An examination of amateurism within the Trinidad and Tobago steelpan industry

Last month, I submitted a call for papers for an Amateur Hour event on Creativity and Cultural Ecologies to be held at the Woodman Public House on December 9, 2015, 12-2pm. At first, I thought I’d submit an abstract talking about amateurism as it pertains to my main research interest (community media). But then I said to myself, hang on, there are so many a few other areas that I can experiment with… Considering the nature of the topic, I can articulate amateurism and the steelpan effectively because of my relationship with pan (i.e. I belong to a pan/music family). So in this blog I share my abstract and presentation from this event.

Abstract

There are various arguments that paint amateurs in both a negative and positive light (see the works of Deren 1965, Fox 2004, Leadbeater & Miller, 2004). However, based on my observations of the practice of Trinidad and Tobago steelpan music industry there is an overlap between amateurism and professionalism as it relates to motivations and a few other aspects. Despite these associations there are numerous characteristics that differentiate these concepts such as education, expertise, professionalism, skills, and reputation. However, from my observations I can see that amateurs and professionals have an interdependent relationship and I believe that this dependency contributes to the blurred nature of the concept.

Presentation

One of the important discussions to have in light of the dialogues on amateurism is the overlap and interdependent relationship that exists between “amateurs and professionals.” Today I want to share some thoughts using my observations of the steelpan music industry in Trinidad and Tobago over the years… The steelpan is a national cultural symbol and it is the most established traditional musical instrument in Trinidad and Tobago, primarily used for entertainment purposes… In the search for recognition as the ‘national instrument,’ the trajectory of the steelpan development witnessed the adoption of performers, conductors, composers, arrangers, tuners and so forth. So the development of the instrument – the steelpan – in the early stages demonstrates the first layer of mirroring an established music industry.

What I mean by this is that the development and existence of other music professions/industries benchmarked the aspirations for Pannists. There were moves/attempts to:

  • Steer the standardisation process and patent issues surrounding the steel pan
  • Improve the efficiency of music education programmes in schools throughout Trinidad and Tobago
  • Encourage the composition of music specifically for the steelpan
  • Increase the number of local steel pan innovators and fabricators
  • Explore new frontiers in marketing for the national instrument

UTT Pan Institute

I also observed the identity of the pannist a bit further, and I noticed that there are different levels of amateurism. On the very first level pannists play for the love of the instrument and local culture etc. On another level I also noticed that some pannists compete for financial rewards while retaining their love for pan and culture… I also noticed that some amateur pannists would typically play during ‘pan season’ primarily for economic gains… From my observations, the overlapping of both the amateur and professional pannist becomes a bit unclear as both their roles seem to fuse or merge… As I reviewed this industry it was evident that both the amateur and professional pannists play critical yet separate roles, they support each other’s existence and development… For example, in a steelpan orchestra, the novice pannists support the compositions and accompaniment of accomplished musicians. There is a common ground between both categories of panmen. What this means is that… the amateur and professional panman cannot survive without each other.

While an amateur pannist may have initially started out for the love of pan… they are sometimes influenced by the achievements or the appearance of a professional pannist. What I noticed is that the culture of the professionals often dominate and curtails the lifespan of an amateur. How so? Suddenly everyone competes to become professional pannists… working on improving technical aspects such as left hand/right fluency of notes; pitch accuracy, which ensures that all the notes are executed perfectly and heard clearly and precisely; focus is now on the tone quality coming out of the instrument; now panmen focus on Deportment/Communication/PR… However, never necessarily losing sight for their love of pan… I believe it is this overlapping or transition that causes a tension between the purposes and the role of both the established panman versus the novice panman.

I question whether or not this interdependency is healthy or is this just one of the cycles of an amateur pannist? For without this interdependency, both types of panmen cannot exist… Based on my reflections I think that both the amateur and professional panman should be respected and celebrated in their own right.

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