On a hot July day in 2011, Colin and I stood, proud parents watching our sons play one of their first steelpan gigs. The event was a CSI steelband panyard fun day and ‘blockorama’ – a new word to us back then – where several other steelbands also had a chance to perform. Players of different ages, wearing different t-shirt uniforms and with pans chromed or painted, played an accomplished array of tunes – gospel, soca, even a bit of Disney. And as always with pan, the music was uplifting and joyous and we didn’t want it to stop.
Colin noticed that several of the bands played the standard “Brasil”. This beautiful rhythmic 1939 classic written by Ary Barroso is a tune dear to us. Colin had played it himself many times - on trumpet with his jazz quartet, or busking in the street, Ladbroke Grove days before he was spotted outside the Tricycle Theatre and given an acting role on stage. This had led to TV and film roles, but four children and three James Bonds later, music remained key, fundamental and intrinsic to Colin. So a foray into the world of pan was a delightful turn, and an opportunity for us to learn something new
So in that park, that day, when Colin said to me, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have 1000 steelpans playing Brasil for the handover of the Olympic Torch from London to Brazil,” One Thousand Pans was born.
Several months later, as Olympic fervor was starting to hit London, I wondered what pan’s involvement might be? Spotlight was on what London could show the world in its artistic excellence and diversity of culture, but Notting Hill Carnival was again amid struggles of funding and leadership. Would the wonderful event of Panorama – which Colin and I hadn’t missed in 25 years – still play in London 2012 to a relatively small, already-converted audience, and would the millions of music-loving Londoners and tourists be deprived of witnessing pan at its best? Moreover, would the aim in many panyards be to work hard just to compete against each other? I felt very strongly that pan in the Olympic period should have opportunity to be mighty, eclectic, diverse and unified, and that the skill and virtuosity of many pan players – and the simple joy of the instrument – should be shared with the world.
Having worked as artist in residence to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra I had seen that classical music gained investment, incredible platforms and much opportunity. Despite virtuosity and excellence in steelpan there was a seeming lack of exposure. Furthermore, I had started to play pan myself and was surprised that friends from all cultural backgrounds knew piccolos and surdos, but did not know that pans had notes, could be tuned, and weren’t just drums. One Thousand Pans was an attempt to address these misconceptions and create exposure.
Could 1000 pans work musically? I asked Brent Holder manager and musical director of CSI steelband, who was instantly positive and keen to musically direct…. Yes the bands and individual players who did not already know Brasil could learn it via YouTube. Yes the arrangement would be easy for young or inexperienced players. Yes all the bands in London and around the country would want to be a part of it. One Thousand Pans was on!
For me, years of experience artistically directing Fox Carnival mas band – a maverick born out of school children’s response to their local Notting Hill Carnival– had taught me that design and artistic integrity is key. How One Thousand Pans sounded would be crucial, but how it was pitched, sold and how it looked on the day would also be fundamental, especially if we wanted to find a platform or venue and win necessary funding.
In the world of mas, Fox had played soca from a truck on the road but had never followed the norms of traditional costume making, instead its success was in its numbers and unified artistic impact, which had involved careful consideration around leadership, inclusion and adherence to the art (one-colour t-shirt costumes with no exceptions to draw the eye and spoil the impact.) Fox had slowly gained acceptance and had effected change on the world of mas, and had allowed the audience –and the Fox players themselves– to see possibility. I felt it was vital that for One Thousand Pans we develop aims, values and behaviour expectations, which were a key focus in the initial pitch I made to the Arts Council of England just three months before the event was due to be staged! That ACE encouraged the project and agreed to fund us was a huge vote of confidence - our National Arts funding body can and does have the courage and foresight to support both pan and events that challenge norms.
There were indeed challenges in staging the event, a lack of expected match funding being the main one. However it was heartwarming that so many bands and players supported the project and came from far and wide asking for nothing and offering abundant enthusiasm and teamwork on the day.
Panorama itself was another challenge! Its timing meant that CSI and the other main competitors were so busy rehearsing that engaging bands to take part in One Thousand Pans became reliant on spoken promises, panyard style. Involving Notting Hill Carnival Festivals Trust, who had worked with Fox previously and whose charitable aims to support carnival arts fitted the ethos of the project, made preparations flow without one thousand panics! In particular, the fantastic support from Josephine Scorer and Marsha Jackson meant we were able to seamlessly engage with and sign up the majority of bands, and in turn work out a potentially very complicated pan drop and collect scheme, as well as devise a clear, fair arrangement for offering some funds to bands via miles travelled and number of pans brought, rather than via size or name of band. Put simply, clear project planning was necessary in order to pull off an event that had been given the amazing venue of Jubilee Gardens and top billing in The Mayor’s Thames Festival - we needed to instill the confidence of a larger team, one which included Festival Director Adrian Evans who designed the Thousand Boat Flotilla for the Queens Jubilee earlier in the year.
In fact, the timing of Panorama did have a major advantage in terms of tuning – pans were already tuned enough to produce a fine sound, saving funds delegated by musical direction to potentially pay for a team of tuners who we did not need. As a result we could provide little extras that made a difference – a goody bag; snacks and drinks so valued on a very hot day.
Admittedly some players only took off their own band t-shirt and put on the event blue one kicking and screaming! But it was clear that in the end everyone involved saw and felt the power of one-band unity, the impact of artistic staging, which assisted the astounding group musicality, led charismatically by Brent on the day, who gave it all despite the very sad loss of his wife Crystal Holder only a few days before.
We are thankful to each band’s roadies and helpers who did not twist our arms for an extra t-shirt even though they deserved one– everyone bought into the aim of one solid block of blue against a clear blue sky, stronger still because the blue did not spill into the audience watching – and we looked amazing as a result! Another testament to pan teamwork was the beautiful video filmed by the Steel Drum Trust that graced YouTube the very next day and is a welcome record to return to again and again
We are thankful to those bands that brought spirit, excellent leadership delegated also to young members, and abundant amazing musicianship. Our thanks extend also to Gerard Williams who volunteered his services to help on the day, and to the fantastic Thames Festival Team led by Kitty Ross, and to Matthew Card and Smokey Joe for their ultimate professionalism as MCs
The audience loved it, and One Thousand Pans ended up live on Brazilian TV! What more could we ask for to pass the torch to Rio 2012 – a torch of unity, teamwork and a vote of confidence that people can come together to create memorable impact, which One Thousand Pans certainly did.
Meanwhile, Colin – who was to start the event with a solo trumpet herald and had looked forward to compering on the day – was missing from the event. We can now reveal that the date head-on pan-clashed with a very important first rehearsal for the – then top secret – BBC's “Strictly Come Dancing” – go Colin! Colin did make it to Jubilee Gardens just in time to see smiling bands packing up their instruments for the journey back to panyards, and from the joy exuding from young players he knew that One Thousand Pans had been a complete success
“I’ll be there next year,” Colin said, already thinking of a new tune….
By Fiona Hawthorne