Trinidad Steelpan in the Global Culture Industry: Navigating Possibilities and Conflicts w/ Janine Tiffe and Mia Gormandy-Benjamin


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A Story Club: Global Politics S2 E11
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The steel pan has a crucial place in the culture and history of Trinidad that the outside world may find difficult to understand.

In the rest of world, there is an image of cruise ships, hotels, happy-go-lucky islanders in hawaiian shirts and straw hats, tied to novelty songs and the tourist industry.

In truth, the steel pan was created by warring street gangs, in the slums of Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. To this day, the names of the bands are "Desperadoes", "Renegades", "Invaders" reflecting the territorial battles. I think there are parallels with the early break-dancing battles in New York City in the 1970s and 1980s.

The music played on Steel Pans in Trinidad, too, is not novelty, tourist music. In fact, the island does not have a properly developed tourism sector at all. There are massive bands of over a hundred persons playing on a range of pans, from tenor, double tenors, bass, double guitars, cello pans, and more, with a very sizeable "Engine Room" of various percussion instruments, and a full drum kit.

These huge bands compete in islandwide competitions, and play serious music from popular local compositions to complex European symphonies, all to huge, enthusiastic, very knowledgeable audiences.

It should be obvious that there has been much lost in translation, often deliberately disorted, as steel pan has spread across the world.

Trinidadians have long dreamt of making the steel pan a serious international instrument, perhaps in a similar way that reggae was turned from a novelty music in the 1960s to a serious genre in the 1970s. There is also a whole economy which supports and is supported by the steelpan cultural complex which has implications for indigenous and global economic development in Trinidad and Tobago.

Some inroads have been made, but there remain challenges. Today, I have as my guests Dr. Mia Gormandy-Benjamin from Trinidad and Tobago and Dr. Janine Tiffe from the USA to reflect on these issues and more.

Dr. Janine Tiffe is Assistant Professor of ethnomusicology at the Kent State University School of Music in Ohio where she directs the African Ensemble and Steel Band. She has performed with Women in Steel and Invaders Steel Orchestra; as a member of Azaguno, she performed for the 2002 FIFA World Cup ceremonies in Seoul, Korea.

Mia Gormandy-Benjamin is an Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Trinidad and Tobago and a steel pan performer and commentator. Her doctoral research focused on the history and performance practices of steelpan musicians in Japan. Dr. Gormandy-Benjamin has performed in several different countries around the world including Austria, Australia, England, Japan, the United States, Canada, and countries of the Caribbean. She has also performed with many world-renowned artists such as 11-time Grammy award winner Paquito D’Rivera. She is the co-founder of the global steelpan project called the Virtual Steelband where 22 countries with over 300 pannists are registered with the organization. She later worked on the “Pan in Unity” project as a response to the 2020 pandemic, which featured 691 musicians from 23 countries.