Editorial: We cannot allow sweet steelpan to hit a sour note

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As an organisation, we wear our passion for steelpan on our sleeves.  We love the music and will always do our best to promote the art of steelpan-playing, especially since we believe that it is one of our greatest cultural assets, with untapped potential, in our bit of paradise.  It is why we maintain a pan show on OBSERVER Radio.  The weekday version of Sessions in Steel, hosted by pan aficionado Sam Roberts, is known as “the fastest half-hour on radio,” and it packs as much as a steelpan fan could ask for in a short 30 minutes.  For more, you can listen to the Sunday version of the show for a lengthier serenade by the sweet sound of pan.
You may think that is a shameless plug for our programming but it is not.  The truth of the matter is, Sessions in Steel, while popular with the audience, is not popular with advertisers.  And we will take that one step further and state that, culture as a whole, has a hard time finding sponsorship because there is not overt support by the public, and that leads to a perception that advertising dollars will not achieve maximum value. There are two things that we believe are wrong with those perceptions and one that is right.  It is true, there is no overt support by the public for many of the cultural offerings in our country, but that does not mean that culture is not popular or that the advertiser does not get value for money.
Talking generally about culture and our society’s seeming lack of interest in where we have come from is a broad issue that requires more space than is available for this piece, so we will stick to the issue of pan and you can extrapolate from there.  
The steelpan is an extraordinary instrument that is indigenous to the Caribbean. We are not going to jump into the debate of which island “owns” the invention or any of the other debates that surround the origins of the instrument or the promotion of the sound to the world. Whether it is Trinidad, Antigua or any other island, steelpan is ours.  It is not something that we adopted from our previous colonial masters; we invented it with skill and imagination, and it is an instrument and sound that fascinate people around the world.  It is an instrument born from the “lower class” that has become world-renowned.  Maybe it is simply because the sound of steelpan is just one that immediately evokes feelings of happiness. 
Antigua and Barbuda has a rich history of steelpan, and in our minds, we can stand toe-to-toe with anyone in the world.  But we have not nourished this fantastic cultural asset. Instead we have allowed it to wither while other countries around the world, in far-flung places like Europe and Asia, embrace and promote our music more than we do.  Some may refer to it as cultural appropriation but we will not criticise pan lovers for loving and playing pan. What we need to do is own what is ours.
Years ago, the annual Moods of Pan festival was a rising star.  It had the potential to be the greatest pan festival in the world.  We say that as fans and not music critics.  It was innovative and it attracted the best from around the region and the world; both performers and visitors.  We will venture to say that the fall event was pioneering with things like its 25-a-side, Five Alive and Gospel on Pan formats.  From our perspective, the festival was on track to become THE pan festival in the world.  We know that Trinidadians are sucking their teeth, but many of their artists who participated or witnessed the event would silently agree.  The same envy exists with Sessions in Steel.  Trinidadian pan fans would relish a daily dose of pan on radio but none exists.
We are on this rant about steelpan after hearing of the impasse  between the government, through the organisers of Carnival, and the Antigua and Barbuda Pan Association.  The organisers have labelled the Association’s demands for performing at this year’s Panorama as “unrealistic” while the Association members have threatened to boycott this year’s show if the conditions of the stage are not to their satisfaction.  We are not taking sides in this argument other than to say: Let’s get serious about pan.  It is time that we wake up and realise the value of pan as a cultural asset and all work together to promote the art form.  The panmen have valid points and the carnival organisers have valid points, but none of the issues are insurmountable with a bit of collaboration and planning.  
Years ago, the Moods of Pan festival could have been nurtured into something great.  Instead, we pursued other avenues with imported acts, when all we had to do was fertilise our home-grown crop. We embarked on things like the Romantic Rhythms which was essentially a “me too” music festival that still has question marks attached to its execution.   Today, we import lots of foreign artists for free and paid concerts to fill the cultural void we are creating.  We have yet to establish a signature music festival because we fail to acknowledge the value of what is right under our noses.  
We hope that the new minister of culture and festivals is a pan lover.  We hope that he will hear the sweet music of pan, and that its rhapsody (as King Short Shirt once called it) will open his eyes towards the potential of the steelpan.  And if he is not a pan lover, we hope that the business side of him will recognise the economic potential of steelpan, and he will persuade his colleagues that pan can contribute towards a brilliant future for Antigua and Barbuda, our culture and our economy.  Sound off if you agree.

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