Above: Kim Johnson, photographed at his Fort George home. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
Originally published in NewsdayTT on May 09, 2021
A review of Kim johnson’s The Illustrated Story of Pan by Mark Lyndersay
Published by Pangea Ltd
In the second edition of his definitive book on the steelband, author Kim Johnson increases the page count by just twelve pages, but the work feels more expansive than the first edition, which I recall only from flipping through it soon after its first publication.
This work is immediately more engaging. Johnson has used his pages to excellent effect and the design of the spreads, credited to the author and artist Ayo Ledgerwood, deliver an effective mix of first-person quotations, big photographs and the historical text that knits it together.
The book is the result of decades of research into the history of the steelband’s development, which began as more than 100 articles on pan written by Johnson when he was at the Sunday Express in the 1990’s.
I rejoined that paper in 1995 as a freelancer and consultant to editor Lennox Grant, who had endorsed the “investment in shoe-leather,” as he put it at the time, that gathering these stories demanded.
As that project progressed, Johnson began scanning the photos his subjects showed him and eventually gathered a collection of more than 3,500 photos related to the development of the steelband.
Less than a tenth of them are included in the book, all strategically chosen to echo and amplify the words they are framed by.
As photographs, they are, individually, unimpressive. Hardly first choice for a coffee table book driven by photography. Most were captured by tangentially interested observers and are, in the most accurate use of the term, snapshots.
They lack sharpness and tonal range, but deliver a direct and intimate discovery of their subject matter.
Their true power is as a curated collection, the individual frames piecing together a wide-ranging collage that brings sight to the emergence of art from Carnival’s chaos of camaraderie.
The result is what Johnson describes as “a family album,” a collection of photos and stories that read like a forgotten ancestral story, populated by people we kind of know, telling a story that is both familiar and new.
There is something transcendent about this collection of images, an alchemy of arbitrary snaps, group portraits, documentary images, touristy fantasy and posed promotional images.
The photographers are also, for the most part, anonymous. Their names and intersections with the people and places pictured lost to time and fragile memory. Those who are identified include Franklin Barrett, a US Navy serviceman posted to Trinidad, the actor/singer Edric Connor, assessor Eugene Raymond, Commander Jack Williams and others with the mix of curiosity and equipment who turned their lenses on the scrappy and evolving Carnival celebration.
Some of the very earliest photos are little more than postcards, culture recorded in the service of exotica.
Johnson could find no photos of pan’s predecessor, the Tamboo Bamboo bands, then considered a culture too low for visual record.
Other pivotal moments did not survive the erosion of time.
The critical emergence of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, an event and a performance reported with crystalline clarity in Johnson’s history was not to be found in photographs or press reports; it exists only as a triangulation of first-person recollection.
That band marked a breakpoint when, as Johnson describes it, “…the dustbin and paintcan gang became an orchestra.”
On first skimming through the work, what jumps out is the enormity of its component parts. Written by an author “from foreign,” this would have been three books.
The written history, a companion volume featuring “Panmen in their own words,” and a sprawling coffee table photobook.
But this is Trinidad and Tobago, where such efforts would have spread already thin attention spans for national history too finely for critical mass to gather.
So this is the book that a local writer aware of his environment had to produce, an artful merging of all the resources he collected into a work that hammers a piton of authority into the hardened cliff face of indifference that is the fate of all our histories.
It took weeks to read this book, not because there are so many words, but because of the engaging resonance that the author has managed to strike in the work.
The attentive reader cannot help but bounce between the formal history, the personal recollections and the photographs on each page, back and forth, like the constant sounding of a note in search of perfection.
What emerges is something beyond the words, an understanding of the quixotic fight to turn garbage — discarded tins and drums into instruments — hammering, no, beating music out of containers and turning trash into treasure.
In the scruffy circumstances offered up by the photos, in the harrowing, often salty stories retold by the pannists and observers who lived this history, there emerges a powerful understanding of a people who demanded music and proceeded to pound it out of their circumstances.
That imperative isn’t only found in the steelpan, but in the clattering crash of bamboo, in the wail of bugles and when they couldn’t be had, the blare of car horns.
Steel drums were an unlikely basis for a musical instrument, but it became the only object that could stand up to the insistent pressure of invention in this effort to make music out of nothing.
In 1946, SunValley wins the steelband competition, winning “a set of teacups and saucers, an ashtray, a comb and hairbrush set and a silver cup.”
In the face of that contempt, the evolution of the steelband ratchets up into the political as the gap between the performers and their wealthy GrandStand audience becomes clearer.
Operation Britain in 1951 birthed the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) an effort to bring the instrument to the Festival of Britain.
That first modern steel orchestra, the first formal stage side, triggered the next great revolution in steelband’s development, at a time when, as Johnson notes, “There was almost one band for every three or four residential blocks in Port-of-Spain.”
TASPO’s overseas performances would seed the world with steelpans when many players left on international tours never to return.
But more long years would pass before Carnival and its music would be able to successfully demand respect.
Johnson’s calm recounting of the most inflammatory facts of this reality only makes them even more grating.
The Carnival Queen in 1956 won a trip abroad and $7,500. The Calypso King got $50.
So many other huge stories are present here. Not all of them get the space they deserve.
The rise and fall of PanAm Northstars has the tone of an epic of its own, and it feels like the reader gets only the Cliff’s Notes of it here.
To leaven the dense musical descriptions that articulate the evolving work of the formative pan tuners — notably Bertie Marshall and Anthony Williams — Johnson offers up a narrative that musters the rapid evolution of the work into something akin to the delivery of fire by Prometheus. Not a bad metaphor, actually, given the role that open flame plays in modern pan tuning.
In the 50’s and 60’s the diversity of the movement’s participants is recalled through the stories of Steve and Lawford Dupres, who would have been called “half-scald” local whites, the family band, The Maharaj Kids, Curtis Pierre and Ernest Ferreira.
The very proper Englishman, Arthur Bentley, produced the first eight Panorama competitions and introduced the opening bow on three strikes on iron.
“If you don’t bow,” he told the dubious pannists before the first show, “I’m out.”
In parallel with all this is the story of the increasing politicisation of the movement, encouraged and guided by Dr Eric Williams.
At his very first meeting with panmen in 1955, Williams told them that, “Politics was in everything.”
It would become a guiding truth of the growth of the movement and its intersection with the physicality of politics of the late 50’s and 60’s.
It would also fundamentally change steelband’s evolution, particularly after Williams formed the Steelband Improvement Committee, a government agency liaison with the movement that would eventually become the eternally compromised Pan Trinbago.
It’s here that the project demands a second volume. So much gets crammed into the last hundred pages that it seems rushed compared to the patient and considered historical dissection of the lost and certainly scattered early history.
So many of these stories, some half-remembered from my own childhood, flit by in a literary blur.
The role of the pan in church, the development of the canopy, the role of women in steelbands, all taken at a running pace.
Did you know about the Girl Pat Steel Orchestra? Jocelyn Pierre was briefly a member. They toured British Guiana in 1951 and Jamaica in 1952. No?
What about Louise McIntosh’s Pan Piper’s Music School?
And that photo of Rudolph Charles’ Pan Chariot coffin surely deserves more than a pithy caption.
The author’s grappling with the recent history of the steelband becomes even more pronounced with his effort to articulate a manifesto for pan in the final chapter.
The competing interests, new, mercurial talent and the volatile politics of modern pan don’t conform readily to any lucid or readily accessible prescription. The only thing that seems to have always been true of pan is its own internal conflicts.
Even Johnson’s despair over Facebook and inward facing social media engagement got flipped during the last year, as those virtual connections became a lifeline for the movement and its practitioners.
Neither a pandemic nor Panograma were on his radar when this book was being completed.
So much about the creation of the steelband as a facet of community, as a form of musical expression and as a cultural influence has changed in just the last few decades that considering its next evolution is as daunting as considering its complicated past.
The sampling of the tone of the steelpan is pervasive, showing up frequently in pop music, but it doesn’t replicate the percussive power of the music played live.
A growing number of next-generation, music literate pan musicians are coming of age and they don’t fit easily into the old roles that pannists created for themselves.
What they take for granted was unimaginable at the dawn of the instrument’s creation.
Pan’s children are the ones who really need to read this book.
To truly understand how their instrument was willed into existence, to find context for their often puzzling elders and to chart a future that honours its considerable history.
The Illustrated History of Pan, launched on Indiegogo, is available for US shoppers at santimanitayblog. and for the rest of the world through shopcaribe.com.
Local buyers can get the book for $350 from Paper Based Bookshop, Metropolitan Book Suppliers and Nigel R. Khan Bookstores.