The World

Published on February 12th, 2017 | by Ray Funk and Andrew Martin - Trinidad Guardian Newspapers

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French connection

Steelpan scholars from across the world descended on Paris in early December for an international conference on steelpan held at the Université Paris Ouest La Défense. Dr Aurelie Helmlinger, an ethnomusicologist at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (Laboratoire d’Ethnologie et de Sociologie Comparative-Centre de Recherche en Ethnomusicologie), hosted and organised the conference as part of her Pan-e-pedia project. Participating scholars came from the United States, Europe, and Japan. The conference focused on the development and history of the placement of notes on various steelpan instruments and cognitive and learning issues as they relate to playing steelpan.

The Pan-e-pedia project is a web-based database of steelpan layouts created by Aurélie Helmlinger and her team of researchers in Paris in the last few years. The database has well in excess of 400 different layouts based on historical instruments, current instruments, and everything in between, spanning the steelpan’s history since the 1930s. Funded by the Fyssen foundation of France, the database is based on months and months of fieldwork Helmlinger conducted in T&T between 2013 and 2015 with the generous assistance of PanTrinbago regional officers. Among her many findings, Helmlinger found the note positions on the steelpans to be very diverse and oftentimes unique; layouts are not necessarily based on musical harmony.

Each uploaded layout includes a wealth of information, such as the location (Invaders Panyard, for example), builder/tuner of the steelpan, time, date, and other related information such as style (eg lead pan) and particular variant, eg Invader-style Lead Pan. The various steelpan layout styles are also presented through a multimedia analytic tool highlighting the musical intervals between notes. It even includes a software tool that can generate interactive animations of steelpans in performance. At the conference, presenters shared research on the developments of steelpan layouts in their respective countries or regions. Dr Rachel Hayward offered a lively synopsis of her work studying and performing steelpan in the UK for over 20 years. She noted the research on steelpan in the UK has been both sporadic and fragmentary so far, and its history needs more work.

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