The Final Days of Trinidad

Uh-oh, school’s started again. Who knew Oberlin could produce this much snow?? As the new semester begins, part of us still dwells on the last days we shared together in Trinidad and the incredible Panorama semi-finals.

Wednesday was our last beach day, sadly (we love the beach. especially Sarah). We went to Las Cuevas, “The Caves,” a line of caverns along the beachfront. Many of our bandmates frolicked in the waves or took a nap in the comfort of their towels, knowing this would be the last relaxing day of the trip. On Thursday, many of us visited the Port of Spain-based steelband Tokyo to meet up with a pan tuner named Emily Lemmerman. Tokyo formed during WWII and so, like many of the earliest steelbands, gave itself a war-related title (other examples include “Invaders” and “Casablanca”). Emily demonstrated the process of tuning a pan, which involves all types of hammers and electronic instruments. She has to be extremely methodical, but also creative when problems arise. It’s a really complicated process that can easily go wrong–she mentioned band directors that have attempted to fix minor tuning problems, only to accidentally irreparably damage their pans.

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The week was off to a great start, but the weekend was even more splendid. We started it off right on Friday (at midnight) with a celebration for our very own Maya Zeemont’s birthday! We quickly scurried back from practice to start some birthday activities in the courtyard of the West Indies dorms. Unbeknownst to Maya, Khristian and Marvin–two dashing gentlemen from Birdsong (Marvin the manager and Khristian a longtime member)–had dropped in to celebrate the hallmark 21st birthday for Zeemont. After weeks of excursions and hikes in which OSteel members largely traveled out into Trinidad in small groups, this night allowed OSteel to celebrate all together. We danced around to the soca (modern pop calypso) icons of our generation, not yet comprehending the craziness that the next couple of days had in store. Saturday: extremely intense practicing. Sunday: PANORAMA SEMI FINALS!! WHAT??

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[Picture: Birdsong waiting to go onstage in Panorama!! Those are the racks our pans were set up in!]

Can you believe it?! Monica’s brainchild, the trip of a lifetime, a trip that didn’t seem possible, with the odds against us–how could we have possibly made it happen just as we’d hoped? A dream of playing in Panorama which had existed in OSteel for decades… it was happening!

On Sunday, we needed to be at the Birdsong panyard at 1:00pm to take our transport to Panorama. On our early scavenge for food, forgetting even in the 4th week that food stands aren’t open on Sundays, Jess, Noah J, Joseph, Sarah, and Amanda were scooped up by loving bandmates Dara & Khristian and swiftly taken to the Savannah (the giant field and track on which Panorama was taking place). Monica and Audrey were already there, having left early to check out the “medium bands,” which compete earlier in the Panorama schedule (Birdsong is a “large band”). We hung out on the festival grounds, waiting for the rest of the band to join us, listening to other groups do some last-minute rehearsing, and chowing down on “bake and sharks” (shark sandwiches). We were really excited to see the performance of Katzenjammers, the band Leon Foster Thomas arranged for, and the group we visited in Tobago.

With the moment of our performance approaching, it was time for us to roll the mobile racks holding our pans across the track and wait next to the stage. Racks are heavy and move fast! Tension was high! Joseph’s ankles were scraped by an out-of-control rack of six basses! Through an hour of pushing and stopping, rehearsing for the crowd, and pushing again, we finally made it to the stage.

Unfortunately, we had some difficulty setting up on stage (the judges docked points for the delay, which led us to miss the 10th-place qualifying spot by just 5 points). One of the huge double seconds racks was on the wrong side of the stage, which meant a complete reconfiguration of ALL the heavy racks. After about fifteen minutes of laborious rerouting, everything was set to go. There were lights!  Cameras! A jazz band blaring in the stands! People whining! People sitting! People laughing! The pressure was on!!! This was it, this was the moment… and ten minutes never went by so fast or in such a blur!  Everything sounded so great as the immersion of sound filled the semi-finals stage.

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[Monica, Sarah, Audrey, Amanda, and Emma–the crew on the topmost rack during the performance]

After the hugging, the clapping, and all the celebration that befits the culmination of a month’s worth of sweat and tears, it was just barely 7:00pm. So, the night was not over! What did we do? We joined the Panorama festivities again, this time as audience members, free to wander and listen as we wished.

Marvin, Birdsong’s manager, got us into the festival’s fête (in Trinidad, people call often call parties “fêtes”). Along with soca music blaring from every stage and at every turn, there was even an animatronic bull, which our very own Amanda Leopold took a turn riding. We walked around the Savannah again and again, in turn listening to bands warm up and watching them play on stage. We saw performance after performance that blew our minds–it was barely comprehensible that we’d played in the same event as these incredible bands. One of our favorite groups was the famous “Phase II Pan Groove,” which has won Panorama many times in recent years. Their arranger, Boogsie Sharpe, is legendary. We freaked out when we saw him, and Maya snapped a not-so-subtle, close-up flash picture.

By 11:00, we were exhausted. The entire Birdsong crew (over a hundred players) loaded into buses and traveled back to Tunapuna. OSteel went to the Birdsong panyard for a few minutes to say goodbye to the friends we’d made before heading back to our dorms. It was a bittersweet goodbye, made even more poignant by the news that we’d placed 11th (out of 15 bands) in the competition, just barely missing the spot that would allow us to continue on to finals. Still, Birdsong placed higher than it has in years! Although we didn’t make it to the next round, everyone was still really proud of the work we’d done. OSteel wouldn’t have been able to play in finals anyway–we had to hurry back for the start of classes!

Only a few hours remained between us and our 4:30am departure for the airport, so we hurriedly packed and took power naps. As we departed, we reflected on our crazy evening–nothing could have been better about our final night in a truly incomparable country.

By the wickedly talented,

Joseph :’)

Masterclasses and Preliminaries

Over the past few days, we had our first two master classes provided by Birdsong (pics will be uploaded soon!). Taught by the band’s arranger, Andy Narell, the first session focused on the development of pan during the course of the 20th century. We learned just how quickly pan design and music changed, with–among other things–the addition of more notes and the use of more complicated chord and rhythmic progressions over the course of a few years. Andy illustrated these changes by playing a few renditions on piano and recordings of steel bands, like TASPO (Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra), a 1950s era steelband that was the first to travel outside Trinidad and present it to an international audience. The band featured two of the main innovators of the pan design: Ellie Mannette, who is widely credited as the father of the modern, concave shaped pan, and Tony Williams, who created the “spiderweb” style pan (which is the most common design of the tenor pan).

Our second class featured a former “King of Calypso”, Lord Relator, as a guest teacher. He showed us the art of extempo, a lyrically improvised form of calypso, and sang several classics, including the Five Rules of Calypso (which are to have strong topics, lyrics, renditions, orchestration, and stage presentation). In between songs, he shared some personal and historical accounts of calypso. We learned how calypsonians used witty and catchy songs to occasionally make fun of each other and comment on social and political issues. We are really grateful to have learned from and witnessed live performances by some of the most influential and talented musicians in the pan and calypso worlds (especially seeing Andy play piano alongside Relator).

On Tuesday night, we performed in the preliminary round of Panorama to compete for a spot in semi-finals. in the past, all bands had to go on the same stage for preliminaries. Now, large bands like Birdsong can perform for the judges from their own panyard, saving us from having to move 200 pans and 15 racks of different sizes elsewhere. We had to setup in a more concert-like formation according to Andy’s instruction, and practiced a few sections before the judges showed up. Not wanting to take any risks, Andy counted off a slightly slower tempo than we had been practicing, but the performance went well and was followed by a dance party in the panyard. After a relaxing day at the beach, we learned that we made it to semi-finals, and can’t wait until the performance on Sunday night!

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Panorama of Birdsong players figuring out where they are supposed to be playing this night. We all face outwards from the drumset this time, instead of inwards.

Noah Sanderson and James Luttrell

Rehearsal intensifies!

Two nights ago the Birdsong crew (everyone who’s currently rehearsing with the band–about 40 new foreign players will show up on Sunday) finished learning the song “Pan Magic”! We were taking it section by section… sometimes even phrase by phrase. Andy Narell, our arranger, left the intro for last, and it felt SO good to finally put the pieces together! Even though we’ve finished the note-learning process, rehearsals from here on out are only going to get more intense. We’ll go through sections over and over until all players are completely in sync. Even though the repetition can feel tiresome sometimes, we play alongside incredibly cool people who keep rehearsal interesting! Many of our fellow players are younger than we are, and began learning pan when they were toddlers. Since almost all of us only started playing in college, that’s insane for us to comprehend.

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Last night, one player gave an inspirational talk to the entire band, encouraging players to be more disciplined and attentive in rehearsal in order to perform well in the upcoming Panorama competition. In recent years, Birdsong hasn’t been a very competitive “large band” in Panorama, failing to reach finals and receiving low scores. Panorama judging is a controversial subject: judges are widely acknowledged to be extremely biased toward traditional arrangements and famous arrangers. Some people approve of this; others don’t. Myriad factors can put bands at a disadvantage. To give Birdsong the best possible shot, we as players need to commit to the music, rehearse diligently, and hold ourselves to the highest standards.

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Besides rehearsal, we’ve also gone on lots of awesome excursions this week. For example, today Audrey & Monica visited a beautiful Hindu temple, Dattatreya, which features a 7-story high statue of Hanuman, a monkey god. We met some friendly women there who grew up in Trinidad but now live most of the year in Brooklyn. We talked to them for a while–they even told us about their ancestors, who were forcibly brought to Trinidad from India as indentured laborers. It was an in-the-flesh example of the history we’ve been learning about.

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On that note–yesterday our group engaged in some knowledge-share sessions. Earlier, we distributed among ourselves some books and articles on Trinidadian history. We read our portions and then convened yesterday to share what we’d learned. It sparked great conversations: among other things, we discussed how the U.S. military occupation of the island in WWII influenced the development and popularity of calypso music; Trinidadian LGBTQ rights and activism, both historically and presently; the origins of Carnival, and its continued use of satire and irreverent behavior to rebel against those in power. We hope to continue these conversations both here and at Oberlin!

-Monica and Audrey

A Weekend in Tobago

As some of you may know, this December we had the privilege of working with Leon Foster Thomas, a Miami-based steel pan virtuoso and arranger originally from Trinidad. He is in Tobago for the month arranging for the medium-sized steelband Katzenjammers as they prepare for Panorama. He encouraged us to visit while we were so close by in Trinidad, so this weekend we hopped on a ferry to get to the island of Tobago. We left very early Friday morning, and arrived that afternoon. LFT met us at the ferry station and took us to our lodgings. We were pleasantly surprised to realize that our accommodations were located right on a small, private beach!

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Tobago is incredibly beautiful. We were astounded by the soft sand beaches and clear water and palm trees and roosters everywhere. That afternoon we got fresh chicken roti from a little stand on the side of the road.  We chilled for a while on the beach in the later afternoon; at that point, the sun wasn’t too strong, the water was warm and calm, and the beach was completely empty except for us.

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That evening, we took a short walk down the road to the Katzenjammers panyard, where we got to sit in on one of LFT’s rehearsals.  The group sounded really tight—they’ve been rehearsing since early December, and they had just performed in a medium band competition the day before. It was really cool to watch LFT conduct a rehearsal, and we were all impressed by the level of musicality his ensemble presented. The panyard itself was unlike any of the yards we’ve seen in Trinidad.  There was a full bar, a small restaurant, huge bathrooms (with showers!), and so many pans.

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We learned a lot from observing Katzenjammers rehearsal and talking to members of the band. The group’s leadership style is pretty different from Birdsong’s–for example, Birdsong’s arranger, Andy Narell, leads its rehearsals. For Katzenjammers, a separate director runs things, while LFT makes comments along the way. We learned about typical differences between medium bands and large bands, besides just their size, as well as differences between Tobago- and Trinidad-based bands (ex. Tobago bands often use what’s called a “folk drum,” stretched with cow skin, whereas that’s uncommon in Trinidad. LFT told us about making one of these drums himself!). We picked LFT’s brain a lot, and it was really interesting to hear an arranger’s perspective on how the rehearsal process was going. He told us about the exciting experience we can expect to have in Panorama semi-finals! There are exactly two weeks to go before we have that once-in-a-lifetime adventure!

After that, it was time to party. To get the authentic Tobago nightlife experience, we decided take LFT’s recommendation and go to a fête—a large, outdoor party, common in Trinidad and Tobago in the weeks leading up to Panorama and Carnival. Fêtes usually take place in the late, late hours; LFT told us that great fêtes don’t disband until 7 AM.  We were all pretty tired from our day of traveling, but we managed to get hyped enough to stay up late enough to enjoy the fête.  We arrived at 12:30 AM, and even then, we seemed to be arriving in one of the first rushes of people.  The party was all outdoors, all on a beach with a huge stage erected on the sand.  We got to see a number of great soca performers, including Destra, a Trinidadian Soca-Queen who has written many of the songs that OSteel performs arrangements of, including Bonnie and Clyde, our legacy song!  We danced a lot, heard a lot of great music, and didn’t get home until 5 AM (read: we nah goin’ home… till the morning comes).

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We woke up around noon the next day and, wanting to see more of the beautiful island before we had to leave, decided to embark on a boat trip off the coast of Tobago.  Our guide took us out in a glass-bottomed boat, so as we travelled, we had great views of coral reefs and colorful fish.  We made a few noteworthy stops along the way.  At one point, our guide gave us all sets of goggles so that we could swim out and check out some more fish and coral up close.  We also stopped on a small, shallow-water island in the middle of the ocean.  The sand of this island was completely composed of dead coral, and our guide told us that wading through the water is said to make people feel ten years younger.

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After the boat trip, we went home and chilled.  Some of us went back to the Katzenjammers panyard to see another rehearsal, and some of us went for a night swim/stroll on the beach.  It was a cool night, the sky was clear, and we had an amazing view of all of the bright stars over the ocean.

We left Tobago early this morning, and are back in Trinidad getting some rest before rehearsal resumes this evening.  It was a short visit, but our excursion was certainly memorable.

– Amanda and Sarah

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Rainforests, Rhythm, Reflection

On Sunday some of our bandmates from Birdsong took us on a hike outside of the capital, Port of Spain, where we climbed to the top of a mountain covered by dense rainforest (pics to come!). On the way up we locked eyes with a family of monkeys who were crossing the base of the mountain through the “Bamboo Cathedral”, a mile stretch of road between massive bamboo clusters on either side, which bend radially outward creating the effect of walking under its arch. Upon reaching the summit, the remnants of a former US WWII Army base loomed out of the landscape.

The US occupied Trinidad from 1941 to 1947, building a naval warship base, which had a multitude of effects on the Trinidadian people and culture. As a group we’re striving to learn as much as we can about the history of the island, discussing readings and observing a complex ongoing history that entails colonization, slavery, resistance, and artistic/cultural innovation and renewal.

On the mountain there was a massive radio dish, along with a couple old warehouse factories made out of rusted steel, being taken over by the brush and vine. Shoes, AKA Shawn, found a poisonous centipede, about a foot and a half long and an inch wide, who nobly crawled off to find safety under the dry brush.

On the way down we were caught in a monsoon-like downpour. When we reached a nearby beach, the sun broke from the clouds rather magically, so we jumped into the waves. A few of us played some soccer with people on the beach and after a couple of hours, we departed from the coast, returning to Tunapuna to hang out, cook some food, and make it to that night’s rehearsal.

After a week of rehearsals, we’ve learned about half of our piece for the Panorama competition, Andy Narell’s arrangement of Nyol Manswell’s “Pan Magic”: smooth chords chorus transitioning to dissonant jazzy bridges, subtly evolving in form and vibe throughout the tune. Each night we learn new things about steel pan from the community members who come down to the panyard to play and pass on what they know to the younger generation and visitors like us; our percussion players James and Peter have learned a number of new variations on the brake drum, also referred to as the “iron”, a percussive instrument that is a car brake pad, and is struck by nails to maintain a constant sixteenth note rhythm throughout each song, part of the foundation of pan music.

We’ve been “swingin” in the words of Birdsong’s arranger Andy, bringing his Panorama tune to life more and more each day. We feel fortunate and grateful to be in Trinidad, to learn from the powerful music of this island.

– Peter, James, and Noah

OSteel Explores!

Since we have free time during the day, we’ve been going on lots of excursions this week! A sampling:

  • Yesterday (Friday) Noah Jones, Noah Sanderson, Audrey, and Monica hiked up a local mountain to check out the Mount St. Benedict Monastery. Bouts of pouring rain would hit us periodically and we’d pile on our raincoats and take shelter if we could find it. But shortly after the sun and heat would come back and we’d dry right away! The views along the way and at the top were breathtaking (see below). We could see Tunapuna, Port of Spain, and even the ocean. We also enjoyed some delicious local yogurt that they sell at the monastery–we got a bunch of different flavors (passion fruit, pineapple, etc) and shared them. It was SO GOOD after a hot climb (yogurt selfie below).

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  • Today (Saturday) Emma, Jeremy, James, Peter, and the Noahs took a maxi taxi to Trinidad’s Temple in the Sea an hour away. They witnessed a ceremony where the Attorney General of Trinidad was speaking!
  • Also today, Audrey and Monica explored their local neighborhood in Tunapuna, accidentally happening upon Gill’s Pan Shop, the shop from which OSteel buys its pans! We had no idea that it’s only a five minute walk from where we’re staying!! We introduced ourselves and they invited us in to chat. We picked their brains and learned a lot about their enterprise–they’re the largest steel pan exporter in the world! They said that local steelbands don’t buy from them and instead buy from private tuners, trying to get a better deal… not knowing that the private tuners actually buy from Gill’s. They showed us around the back where the tuning rooms are, and we checked out the lines of pans that’ve been pre-tuned and were waiting for the chrome finish and fine-tuning process that comes next (see below). It was magical!! Everyone we met there was really friendly and willing to share their wealth of knowledge. They were also curious to hear about us and our experience with pan in the U.S.

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After Gill’s, we continued to walk around and check out a lot of other local establishments, where we continued to meet and have great conversations with locals, who gave us advice for our travels. Most notably, we met a bar owner who talked to us for a while and told us about his experiences with Carnival. His wife loves “playing” Carnival so much (“playing” = dressing up in costume and participating in the celebrations, as opposed to acting as a spectator) that she even did it when she was 7 months pregnant!

In our week here, we’ve found people to be really kind and friendly. Everywhere we go, people we meet are more than willing to chat about Trinidad and help us out by hooking us up with other connections! As the manager of Gill’s told us today with a smile, “Everyone knows someone.”

-Audrey & Monica

Magic in the panyard!

Live from the panyard at rehearsal TONIGHT, playing outside in the rain:

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After waiting approximately 2 hours in line at customs at 1am, we safely arrived in Trinidad! The “young ladies” are living in an apartment below our arranger, Andy Narell, and his wife. Our house is entitled “Jeanze” (pronounced such that it rhymes with Beyoncé). The young men are nearby in a house owned by the University of the West Indies. While we are not yet living all together as we had hoped, housing arrangements will likely change in a little over a week.

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Thus far, we have already had four rehearsals practicing the beautiful song “Pan Magic”! Each rehearsal lasts at least three hours starting at 7pm. Andy’s typical approach to teaching involves repetition, repetition, repetition. In these past few rehearsals, we have gone over the same four sections soooooo many times! But, it’s the fastest way to memorize.

This is the panyard, inside & out:

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A lot of the pans we are using have different note arrangements compared to the OSteel’s pans… and most of them don’t even have notes written on them, which we are not used to. We are already feeling much more confident with our pan skills.

Other than rehearsal, we have been figuring out the lay of the land in Tunapuna. We have purchased produce at the local market, found a delicious Roti shop and bakery, and attempted to hail many “Maxi Taxis.”

We’ll post again as soon as we can–we don’t yet have regular wifi access!

-Maya & Sarah