Desperadoes win 2020 Panorama to become history’s leading steel band!

The ‘Panorama’ steel band competition is the annual music contest for steel bands from Trinidad and Tobago.

The first official Trinidad Panorama took place in 1963. Back then, the chairman of the Carnival Development Committee at the time, Ronald Jay Williams, gave the festival its name. He did that using the word ‘pan’ which is the name Trinidadians call their national instrument. Most commnly now, this instrument goes by the name ‘steel drum’ outside the island where musicians invented and developed it.

1963 steel band panorama flyer
First Panorama Flyer – Trinidad 1963

The Panorama competitors are large bands of a minimum 40 players and compete in Single Pan, Small Conventional, Medium Conventional and Large Conventional categories, however they are all called ‘steel bands’.

As someone who runs his own small steel band it does disappoint me when people refer to Solid Steel as my ‘steel pan band’ and I’m horrified when they refer to it as my ‘steel drum band’.

So just to set the record straight, I prefer that people undersatnd that Panorama is not just a competition. It’s more a celebration of Trinidad’s national instrument, the ‘steel pan’ or ‘pan’ and the variety of pans of different tonal ranges that the performers play.

The music they play the locals describe as Panorama music. To explain, steel bands can play any genre of music from ‘popular’ to ‘classical’- all of which Trinidadians call ‘steelband music’! However, for the Panorama contest the judges require the bands to play a certain style. They also demand each band include certain elements in the performance.

So what defines a Panorama musical piece?

Well, there is no better way to showcase this national folk instrument than have it play the national Trinidadian folk music style that long ago gained international recognition (thank you, Harry Belafonte)- the music genre we call ‘calypso’.

Each steel band plays a popular current calypso that is highly arranged into an 8 minute piece with original introductions and key variations- similar to a classical piece- but to an infectious uptempo calypso rhythm.

Songwriters we call calypsonians write these songs and most commonly perform them too. Historically they have written some songs specifically for steel bands to play. These songs were more harmonically and melodically sophisticated with a broader range of musical ideas. Thus they designed these songs to inspire any musical arranger tasked with writing a purely instrumental arrangement.

The greatest writer of Panorama-winning tunes was the calypsonian, Lord Kitchener. Even though he passed away in 2000 and only saw 36 Panorama contests in his lifetime, his tunes were the choice of 19 Panorama-winning performances and from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies, he enjoyed a run of 11 straight wins. To put his fantastic achievement in even better context, no other composer has contributed more than 4 Panorama-winning calypsoes.

Nowadays, Panorama arrangements are as complex as ever, even though the songs that are their source tend to be much simpler than Kitchener’s!

Panorama steel band in Trinidad
Panorama in Trinidad (2019)

Becoming Panorama champions

The players of each band will have spent months learning to play their parts. This was only possible with the arranger and section leaders drilling them on almost a daily basis.

Great dexterity and rhythmic timing are crucial to deliver the best possible performance. Furthermore, before the finals the instruments all receive meticulous attention from each band’s tuner.

But if the skills of the players and the tuners are important, what about the skills of the arranger?

He or she must write an arrangement that will thrill the crowd and impress the judges. The standards of playing are so high that it’s commonly the arrangement that the judges favours best that wins! Only then can a band call itself Panorama Steel Band Champion!

Not many of the arrangers and far less of the players have any formal education in writing or reading music. Therefore the arrangers largely convey their ideas via verbal instruction and demonstration.

But the players all have excellent percussion skills physically. Small wonder then that they come together in what is a fantastic community effort. An effort that produces the musical performance the arrangement demands.

And ‘community’ is so important here. There are so many players and so many practice nights that socially band members become family. This is irrespective of whether or not they are actually relatves!

A diverse international steel band contest

This community is a very diverse one too. In any Panorama steel band in Trinidad you will find that the players’ ages will range from 10 to 70. There will also be as many female pan players as there will be males and a diverse racial mix. This racial mix will comfortably reflect the make-up of the island’s population. Hence, there is involvement from people of African, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and European descent.

Apart from the local players many fine players from the USA, Japan, Britain and other parts of Europe travel over to Trinidad to play with some of the bigger better-known bands like the Renegades, Desperadoes, Silver Stars and  Phase II.

Everyone combines on Panorama Finals night so that visually and aurally the performances are stunning. Over a 1000 players in total take part with an audience of 20,000 people cheering them on.

In an island population of only 1.2 million people, those are impressive figures indeed.

Scoring well on Panorama Finals night earns the bands prize money, with the winning band getting $1,000,000TT (which translates to in excess of £10,000).

But it really is the bragging rights that bands most value from a Panorama win. In any one year there are likely to be 3 or 4 equally strong contenders for each contest.

The Large Conventional Band category is the ‘heavyweight’ title at Panorama and 2 of the most popular steel bands, Renegades and Desperadoes currently have each won the title 11 times.

Panorama steel band featuring Solid Steel musician
Panorama in Trinidad (2019)

Panorama steel band competitition critics

The Panorama contest does have its critics, however.

It is a contest and just like a sporting contest it has rules and guidelines as to ranking performances. Because of this, you can find arrangers using certain musical techniques in many contemporary Panorama arrangements. Techniques or strategies that they know will win points.

For some arrangers the artistic shackles feel sufficiently inhibiting that they don’t really care about how the judges score them. Some feel they are poorly qualified to adjudicate anyway! So they don’t care about winning Panorama- or so they claim.

I suspect that a ‘surprise’ win for those detractors would be very welcome. I also suspect their hope for Panorama to ‘evolve’ eventually into a music festival without formal judging is a pipedream.

Trinis love a contest. For most of them Panorama is ‘we ting’ meaning that it is something that they believe belongs to them culturally. They don’t want it changed in any way nor do they want it to migrate anywhere else. They don’t want people to associate Panorama or steel bands with anywhere else but Trinidad.

Many top-flight players and arrangers would like to see steel band music embrace other musical forms like jazz more willingly, but there is little appetite for this from Panorama aficionados.

This competition may take place at the Queens Park Savannah in Port Of Spain, Trinidad.  However, it has its thousands of international fans who watch it online every year before Trinidad’s pre-Lenten carnival. And so it enjoys a world stage!

This is an annual music contest the likes of which would be very unfamiliar to most people in the UK. It is, I would argue, that it’s a folk music competition which may be unparalleled internationally.