded in unison by the feet of thousands of people, jumping and singing in the sweltering heat.

The islands of Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of calypso, take their steel bands, or “pan,” very seriously. The first pans, or steel drums, were fashioned out of biscuit tins and garbage-can lids by street musicians in the 1930s. They were later made of steel 55-gallon oil drums left behind by the U.S. military during World War II. Pan evolved into Trinidad’s musical pride and signature sound after the first Panorama competition was held in 1963. The Panorama finals competition is for serious calypso purists, and takes place on the Queen’s Park Savannah in the capital, Port of Spain, on the Saturday night prior to Carnival Monday (it’s Feb. 27 this year). But the semifinals are where the real action is.

“The semifinals are great food, great drinks, great company—paradise on earth. If the world only knew—we islanders have kept it a secret,” laughs Stephen Choo Quan, 32, an expat Trini living in the U.S., who tries to get home every year to attend. Anthony McQuilkin, 63, has played the bass pan in Desperadoes for over 40 years. Desperadoes is a 120-member steel band that was formed in the 1940s, and has won Panorama 10 times since the competition’s inception. “The musical arrangements are very intricate,” he says. “Every player has been practicing this tune for up to eight weeks. Just to get on that stage to perform it to all those people, you’re totally into the music and transported.” It’s definitely one of the most ecstatic—and sweatiest—musical gigs I’ve ever been to. The competition kicks off at 11 a.m. and lasts until sometime around midnight. tel: (1-868) 623-4486/6831; www.

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