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Program 0019
May 8, 2001

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

SAT MAHARAJ: They treat us as noncitizens. Persona non grata. We were 40 percent of the population, as much as the African population. But they treated us with contempt.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, the politics and music of Trinidad and Tobago.

RAY HOLMAN: The roughest of the rough were playing pans, so they excluded women. Women weren’t that rough, you know. And so gradually they came in. There was an all-girls steel band in the 1950s called Girl Pan Steel Band. But at first it was difficult, I think, for a woman to get involved in that music. It was macho.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Last December the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago held parliamentary elections. But the losing party is charging fraud and is seeking to overturn the results.

PORTER: The parties use ethnic divisions among the island’s African and East Indian communities to achieve political power. But as Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports, the nation of Trinidad and Tobago is no Yugoslavia.

REESE EHRLICH: Trinidad is made up of about 40 percent people of African descent and 40 percent of people with East Indian ancestry. But unlike some countries where ethnic divisions are immediately evident, on the surface at least, everyone gets along in Trinidad.

[sound of street traffic]

EHRLICH: Walking through the working class town of San Juan, just outside Port-of-Spain, people all say it’s the politicians who foment divisions. This area, where East Indian and African families live side by side, seems far more integrated than many American cities. Kenneth Pierre is a longshoreman.

EHRLICH: So how do people get along in the neighborhood?

KENNETH PIERRE: Around here we have no worries. It is nice. Good living. No worries at all whatsoever.

EHRLICH: And do neighbors think, “Oh, this person is an East Indian,” “This person’s a Creole….”

KENNETH PIERRE: No, no, we have that-we haven’t got that in us. Everybody around here living as one.

EHRLICH: But the country’s political elite does foment ethnic divisions to win elections. And lately those elections have been very close. The ruling United National Congress Party won the December parliamentary elections by only two seats. The opposition People’s National Movement is suing two UNC parliamentarians, claiming they were not eligible to run. These kind of political animosities show themselves in the community.

INSHAN MOHAMMED [first responding to a customer, then speaking with Reese Ehrlich] “Thank you, sir.”

We have, there’s a little cafeteria, supplies the neighborhood. And there’s a school right opposite it. So, I cater for the kids, and for the neighborhood in general.

EHRLICH: Inshan Mohammed, a Trinidadian of East Indian ancestry, owns a small food shop where he works at night. He gets along well with this neighbors. But talk of unity stops when he gets to politics. Mohammed says the previous PNM government discriminated against Indians in hiring for government jobs. He got a government job only five years ago when the UNC came to power.

MOHAMMED: I am a foreman on the road, attached to the government department. Since the UNC came into power, good government.

EHRLICH: As the conversation progresses, Mohammed’s political preferences tend to merge with his racial attitudes. He praises Indians as frugal, hard workers. He repeats a common stereotype that Africans are carefree and never save for a rainy day.

MOHAMMED: It was always open to the black man. He had the better job from the first, the beginning in this country. So he had, he had the opportunities and he had the values and he had everything to save. It’s no fault of ours. If he were to destroy, to be destroyed now, it’s because of him ownself.

EHRLICH: As people move up the economic ladder the ethnic divide widens, and there are plenty of stereotypes to fuel the hatred on both sides. Selwyn Ryan, Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, says British colonialists used divide-and-conquer policies by bringing two disparate groups to Trinidad and Tobago. First, the British enslaved Africans and forced them to accept Christianity; then they brought East Indians as indentured agricultural laborers. Ryan, who is black, says Indians did face tremendous discrimination.

SELWYN RYAN: Hindus were seen as alien, pagan, heathen. They were so characterized by the Christian churches. One therefore had to convert in order to access certain kinds of jobs. One had to convert in order to go to school, until the Hindus started building their own schools in the 1950s. Individuals in society also discriminated against the Hindus because they had habits which were considered to be alien and un-Western.

EHRLICH: The PNM, the party supported by most black Trinidadians, held power from independence in 1962 until the late 1980s. In 1995 the UNC came to power and it was reelected in 2000.

RYAN: If you ask most blacks they would say that the reverse process is now taking place, that the discrimination is against them. We have a new Indian hegemony, and that they now dominate not only commerce and agriculture but the commanding heights of the private sector-outside that which is controlled by foreigners, of course-and that under the new dispensation the Hindus now control political power as well. The reality is a little more complex.

EHRLICH: While individual prejudices exist, on a day-to-day basis working class people really do get along. But some in the Trinidadian elite fan the flames of ethnic divide. Sat Maharaj is a conservative Hindu leader and strong supporter of the UNC. He says the PNM consistently discriminated against Indians.

SAT MAHARAJ: They treat us as noncitizens. Persona non grata. We were 40 percent of the population, as much as the African population. But they treated us with contempt. For all of 30 years that the PNM held power not a Hindu ever sat in the cabinet.

EHRLICH: PNM leaders say they did appoint Indians to other government jobs. Yes, rural areas lacked services, but that was a product of economic underdevelopment they say, not discrimination against Indians. Patrick Manning, the top leader of the PNM and former prime minister, says claims of discrimination are a smoke screen.

PATRICK MANNING: You look around and you will see that the most prosperous people in this country are the Hindus. They are involved in business. They occupy top positions in every arm of the operations of the country. It’s just not true. That is a political argument that has been used to keep a certain political base intact.

EHRLICH: Election campaigns don’t openly hinge on ethnicity. But Father Jerry Pantin, a Catholic priest who heads a national social service organization, says each party subtly plays the ethnic card.

FATHER JERRY PANTIN: “If you vote for us we will give you jobs, we will build houses for you, we will focus our attention on the places which are dominated by the people of African origin. Or in the case of Indian origin, it swings around now. They say, “If you vote for us and we get in, we will make sure that you get good housing and we’ll build schools for you.”

EHRLICH: Given the close election results, Father Pantin says both the major parties will keep playing the ethnic card. But there is an alternative, as expressed by an unusual source: calypso singers.

[sound of a calypso band]

EHRLICH: Calypsonians in Trinidad and Tobago are more than entertainers. They are social critics with a grassroots following. Singer and composer David Rudder says during colonial times calypsonians called for multiethnic unity against British colonialism.

DAVID RUDDER: It started back at the turn of the century and it, calypso, became the voice of the people. It’s like, in a sense the people’s newspaper. It’s an editorial in song. By that time Trinidad was controlled by British colonials, so one phone call could stop an article from going into the newspaper. But nothing could stop the calypsonians mouth.

EHRLICH: Calypsonians have maintained that tradition of populist political and social commentary down to the present day. After the 1995 UNM election victory, when ethnic tensions ran high, Rudder wrote the song Savagery, which condemned both major political parties for their racial politics.

RUDDER: [singing his song Savagery]: “Mirror, mirror on the wall, what do we have for a curtain call. Holsters, holsters, guns, cannons. We’re getting the winners, shooting up the ends…”

RUDDER: Trinidad is very much like America. It’s an immigrant society. It’s the island version of America in a funny way, you know-all the different groups. Everyone is sort of like, watching each other, you know. But yet we have a level of tolerance and togetherness that is unsurpassed anywhere.

EHRLICH: To encourage tolerance Rudder wrote his popular song, The Ganges And The Nile. He chose those two great rivers of India and Africa to symbolize a coming together of the two communities in Trinidad and Tobago.

RUDDER: [singing his song The Ganges And The Nile]: “Once upon a time there was a magic island, full of magic people. Let me tell you a story, about their pain and their glory, oh yeah…”

RUDDER: In spite of the politics these two mighty rivers that have brought us here, the Ganges and the Nile, they flow together.

RUDDER: [singing his song The Ganges And The Nile]: “Bringing fear and faith, but also a brand new style. And of all these rivers that shed this land, two mighty ones move like a sculptor’s hand…”

EHRLICH: Rudder and many other residents of Trinidad and Tobago say that despite the politicians’ efforts to fan ethnic differences, people at the grass roots will continue efforts towards unity. For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.

RUDDER: [singing his song The Ganges And The Nile]: “One lovely nation, one daughter of groove, the Ganges has met the Nile…”

MCHUGH: The musical power of discarded oil drums, next on Common Ground.

PAT BISHOP: To ask about women in pan is to ask about women in Trinidad. The pan world is only a microcosm of the larger society.

PORTER: Steel pans, the musical instrument made from discarded oil drums, originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Today, steel pans are the national instrument of that Caribbean island nation.

MCHUGH: But at one time steel pans were considered low class and primitive. As Common Ground Special Correspondent Reese Ehrlich reports from the capital city of Port-of-Spain, the history of the steel pan reflects Trinidad’s ongoing class, race, and gender wars.

[sounds of steel pan music and a bustling market]

EHRLICH: Here in the pan yard, practice area, 100 members of the steel band Allstars beat their pans and dance rhythmically in place. Women in short skirts and high heels wave the band’s flag. The audience responds with wild dance steps as the Allstars play a calypso version of the hymn Precious Lord.

[a calypso band plays an instrumental version of Precious Lord]

EHRLICH: Steel pan composer Ray Holman says the people of Trinidad look at steel pan music the way Brazilians see samba or residents of New Orleans view jazz.

RAY HOLMAN: Feelings run very high. Emotions run very high. People get worked up over it, you know. It’s really something to experience.

EHRLICH: Steel pans were invented in the 1930s by poor black Trinidadians living under the yoke of British colonialism. Today the pans are used in everything from symphonic orchestras to jazz combos. They’ve come to symbolize the pride and identity of Trinidad and Tobago, but also its history of social conflict.

[a tamboo-bamboo band plays]

EHRLICH: Back in the 1930s carnival and other street parades in Trinidad featured tamboo-bamboo bands, which consisted of choral singing accompanied by hitting various lengths of bamboo poles on the ground.

[a tamboo-bamboo band plays]

EHRLICH: Seventy-nine-year-old Oscar Pile is a pan player and historian who remembers those bands.

OSCAR PILE: A group of young men, they also had a tamboo-bamboo band. By coincidence one of the bamboos split and the guy was so eager to get something to beat that he discarded the broken bamboo and run into a yard. And the first thing that he put his hand on was an old bin pan. And he take up this bin pan and he started beating this steel bin pan. Well, to the amazement of the others who were beating the bamboo, the bin pan had a more unique sound than the dull sound he was getting from the bamboo. They all discarded their bamboo and they all went and looked for some kind of old pan somewhere around the dust bins, and what have you.

EHRLICH: Banging rhythmically on dust bins, what we call garbage cans, became wildly popular, but not with British colonial authorities who then ruled the West Indies.

OSCAR PILE: It didn’t go down well with society. So these guys were poor old guys, not working anywhere, so you know, stealing pans and stealing the dust bins and so on, that were put on the side of the streets and things. So the cops come in and start to arrest people for stealing these bins and so on.

EHRLICH: By the early 1940s construction and petroleum companies were using a lot of 50-gallon drums which they discarded on the junk piles. Musicians took the oil cans, cut them, and turned them into instruments. At first the oil drums and lids were not tuned-they were played strictly for rhythm, drawing inspiration from shango, the African religious drumming and choral singing tradition.

[a group of singers and drummers perform shango music]

EHRLICH: By the mid-1940s musicians learned to tune the instruments and began to play simple melodies. Steel pan arranger Pat Bishop says nevertheless the British outlawed the playing of steel pans and other instruments, a reflection of their class and racial bias.

PAT BISHOP: The beating of drums was an offense during the days of slavery because the authorities felt that there could be the transmission of secret messages and encouragements to insurrection and so on.

[a group of singers and drummers perform shango music]

BISHOP: Those laws passed onto the statute books after freedom. By last reading of the summary offenses that were announced before independence, you still couldn’t play, not just play a drum, but play a piano or a banjo, really, after nine o’clock in the night.

EHRLICH: Oscar Pile says British authorities considered black working class steel pan men to be low-lifes and criminals.

PILE: When we committed an annual offense and we go to the courts, in front of the magistrate, he want you, “You is a pan man. You playing pans!” So your penalty was, he send you to prison. You understand, you go on the street and play and he send you to prison.

[a band plays steel pan music]

EHRLICH: Official harassment didn’t stop the pan men. They continued to improve the tuning of their instruments and produce ever more sophisticated music. By the early 1950s the pans won a following among wealthy white Trinidadians, according to Neville Jewels, a founding member of the steel band Allstars.

NEVILLE JEWELS: You got a few kids from the upper class who get to like the pan. And we used to go and pan for them. In my case I used to go and tune the pan unknowing to the white kids’ parents. And it went on like that until they decided to have their own band.

EHRLICH: Then in 1951 black Trinidadians took a steel band to London for a festival devoted to the cultures of the British colonies. Oscar Pile says at first the straight-laced Brits were skeptical of music played on discarded oil drums.

PILE: The British people thought, “Who are they? What are these people coming here for?” when they saw the dust bins and oil drums. Not knowing anything, what they heard out of these dust bins and drums. It was marvelous. They started to hear God Save The King. And various other classic music, playing on these pans. They start to hear Tennessee Waltz and they was amazed.

[a band plays Tennessee Waltz in steel pan style]

EHRLICH: Throughout the 1950s and 60s steel band music won greater respectability at home and abroad, but that didn’t make the steel bands exactly respectable-particularly for women.

PILE: If the parents had a daughter and she know that daughter has any relationship with a guy that’s playing the pan, “We don’t want you to have anything to do with a steel band man.” They deem you as a vagabond, robbers.

EHRLICH: A vagabond and a robber?

PILE: That’s right.

EHRLICH: And those were some of the nicer words society used when describing steel pan men. Many families didn’t want their daughters playing steel pans. And of course, the tough guys in the band weren’t real anxious to have women participate except as flag wavers in sexy costumes who paraded down the street with the band during carnival. Pan arranger Ray Holman explains.

RAY HOLMAN: The roughest of the rough were playing pans, so they excluded women. Women weren’t that rough, you know. And so gradually they came in. There was an all-girls steel band in the 1950s called Girl Pan Steel Band. But at first it was difficult, I think, for a woman to get involved in that music. It was macho.

PAT BISHOP: To ask about women in pan is to ask about women in Trinidad. The pan world is only a microcosm of the larger society.

EHRLICH: Steel pan arranger Pat Bishop says women in Trinidad were confined to certain kinds of jobs in the 1950s, and pan playing wasn’t one of them. By the late 1960s women around the world were joining the movement for women’s liberation. Bishop says the movement never gained organized strength in Trinidad and Tobago, but women began asserting themselves individually. By the late 1960s women started being accepted in the steel bands.

BISHOP: Women became tired of simply being the cooks and the nursemaids to these men and some of them just wanted to play. And they did.

EHRLICH: Today women make up about one-third of many steel bands. Women have become pan arrangers and in some cases, lead the bands as well.

[a band plays steel pan music]

EHRLICH: Trinidadians learned to tune the pans to mimic the sounds of European classical orchestras. These days 100 steel pan players can sound like a full symphony, as heard in the group Siffle Bunch’s version of the popular calypso tune, The Stranger.

[Shiffle Bunch band The Stranger]

EHRLICH: Every year the steel pan groups compete in Panorama, a contest to select the best band in the land. Some 30,000 people attend the finals, judged by a panel of music experts. But at least some of the musicians are unhappy with recent trends. Composer and arranger Ray Holman says too many bands rely on formulas and gimmicks aimed at winning points from the judges.

HOLMAN: The judges have a preconceived idea of what this thing should sound like. So if you arrange in that vein, then your chances of doing well are better. But if you should depart from it and do something different, it’s a little more difficult for you. You know, it’s not very readily accepted. But you have these exaggerated crescendos who always seem to please judges.

[a band plays steel pan music]

EHRLICH: Holman and others say steel band music still faces class conflict. Should the music serve the judges and other arbiters of musical taste, or should it serve the musicians? It’s similar to the conflict faced by artists everywhere. Should they pursue their vision or seek commercial success? But Pat Bishop doesn’t see it that way. She says the judges are just trying to improve a style that originated as rather unsophisticated marching music. She says the judges look at the panorama of performance as concert music and expect that level of musicianship.

BISHOP: When a band goes up and plays loudly for 10 minutes, their ears are offended. They ask for dynamics. When a band goes and plays a verse and chorus over and over and over again, they ask for reharmonization and melodic development. It has to serve its original client base of the streets, and it has at the same time to please its public by winning the competition on the stage. And that is the reason for the apparent awkwardness.

EHRLICH: Michael Boothman, a Trinidadian jazz guitarist, disagrees. He says Panorama has been particularly slow in accepting innovative artistic vision. He says for a long time pan players couldn’t even compose original music for Panorama.

MICHAEL BOOTHMAN: It took a while for the steel band movement to accept a composition from a fellow pan player. So guys like Ray Harmon, who was on of the pioneering arrangers, who composed music for pan to be played on Panorama, had to do it for about three or four years before he was able to make an impact.

BISHOP: The popular reaction to that is, on the whole, not popular.

EHRLICH: Pat Bishop says it’s not just the judges who reject Ray Holman’s innovations.

BISHOP: Ray Holman is, has, his popularity has to do with the fact that he innovated, that he started diversing the bands from his music, from the music of the streets. But so far he hasn’t, in this mode, won a Panorama. And that must tell you something about the extent to which innovation can carry the popular opinion.

EHRLICH: On the other hand, Panorama audiences have embraced the innovative styles of Len, “Boogsie” Sharp, who arranges for the steel band Phase II. In his version of the calypso song, Freedom, Sharp manages to introduce popular elements without resorting to musical clichés.

[Len Sharp’s band plays its version of Freedom]

EHRLICH: But Sharp’s arrangements are the exception. Some Trinidadian musicians would like Panorama fans and judges to accept a wider array of styles. Steel pan players in the US and Europe don’t mimic European classical orchestras, instead using elements of jazz, Latin, and African music. Pan player Aldon Moore says younger musicians would like to incorporate such innovations into Panorama.

ALDON MOORE: Jazz is a big influence on the, in Trinidad on pan right now. In later years you’re gonna hear much more, a difference in tonality when it comes to arranging, because of the jazz background. There is a chance for greater innovation because of the younger generation.

[a band plays steel pan music with a jazz influence]

EHRLICH: Steel pan music is one of Trinidad and Tobago’s great contributions to world culture. It was born in the country’s hard-scrabble working class districts and had to fight for respectability. Now that the music is universally accepted, some steel pan players say they must fight to keep the music evolving in ever new and innovative directions.

[a band plays steel pan music in orchestral style with a grand climax]

For Common Ground, I’m Reese Ehrlich, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security