Rebuilding pan’s mythology

A review of the film Pan, Our Music Odyssey
Originally published in the Trinidad Guardian on November 21, 2014

Renaldo Frederick takes a time-out in the T&T countryside to contemplate the future of pan.

There’s a moment right in the middle of Pan, the new film about the national instrument written by Kim Johnson and directed by Jerome Guiot that summarises all the hopes that the creative team have for their subject.

The film’s lead, Renaldo Frederick, playing Goldteeth, is walking across an impossibly beautiful forest clearing, lush green as far as the eye can see, his raw, unfinished instrument in a burlap sack slung over his back.

Frederick’s back is to us. He is walking away from a troubled past to a verdant future rich with potential. His instrument, the source of all his hopes, just a weighty promise in its rough container, a burden, by every possible definition of the word.

But the actor’s walk is confident and sure as he puts one foot in front of the other heading into an unknown future.
It would be wonderful if we could consider this an attractive artifact out of the past of the steelband, but it’s also a startling reminder that more than a century after the instrument’s invention, it is still to find itself on the other side of that field, properly positioned against and among all the musical instruments of the world.

At least part of the reason for that is abundantly on show in the film, which chronicles both a fictional condensation of the many trials and challenges that the steelpan had on its path to becoming a mainstream musical instrument in this country and a documentary update on where the steelband movement finds itself today.

The weaving of two such wildly divergent stories dovetails more neatly that any story treatment might have suggested. The challenges and issues that served to advance the acceptance and improvement of the instrument have also worked to create a bureaucracy that keeps it from soaring even further.

Johnson pays close attention to what his documentary is recording, and deftly tailors the narrative of his fictional history to more smoothly fit into the flow of the real world footage, which follows the parallel stories of Phase II Pan Groove, Neal and Massy All Stars and Birdsong as they prepare for the 2013 Panorama competition.

The filmmakers and I crossed paths cordially in Phase II’s panyard in January of that year as the band began pulling its pans together to rehearse the composition by arranger Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe that would eventually win the competition.

We both had to run the gauntlet of the band’s management in securing permission to proceed with our projects, my own presentation being in support of a photo essay on the Phase II journey to the big yard.

Such executive imprimatur did not guarantee acceptance for me, however. Pan men tend to be deeply suspiscious of people with cameras. They are smart enough to know our little magic boxes don’t steal souls, but savvy enough to realise that they are perfectly capable of capturing and transporting the soul of what they do into mediums far from their control.

Eventually, after
publication of my piece, I earned some kind words from some of the band’s pannists who had earlier given me the stinky eye.
I can only imagine the magnification in scale of their appreciation of the efforts of Kim Johnson, whose great love for the steelband permeates the film.

Faced with the challenge of condensing a monolithic history for an instrument that is so deeply rooted in the culture of T&T that it would be impenetrable to all save the most committed non-locals, Johnson has simplified.
His characters are stand-ins for multiple persons, sometimes dozens of them, who were all working in different ways to improve both the instrument and the lot of its musicians.

The many stories of the movement’s slow but steady drift from the fringes of society to its heart are implied quickly and briskly through the experiences of Goldteeth and his brother, the many clashes condensed into two fights, the troubled relationship between the colonial elite and the citizenry become a lawyer’s intervention with a magistrate to save a young boy from jail.

The result is a film that hums along briskly, skipping like a stone across a vast pond of history to weave the two skeins of storytelling together.
As Johnson argued at a private viewing of the film a week ago, it is a pan film, not the pan film, just one in what he hopes will be many more that tell the remarkable story of the instrument and the people who shaped it.

What Pan, Our Musical Odyssey emerges as most successfully is a first effort by local talents to tell one of our most remarkable stories. The film is a heartfelt effort to offer the story of the steelband from our point of view, freed of the romance and patronage of first world perspectives.

And it is here that the film resonates most effectively. By drawing in and placing on centre stage people who would have been treated as extras in a film destined for the traditional cinema circuit, Johnson, Guiot and producer Jean Michel Gibert have offered up a film that rings true for even the most cynical local mind.

You don’t have to love pan to love Pan. At its best, it salutes the spirit of invention, the grit of quiet determination and the fire of undimmed hope that has sparked the best in every sphere of practice that finds T&T nationals rising to the top.

Pan may be the story of Goldteeth and three steelbands, but it is also the story of Chang and Vaucrosson, of Minshall and Berkeley, of Hasely Crawford and Ato Boldon, of Penny Commissiong and Wendy Fitzwilliam.
It is a story courage in the face of staggering odds, keeping faith in the face of cynicism and believing, always believing.
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