It has been said that without Pan, there would be no Notting Hill Carnival on the road. This year more than ever, the steel pan has been on my mind. And it always gives me memories of Trinidad Carnival; waking up near the Savannah and hearing all the pan bands practicing for carnival, those lingering notes as I traveled into town. Those will always be some of my most cherished memories of carnival in Trinidad. But I have to say that pan has never really featured in my carnival experience for Notting Hill. And the Pan Clash last Sunday at the Tabernacle has me thinking about pan even more and wondering, does pan and the steel bands have a place in the modern Notting Hill Carnival?
History of Pan There is so much to the history of pan (I could write a book) but from my research, here are the absolute fundamentals. It is reported that the steel pan was invented in the 1930’s in Trinidad by many people coming together helping to develop the basics of this musical instrument as it stands today. But the idea of percussion for carnival did not begin in the 1930’s. The steel pan arose almost as a reaction to the banning of the tamboo-bamboo bands (tamboo is a corruption of the French word tambour which means drum) which were rhythmic ensembles that provided the accompaniment for the masqueraders in the annual parade by the then British government.
Out of restriction came creativity and an even more resilient and unique musical instrument. The Pan. With the diaspora, as people traveled to Britain from the West Indies, so came the knowledge and the skill of playing the steel pan. But how did steel pan come to be part of Notting Hill Carnival?
Pan and Notting Hill Carnival It has been said without the steel pan, there would be no Notting Hill Carnival as there would be no music license for the road. Parties and events at the time were all held indoors by the West Indian community in London with the level of noise under constant scrutiny. From reports, it all began with Russell Henderson and Sterling Betancourt who came with Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra for the Festival of Britain. Whilst others returned to Trinidad, Mr Betancourt remained. In 1964 social worker Rhaune Laslett invited Mr Betancourt to play at an indoor carnival event in Notting Hill (to help soothe racial tensions after the riots) and they played pan in 1964. At the end of the event the pan (then it was worn around the neck) was taken out to the streets with an impromptu parade which was herald a success. In 1965, the event was registered as an outdoor event (including the involvement of pan) and so started the beginnings of Notting Hill carnival with musical accompaniment on the route.
Pan accompanied carnival in Trinidad and it did so at Notting Hill Carnival. However it could be argued that what or rather who embedded Steel Pan into the British culture was Gerald Forsythe, the first tutor and manufacturer of pan in Britain. He started steel pan lessons in schools and had it formally registered as a musical instrument. This became part of the natural feeding grounds for the bigger bands.
Pan Today So today we have some amazing steel bands in the UK who participate in Notting Hill Carnival and I have had the honour of seeing quite a few play. Nostalgia the original ‘Pan around the neck’ band is still going strong. There is Ebony, one of the longest running steel bands, Mangrove, Metronomes, Endurance and many others. Some of these steelbands have represented at the highest platforms of pan competitions worldwide.
Does the pan and steel bands still have a place in the modern Notting Hill carnival with all the static sound systems, moving sound systems, DJs, singers? For me, very much so. As stated many times by many people, the pan is the one thing that culturally and musically differentiates West Indians from the other cultures represented at Notting Hill Carnival. That unique musical instrument that adds this unique sound and authenticity to Notting Hill Carnival. It continues to teach the skill and art of playing a musical instrument. In some of the bands, there are at least two generations of families growing up learning how to play pan. And out of the steel bands have arisen a sense of belonging, of family.
The pan clash last weekend demonstrated that pan is alive and well in London with the younger generation ready to keep and continue the tradition and skill of playing the Pan. With all the decisions/concerns/tensions regarding the future and fate of Notting Hill carnival, it would be an absolute shame if the significance and value of the steel pan is forgotten and committed to history and memory.
Many thanks to Mr Kevin Joseph.
References: BBC magazine, 2012, 24th July. A Brief History of Pan.The Steel Pan Trust www.steelband.co.uk; www.britishcaribbeanassociation.org.uk; www.caribbean-steel-drums.com. Images taken from; www.nostalgiasteelband.co.uk, Mangrove Steelband (Facebook), Tropical Entertainment, Pinterest and Ilovecarnivall Archive