Andre Bagoo beats Pan: Five Caribbean Poets inspired by T&T’s unique Drum

ZP_Afropan Steel Orchestra at the Pan Alive competition in Toronto, CanadaAfropan, Toronto’s longest-running steel orchestra, was founded in 1973.  They have won the “Panorama”/Pan Alive competition more than two dozen times over the years.  Currently under the leadership of Earl La Pierre, Jr., Afropan has mentored many young pannists and its player-membership includes a large number of female musicians.


Today – Simcoe Day Holiday Monday – is the “last lap lime” for Toronto Caribbean Carnival 2013 – more commonly known as Caribana – after two weeks of special events that included a Junior Carnival, King and Queen Competition, Calypso Monarch Finals, The Grand Parade or “Jump Up” – plus Pan Alive.

Pan Alive brings together, through the Ontario Steelpan Association, a dozen or more homegrown steel-pan orchestras from Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario. These perform original compositions or arrangements before pan aficionados and a table of judges. The 2013 winners were Pan Fantasy, under the leadership of Wendy Jones (with arranger Al “Allos” Foster), playing SuperBlue’s “Fantastic Friday”.

Other competing orchestras at Pan Alive 2013 were:  Afropan, Pan Masters, Golden Harps, Panatics, Salah Steelpan Academy, Silhouettes, Hamilton Youth Steel Orchestra, New Dimension, Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton, St.Jamestown Youth Centre, JK Vibrations and Metrotones.


Our Guest Editor – Trinidadian poet, Andre Bagoo – here takes a look at poetry inspired by the steel-pan in the following selection he has put together for Zócalo Poets.

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STEEL-PAN is everywhere in the Caribbean, so much so that some people cannot help but define us by it. We’ve produced Nobel laureates in the arts, economics and sciences; great athletes; contributed so much all over the planet – yet ask the average foreigner about the Caribbean and chances are the first thing they will talk about is steel-pan. But the region has a complex relationship with pan. For us, pan music is not just fun. It is a ritual: an invocation of the pulse of history within our veins; a defiant assertion of individuality against larger global forces; an example of how one man’s trash can become treasure – a sublime subversion of power, economics and art. Trinidad and Tobago, inventor of the pan, prides itself in being the race that created what is said to be the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. Yet, Trinidadian poets, and Caribbean poets generally, have a sophisticated relationship with the instrument. Its hard, silver and lyrical contours are not mere tourist ornament, but loaded symbol. Often, as in my poem ‘Carnival’ (, instead of being a symbol of pleasure, the pan becomes a hollow, opposite thing – creating an irony because of our pleasurable expectations.


Roger Robinson’s ‘Texaco Oil Storage Tanks’ is ostensibly a poem about the materials used to make pans: oil barrels. But he finds the forces of history, power and economics inside them. While the oil storage tanks are large structures, the poem arguably evokes the images of smaller steel pans. Derek Walcott strikingly uses the image of the pan as a kind of psychogeographic tool in the opening of ‘Laventille’, whose first lines invite us to imagine that hill-top region as the arch of a pan. It’s also a device pregnant with meaning since Laventille is regarded as the birthplace of the instrument. In Kamau Brathwaithe’s great poem ‘Calypso’, pan makes an overt appearance but is, in fact, really all over the poem: its rhythm, its materials, its colour. I’ve included David Blackman’s poem ‘Bassman’ because of how far it veers from our romantic associations with that figure. And Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Steelpan in Miami’ is the final, fitting irony: pan exported, becoming a kind of prison of nostalgia, only made possible by migration away from the Caribbean basin.

Andre Bagoo

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Roger Robinson:  “Texaco Oil Storage Tanks”

(Trinidad, Pointe-à-Pierre, 1978)


You silver gods, with viscous black innards,

skin of iron plates and bones of steel rivets,


your Cyclopean eye is a bright red star.

At each entrance stands an armed, khakied guard;


they check our passes, though we’ve known them for years,

for though we work here, we don’t belong.


A new shift begins, our brown workboots trudge

and the unemployed beg and plead out front


in full view, with burning sun on their shame,

but it’s not worse than their child’s hunger pains.


Our fingernails are full of tar and dust:

you came for the oil, and left with our blood.

.     .     .

Derek Walcott:  From “Laventille”

[for V.S. Naipaul]


To find the Western Path

Through the Gates of Wrath



It huddled there

steel tinkling its blue painted metal air,

tempered in violence, like Rio’s Favelas,


with snaking, perilous streets whose edges fell as

its Episcopal turkey-buzzards fall

from its miraculous hilltop



down the impossible drop

to Belmont, Woodbrook, Maraval, St Clair


that shrine

like peddlers’ tin trinkets in the sun.

From a harsh


shower, its gutters growled and gargled wash

past the Youth Centre, past the water catchment,

a rigid children’s carousel of cement;


We climbed where lank electric

lines and tension cables linked its raw brick

hovels like a complex feud,


where the inheritors of the middle passage stewed,

five to a room, still camped below their hatch,

breeding like felonies,


whose lived revolve round prison, graveyard, church.

Below bent breadfruit trees

in the flat, coloured city, class


escalated into structures still,

merchant, middleman, magistrate, knight. To go downhill

from here was to ascend.

.     .     .

Kamau Brathwaite:  “Calypso”

from The Arrivants


The stone had skidded arc’d and bloomed into islands:

Cuba and San Domingo

Jamaica and Puerto Rico

Grenada Guadeloupe Bonaire


curved stone hissed into reef

wave teeth fanged into clay

white splash flashed into spray

Bathsheba Montego Bay


bloom of the arcing summers…


The islands roared into green plantations

ruled by silver sugar cane

sweat and profit

cutlass profit

islands ruled by sugar cane


And of course it was a wonderful time

a profitable hospitable well-worth-you-time

when captains carried receipts for rices

letters spices wigs

opera glasses swaggering asses

debtors vices pigs


O it was a wonderful time

an elegant benevolent redolent time–

and young Mrs. P.’s quick irrelevant crine

at four o’clock in the morning…


But what of black Sam

with the big splayed toes

and the shoe black shiny skin?


He carries bucketfulls of water

’cause his Ma’s just had another daughter.


And what of John with the European name

who went to school and dreamt of fame

his boss one day called him a fool

and the boss hadn’t even been to school…


Steel drum steel drum

hit the hot calypso dancing

hot rum hot rum

who goin’ stop this bacchanalling?


For we glance the banjoy

dance the limbo

grow our crops by maljo


have loose morals

gather corals

father out neighbour’s quarrels


perhaps when they come

with their cameras and straw

hats: sacred pink tourists from the frozen Nawth


we should get down to those

white beaches

where if we don’t wear breeches

it becomes an island dance

Some people doin’ well

while others are catchin’ hell


o the boss gave our Johnny the sack

though we beg him please

please to take ‘im back


so now the boy nigratin’ overseas…

.     .     .

David Jackman:  “Bassman”


Now yuh hearing a pain in yuh belly,

Who go provide now?

Who giving yuh room now?

After yuh throw way the costume and

Sleep in yuh vomit from pan fever

After yuh finish consume the liquor

Playing bass in mass

Playing ass in mass


You go shadow extravaganza

trying to stretch out the fever

making a las lap


trying to get back on the map.


But the year face yuh

all yuh have to go by

is Sparrow Miss Mary until

yuh hear

the bass man

in yuh head

Shadow bass man eh boss man nah.

Carnival sickness is the bossman.

Shadow eating good, Sparrow eating good,

CDC eating good.

But who go provide now

Who go provide for the bass pain

in the belly? Who man tell me who?

.     .     .

Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming:  “Steelpan in Miami”


Last night I drove

over plain Miami

far in the Southwest

to Miami Pan Symphony

Panyard not under open skies

not bounded by mountain peaks

Cierro del Aripo and El Tucuche

but swallowed in the stomach

of a boxy warehouse


Steelpan music cornered

muffled by dense

con crete pre fab walls

not ringing out over

Queen’s Park Savannah

not jingling like running water

in East Dry River


Saw the girlchild beating

six bass pans

made one afternoon

not by Spree Simon the Hammer Man

but by Mike Kernahan

Trini in Miami


Listened to the boychild

strum the cello pan

heard the manchild

the womanchild

on the chrome tenor pans

carrying the calypso tune


Not to Maracas Bay

with coconut fronds

and six foot waves

but to Miami Beach

manmade fringed

with sea oats and coco plums


And when the music died

a farewell so warm like Miami heat

a Trini voice bidding

“Drive safe eh”

an incantation from the streets of


a familiar song so strange

in this multilingual

Caribbean city in the frying pan

handle of North America.

.     .     .     .     .


Roger Robinson’s ‘Texaco Oil Storage Tanks’ appears in his forthcoming collection, The Butterfly Hotel (Peepal Tree Press);   the extract from Derek Walcott’s ‘Laventille’ is taken from his Collected Poems (Faber and Faber, 1986);  Kamau Brathwaite’s ‘Calypso’ is a poem from his The Arrivants;  David Jackman’s ‘Bassman’ is scooped out of 100 Poems from Trinidad and Tobago (Edited by Ian Dieffenthaller & Anson Gonzalez);  and Lelawattee Manoo-Rahming’s ‘Steelpan in Miami’ appears in her collection Curry Flavour (Peepal Tree Press, 2000).


Andre Bagoo is a poet and journalist, born in 1983, whose first book of poems, Trick Vessels, was published by Shearsman Books (UK) in 2012.   His poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming at:   Almost Island; Boston Review; Cincinnati Review; Caribbean Review of Books; Caribbean Writer; Draconian Switch; Exit Strata PRINT! Vol. 2; Landscapes Journal, St Petersburg Review, Word Riot and elsewhere.   An e-chapbook, From the Undiscovered Country, a collaboration with the artist Luis Vasquez La Roche, was published at The Drunken Boat in 2013.

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