Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Cooking Tips w/ Ms. Yvonne, no. 3

Fried Chicken. Skin, de-bone, and thoroughly wash your chicken in a mixture of water and lime juice. Marinate it in green seasoning (the recipe for green seasoning can be found here, the first cooking tip from Ms. Yvonne on this blog). Let it sit for a few hours.

Next, batter your chicken in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, and anything else you like for seasoning (Ms. Yvonne favors flaked red pepper). Fry in light oil. Serve with salad, pelau, and an ice cold glass of Mauby. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The day after

Getting back to San Fernando entailed the same process of packing, loading, and unloading, all done in the early hours of Monday morning following the announcement of Semi-Finals results in the Savannah. It's great to be home. Monday night we unpacked and restaged all of the racks in our own panyard. Then we had a meeting to discuss what went well (and didn't) in terms of logistics.

The music meeting won't happen until after we receive and digest the judges' commentary on Tuesday evening.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Panorama Semi-Finals

We bussed back up to Port of Spain around 2pm on Sunday and arrived at our home-away-from-home, a parking lot near the Savannah, a little before 4pm. We hung the pans on racks (you can't leave them out in the sun during the day - it wreaks havoc on the tuning) and started individually running through our warm-ups, favorite licks, and trouble spots.

There was time to get a few pictures with friends in our Semi-Finals uniforms, though. Annie, Emily, and Natalie, do you like these jerseys? I hope so. There's one in my suitcase for each of you . . .

Pictured above is me with my double tenor colleague, Kimiko. Below is me with G-pan double second player Maria Alexander.

We ran the tune a few times, touching a few spots, and then we hit the road, pushing and pulling our racks to the Savannah.

Once we reached the Savannah we regrouped, more or less, and ran the tune in-between moving the racks a few feet every couple of minutes. I've heard people say that this may be the coolest part of Panorama; you're up close and personal with the people, playing your music for thousands. That's a romantic notion. There are thousands of people in view, but probably only a few hundred are actually listening to your band. The others are listening to other bands (or just passing through, talking, buying concessions, etc.).

Though I was busy pushing my rack and playing my pan, I managed to snap a couple of pictures. The first is a panorama shot of the Panorama track (that joke never gets old). It really gives a sense of how many people are around the band. However, it's very dark. The second has better lighting, but it is a more intimate shot. Between the two you get a fair idea of music and social life on the track . . .

The grand spectacle, of course, comes when you reach the Savannah stage . . .

And from this point on I have no pictures to share until we're done playing. We had moments to stage our racks and over 100 players to situate. Then we played our hearts out for eight minutes. The event was not televised. However, audio recordings (no mixing or editing) can be found here.

The track on the other side of the stage is much more intimate, mostly players and Panorama support staff.

From here, some bands load up immediately and head straight for home. But most folks are just a few blocks from their panyards. Since traveling from the south is such an ordeal, we decided to wait until the scores were announced.

17 large bands made it through Preliminaries, but only the top 10 from Semi-Finals go on to the Finals . . . We tied for seventh with Renegades and Fonclaire, but the rankings were very close and we're only nine points from the 1st position (out of 300 possible). We have a plan. Look for us to advance on Finals night . . .

For tonight, though, it was time to celebrate and congratulate. Here's a photo of me with Skiffle captain and CEO Junia Regrello. Junia and I have been friends for years and we both worked hard for Skiffle on this; it was nice to share a moment. I am very grateful he invited me down to be a part of this.

Next, I headed for my partner in crime, Cedel Hinds.

Cedel and I are the background and frontline coordinators, respectively, responsible for distributing the music as well as ensuring pitch, rhythm, articulation, phrasing, and dynamics are accurate. And we covered for each other often. When I was free I taught anyone who needed music and so did Cedel. By Prelims we had both taught music to every section of the orchestra. Since most of the distribution required aural/oral rote transmission, this means we had to know every instrument part for the entire piece. It was quite an undertaking.

To be fair, the section leaders and strong members within each section did a lot of distribution work as well. Many hands, hearts, and minds distributed music and continually ensure it stays accurate, so I'm not suggesting Skiffle's success is due to our efforts alone, but Cedel and I invested a lot into getting the job done and it's nice to get the win to show for our efforts.

There was much celebrating and congratulating on the players' track and on the bus ride back to San Fernando. My favorite though is perhaps the victory dance of joy Jordan and I performed to the delight of onlookers.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Behind the scenes (Semi-Finals), pt. 2

So once everything was packed up (more or less), we went home. The next morning the trucks came - 14 big rigs with 48" trailers and a forklift - to load everything.  [Photo courtesy of Cedel Hinds.]

We hit the highway to travel from San Fernando (southwestern Trinidad) all the way to Port of Spain (in the north) - convoy style replete, with police escort. It was impressive.

Eventually we arrived at our destination and began unloading.

Our sponsor, Junior Sammy, is a conglomerate corporation that specializes in construction services. They have cranes, forklifts, and trucks, as well as personnel that are highly qualified to operate heavy equipment and do everything safely and efficiently. When you have to move a steel orchestra cross-country these assets really come in handy. There was no damage. None. Junior Sammy Operations Coordinator Marlon Bharath ran a tight ship. To top it all off, the family that owns Junior Sammy came out to ensure everything was done to the highest standard. These folks know their stuff and do things right. They are a real class act.

I digress. Next we assembled and organized the racks.

The rest of the band arrived via bus shortly thereafter. After we hung the pans we rehearsed until after 2am. Sorry, there are no pictures or videos of the rehearsal. I was busy playing. There was a little stretch, though, when the rhythm section was working out a part without the pans. You can't really hear the low-end drums well, but the high-end stuff is audible. Check out the bamboo man and the guy playing maracas on the far right. They are really tearing it up.

The groove was sweet and one of the youngest members of the band, Jordan, started dancing. The kid has moves. And he is adorable. Below I've posted a few seconds of Jordan dancing (recorded and posted with his Dad's permission).

After rehearsal we hopped on the busses and headed back to San Fernando. It's almost 6am now. I'm going to bed. I've got to play in Panorama Semi-Finals later today. Wish us luck.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Behind the scenes

After practice we packed about half of the band. I just arrived back to my room (it's after 3am here; the posting time given by Blogger is wonky). Tomorrow around 7am we'll pack the rest of our pans and load them, along with the pan racks, onto a truck bound for the capital, Port of Spain. When everything arrives we'll do a damage assessment (which pans are now out of tune, did the vibration from the trip break any rack welds, what did we leave in the panyard, etc.) and start putting everything together. The band will travel by bus in the late afternoon. Hopefully, by 7 or 8pm we will be having a full rehearsal on the Savannah track in Port of Spain (just a short distance from where Panorama is held). At or 1 or 2am rehearsal will end and the players will get on a bus heading back to San Fernando (arriving a little after 3am). A gear guard will keep a night vigil over our equipment. In the early afternoon on Sunday, we'll head back to Port of Spain. The large bands are "supposed" to start at 7pm. We will be the 13th large band of the evening. With any luck we will perform by 11pm. We'll see. Afterward we'll pack everything up and head back for San Fernando. The Semi-Final results should be announced before we leave the Savannah. Only the top 10 go on to the Panorama Finals on February 9th.

I'm told it can be a long, quite ride home if we don't make it . . . wish us luck. 

Tamboo Bamboo, follow-up

"So, Jeff, in your first post on tamboo bamboo you mentioned that these ensembles began incorporating found percussion instruments (biscuit tins, paint cans, etc.) because metal was more durable. What do you mean?"

Good question. When you pound bamboo on pavement and hit it a lot with a stick this tends to happen:

From the top

What do the top of the canopies of the pan racks look like when they're assembled for Panorama? Like this:

Skiffle has a covered deck on top of the pan theater. I took this photo from there.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tamboo Bamboo

A late 19th-century peace preservation ordinance in Trinidad banned drumming in an attempt to keep Afro-Trinidadians from congregating, creating and affirming bonds, and possibly organizing resistence to colonial authority. One response to this was tamboo bamboo - a musical practice in which Afro-Trinidadians incorporated many aspects of musical style from drumming (especially rhythm and texture) into the playing of bamboo stomping tubes (this followed the letter, if not the spirit of the law - very clever). By the early-mid 20th-century bamboo ensembles began incorporating metallic found percussion like biscuit tins, paint cans, and the like because these metal instruments were more durable and often louder. The steel pan ultimately evolved from this practice.

The other night, a tamboo bamboo group dropped by the panyard to visit. After rehearsal we were treated to an impromptu performance. I grabbed several minutes of video. Below is a brief excerpt. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Profile: Cedel Hinds

Cedel is a 23-year old music major at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine, Trinidad. He has studied music for much of his life and has been playing pan for seven years. He plays double tenor most of the time (pictured), but can play all of the instruments in the steel pan family. This year Cedel has been appointed the back line coordinator (basses, tenor basses, cellos, and guitars) for Skiffle. He is responsible for distributing music as well as ensuring that pitch, rhythm, articulation, and phrasing remain accurate throughout the Panorama season. Cedel is so keen and competent that he has become one of arranger Ray Holman's "go-to-guys" during rehearsal. If Ray hears a passage that needs attention he calls for Cedel who promptly fixes the problem. It's a lot of responsibility and a great honor for a 23-year old. Cedel handles everything -- the work, the prestige, the pressure -- with grace and technical aplomb. I wouldn't be surprised if he develops into a formidable arranger or bandleader himself someday. When I asked Cedel if he had anything he wanted to communicate to students at Sweet Briar, he said, "What are you waiting for? Come down now" (he is speaking to the tentative idea of Sweet Briar offering a short study abroad program in southern Trinidad learning about music and culture with Skiffle Steel Orchestra. Many of the young people in the group are curious and excited to meet and interact with students from Sweet Briar).

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cooking Tips w/ Ms. Yvonne, no. 2

Salt Fish and Provisions. This is a signature Trini dish, one of the local classics – Heavily salted cod with peppers and onions over a bed of what is locally known as “provisions” (mostly an assortment of tubers; like potatoes). The provisions pictured here are green fig (they look like little bananas), eddo, dasheen (the blue stuff), cassava, yam, and sweet potato.

Soak the cod in a mixture of lime juice and water to clean the fish, dilute the saltiness, and get rid of the “fresh fishy” taste and smell. Fry the fish in a little oil (Yvonne used olive oil, I think) and then shred it in the pan. Add your peppers and onions, and mix together (you may sauté the veggies separately if you like). Clean and skin your provisions. Boil them. Chop them. Put them on a plate and put your salt fish over the top.

We're famous

During Panorama season the national papers include photos and little vignettes of steel orchestras from around the country. Recently Ayanna Reyes (double tenor section leader) and I were featured. We were looking at a section of the score on my iPod. Ray Holman now has an associate who transcribes new sections of music shortly after he creates them. The primary distribution method is still aural/oral, but the use of five-line staff notation for archival purposes is a novel and useful tool for review (and arbitration; it's funny how parts evolve over time without anyone realizing that it's happening).

The article around the picture is not about us, though it is tangentially related. Every carnival is accompanied by warnings that this aspect or that aspect of carnival is in danger of dying off and should be renewed through governmental support and conscientious citizenship in order to protect Trinidad's cultural heritage. The current article, available online here, suggests that pan in southern Trinidad is a dying art because of the dearth of large bands from South that will be competing in the Panorama preliminaries this year. Maybe. But there has also been a local trend toward more small (under 50 players) and medium-sized bands (between 50 and 80 players, usually). These groups don't get the media attention and prize money that larger bands get, but they are often strongly tied to specific neighborhoods, and since there are more of them, more folks get opportunities to exercise creative control. In some ways, the larger number of smaller bands is diversifying and enriching the art and local communities.

I guess it's a matter of perspective . . .

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Tassa Drumming

The Panorama composition is an 8-minute theme and variations based on a carnival song. Ours, The Dream, tells a story about a man of Indian decent from the south of Trinidad who goes to Port of Spain (the capital), gets lost on the way home, and ends up in a panyard. As luck would have it, the man is a musician and happened to bring a dholak (a drum used in many festive contexts by Trinidadians of Indian descent). He starts jamming with the steelband. It's great, everybody loves it, and friendships are formed through shared musical experience. In bringing this story to life, we've decided to incorporate some Indian musical elements and instruments.

The photo below features a tassa drum (on left; played by Lenny Kumar) and the jhan (a small pair of cymbals; on right).

This is a dhol. It's slightly larger than a dholak, but we needed the "umph" to cut through the steelband.

I took some video of the tassa group playing with us, but the audio overwhelmed my iPod's mic. Instead, here's some video of the tassa group playing alone. Enjoy.

Unsung Heroes, pt. 2

Many folks work behind the scenes to make sure Skiffle's Panorama appearances are successful. In addition to preparing pans and pan racks, there is paperwork. The band must fill out enrollment forms for each stage of the competition, every player must be registered with PanTrinbago (the government body that oversees official pan activities in Trinidad), and reports to the carnival commission must be filed. Transportation, food, lodging, tuning, uniforms, and a host of other things have to be arranged, as well.

Pictured here, band members Lesley Ann Samuel (double guitar) and Trudy Murray (G-pan extended range 6-bass) go over registration forms to make sure they are filled out properly. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Profile: Kyra Huntley

Kyra is a 20-year old theater arts major at the University of the West Indies in St. Augustine. She has played pan for six years, all of them with Skiffle. Her primary instrument is the G-pan extended range cello (pictured), but she also plays tenor bass and double guitar. Kyra would like the ladies at Sweet Briar to know that, "Trinidad's carnival is the best carnival in the world and Panorama is the best part of carnival. You must come down."

Friday, January 18, 2013

There is no secret recipe

So, how do steel orchestras in Trinidad play all of those fast, intricate rhythms with such incredible ensemble precision? Is it magic? Does it just come naturally to them? Nope. Well, I guess sort of, if by naturally you mean hours and hours and years and years of dedicated, painstakingly methodical practice. The video clip below features about 40 seconds of a 20-something minute rehearsal of 4-bars of double guitar music.

Getting about a dozen 13 to 37-year old people to focus on 4-bars for 20-something minutes after midnight during a 6+ hour straight rehearsal? That's the magic, folks.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Unsung heroes

Panorama is a grand spectacle - the music, the savannah stage, the crowds, the drama, the excitement. But before the lights and glory, pans and pan racks must be built, tuned, cleaned, and painted.

Pictured here is Prince (the guy with the torch) and colleagues building a new rack to carry tenor pans.

Roger is cleaning the rust from this set of G-pan basses, preparing them for painting.

Both Roger and Prince do a lot of work around the panyard to make sure the band is ready for Panorama. It's not glamorous work, but Skiffle couldn't function without the efforts of guys like Prince and Roger. Many thanks, gentlemen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Cooking Tips with Ms. Yvonne

Ms. Yvonne cooks and cleans for the family that owns the guesthouse at which I’m staying. I walk over and eat at least two meals a day with them because it is much cheaper and convenient than going to restaurants. And, more importantly, Ms. Yvonne’s food is amazing. She has agreed to share some cooking tips with us, so I hope to feature them from time to time to broaden the scope of this blog.

And now for the first tip . . .

Green seasoning. It goes great with meat, especially fish. Use it as a rub, marinade, or season to taste at the table. It is made with relatively equal parts sive (a local chive, you can substitute green onion if unavailable), ginger, garlic, sweet pepper, parsley, and celery. Some people use a little more of this or that depending on preference. Do what tastes good to you. Throw it all in the blender. Store in the refrigerator. Enjoy.

Profile: Brandon Babb

Brandon is a 29 year-old theater technician at the National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA). He helps design and build sets for theatrical productions. Occasionally he works with lighting. Brandon has been playing pan for 17 years, all of them with Skiffle. At this point he can play every instrument in the orchestra, but currently plays a G-Pan extended range double second (pictured). When I asked Brandon if he had anything to share with the Sweet Briar community, any words of wisdom, he said, “Music is life. Everything you need to know in order to be – passion, commitment, discipline, work ethic, creativity, teamwork – you will learn by faithfully practicing music.”   

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


In addition to great food, there are a number of delicious drinks here. One of my current favorites is Mauby.

Mauby has a sweet taste at first, but ends with a slightly bitter aftertaste. It is made by brewing the bark of indigenous colubrina trees.

Brew, let it sit for a few days, sweeten to taste, chill, and voila. Today it is sold as a non-acoholic beverage alongside juices and sodas, but years ago it was believed that Mauby should be consumed in the summer months to keep one cool and healthy throughout the season (I'm told it is much darker and more bitter when home-brewed for that purpose).

Over the rainbow

It's unusual for us to get rain in southern Trinidad during the dry season. And we've been getting quite a bit lately. It's not great for outdoor rehearsals (we have canopies that keep us mostly dry, but they're not completely effective at keeping one dry when the rain blows sideways). One upside is the number of beautiful rainbows that appear after the storms. This one seems to be ending right at the roof of Skiffle's pan theatre.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Start'em young

What do you do when you need to practice, but you have no one to watch your young child? Bring them to the panyard and give them a set of mallets.

Many pannists begin playing as soon as they're large enough to reach the pan. The child pictured, Tariq (photo taken and posted here with Mom's permission), isn't yet accomplished enough to play in Panorama, but this is how you get there.

Oh, yeah, for those who play bass pans, notice there are five notes in each drum instead of three. This set goes lower and higher than the basses commonly found in the U.S. They're part of a new family of pans in Trinidad called G-Pans that incorporate government sponsored R&D. They use larger diameter barrels, thicker steel, and a special (patented) note formation process. They sound amazing.

[Chris and Bart, this is what you would have been playing (or maybe one of the traditional nine-basses pictured in the background of this photo) had you been able to make it down.]

More food

Well, I shared a picture of lunch. I guess I could share a picture of my breakfast as well (I really like the food here). On most days I have fruit.

Pictured here are grapes, a banana, mango slices, and what is locally known as paw-paw (it's sort of like watermelon).

And now a word about our sponsor

Arrangers, tuners, pans, pan racks and stands, mallets, uniforms, transportation, and more -- running a large steel orchestra like Skiffle is expensive. It is possible through the generous support of our sponsor, Junior Sammy Group, a Trinidadian construction company.

Every large band has a sponsor that helps cover operating costs. We're lucky to be teamed up with Junior Sammy Group; they have really taken care to ensure we have everything we need to be successful.

Bertrand Kellman

Pan Trivia. Did you know that the famous pan maker/tuner Bertrand Kellman lives in Mirabella, the town just north of San Ferndado? Well, he does.

Mr. Kellman is one of Skiffle's tuners and pan makers (he does the low and mid-range pans, H. Guppy does the frontline). When I shared my plans to establish a steel orchestra at Sweet Briar with Junia Regrello, Skiffle's co-founder and current leader, he introduced me to Kellman and offered to manage the acquisition of our pans. We're still in the planning and dreaming phase at Sweet Briar, but when our time comes, we'll be equipped with some of the finest instruments available (and at a very reasonable price).

Pan in Japan comes to Trinidad

This is Kimiko, a double tenor pannist. She plays in a group in Japan called Pan Note Magic ( She and a couple of other members from her group have come to Trinidad to play with Skiffle during Panorama.

Our double tenor section has 8 players and we're quite cosmopolitan. We hail from Japan, southern Trinidad (two people), eastern Trinidad, northern Trinidad, south-western Trinidad, the U.S. (me), and Grenada, respectively.

The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more

Jonas Salk, the inventor of the vaccine to prevent polio, once said, "The reward for work well done is the opportunity to do more" (or something like that). Over the last few days I've had the opportunity to teach a number of pannists their music for Panorama. I've now been officially assigned as the frontline coordinator (tenors, double tenors, double seconds). My job is to make sure that everyone knows their music and that we execute it properly (correct pitch, rhythm, phrasing, etc.).

It's not an opportunity I expected would be awarded to me. I figured I would be lucky to make the frontline, let alone help the leadership team prepare it for Panorama. It's great experience in terms of preparing me to teach pan at Sweet Briar in a way that is well informed by pedagogical practice in Trinidad. We don't have a steel orchestra at Sweet Briar yet, but I hope that sometime soon we will.  

It's official . . .

Up to this point, whenever someone interested in playing double tenor came to the panyard they could play on any instrument they found. This set, made by a famous tuner named Guppy, has now been designated for my exclusive use.

Why is this cool? Two reasons, really: 1) I'm now a bona fide member of Skiffle's frontline; 2) As every pan is handmade, the exact placement of notes is a little different in each one. Muscle memory is more helpful in aiding accuracy when the notes are always in the same place.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Liming after rehearsal

After rehearsal people stay in the panyard to socialize. Sometimes for hours.

Ray Holman

"So, Jeff, have you ever hung out with legendary arranger Ray Holman at a panyard in southern Trinidad after a rain soaked Panorama rehearsal?" 

Why, yes. In fact I have.