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Caribbean

Published on May 26th, 2015 | by www.npr.org

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Trinidad’s Steelpan Players Turn Trash Into Something Beautiful

If countries had national instruments, then the steelpan would be Trinidad’s. In an island nation of just 1.5 million people, there are about 70 steel bands registered to compete in the annual Panorama competition, which takes place during the island’s Carnival—the biggest in the Caribbean.

Several nights before Carnival Tuesday, the illustrious Desperadoes Steel Orchestra plays an informal concert in a parking lot off a major boulevard in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The 120-member band has played everywhere from Royal Albert Hall to Carnegie Hall, but this is their local panyard. The band’s captain, Brian Charles, says the panyard is both a rehearsal space and a community gathering place—somewhere to eat, drink and dance during Carnival season. The panyard is also something else, Charles says. “A panyard come like a lab, for a scientist,” he says, “where we start from scratch and build a tune.”

Building a tune is a big part of steelpan music. Each group prides itself on its arrangements, which can be quite complex. Different pans take the roles of different instruments in an orchestra—tenor, bass, cello—in groups that range from a dozen players to more than 100. Dr. Kim Johnson, director of Trinidad’s Carnival Institute and author of four books and a documentary about pan, says the largest steel bands are even bigger than a symphony orchestra. “London, with a population of about 10 million, has about four symphony orchestras,” Johnson says. “We have—if you count just large steel bands—we have about 15.”

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