With Steelpan, Quality and History Matter

There is so much happening in the world of pan. With social media and the Internet we can see it all. Which, in the areas of awareness and support, can and should be great for the Steelpan. The problem is, it seems that quantity has overcome quality and I’m seeing a lot more bad than good. When speaking to audiences about the Steelpan I always remind them of a few things:

1. The Steelpan is a very new instrument, and with anything new, extinction is a possibility.

2. There has to be a standard of quality.

3. The correct history must be told repeatedly to avoid the twisting and misconceptions of the story. 

4. There is exceptional craftsmanship involved with building a Steelpan. This is still a man made instrument.
I’m concerned about the state of pan, primarily in the U.S but even back home in the Caribbean according to some. I know that across the world there are thousands and thousands of Steelpan players, bands, school programs etc. which should make me very happy and to a degree, it does. However the quality of many those instruments and programs is greatly concerning.

The Steelpan is an instrument of the Caribbean, invented by people of African decent and European influence in Caribbean nations like Trinidad and Guyana. Many of the Steelpan builders today especially in the US, are not people of African decent. Which is okay except what does that mean for the past, present and future of this Caribbean instrument?

To understand how this may impact someone like me let’s go back a few decades. I have been hearing Steelpan since birth, before birth, and grew up with it my entire life. I didn’t learn it in high school or take a course in college. I know Steelpan just like I know anything I learned like walking, talking and ABC’s. There’s no course you can take to feel the way I do about the instrument. It’s another family member. It’s a daily topic. There is no label, no title that suits that. We don’t exist without it.

My father makes the Steelpan. He makes exceptional instruments. I grew up seeing his expert craftsmanship and hearing the beautiful intruments his time and effort yielded. There’s no doubt to me (and I am certainly not the only one) that Phil Solomon is one of the best Steelpan builders and tuners the instrument has known. And no, he is not the only one. He is not the only great pan maker. 

When I see a Steelpan program at a school or steel band performing, I get excited. When I hear the poor quality of the instruments or technique. I get sad. I feel disappointed. Just like anything else, but especially with the Steelpan, quality matters. The instrument cannot survive without quality craftsmanship being passed from one to the next. Why support makers and players that don’t truly understand and respect the instrument? 

Barrels to Beethoven began as a way to recognize impact Phil Solomon has had on Steelpan and the city of Pittsburgh troughs Steelpan. Through a year of research the organization pivoted to also include education and innovation. A necessary component for sustaining and growing the instrument. Our hope is that  quality craftsmanship, exceptional education standards and history of the instrument will strive over all else.  

Why try to compare the variation in quality to anything? Because quality should and does matter. Especially when it’s new. Mortons vs. McDonalds. Whole Foods vs. Bottom Dollar. Ralph Lauren vs. H&M. There’s a difference. Of course, all of the companies listed, whether good quality or just quantity can survive because there are enough consumers on both sides to sustain both. The Steelpan does not yet have that luxury. Quality. Quality. Quality. In both the instrument, instruction and presentation. That’s how the Steelpan will grow, develop and sustain over time.

When you are involved in something new, something that needs to be nurtured, it is important to make sure the quality is exceptional. 

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