Pan is joyful, wonderful music

By Wesley Gibbings from the height of Trinidad & Tobago Carnival

Stick around pan long enough - in all its manifestations as a musical instrument and agent of social mobilisation and change - and you eventually realise that any “beating” experienced will come from its own hands.


For example, one of my most embarrassing panyard moments came when my pan instructor delivered a public boof on me for knocking the skirt of a double second with the wooden end of a pan stick, in order to rein in fellow student chatter.

“If that was a piano, you would bang on it like that?” she asked.

That cut deep, as someone who has advocated vociferously against the use of “beat” to describe the “playing” of this instrument. So, though I had witnessed such a violation over the years, and had felt bad about it, as a pan playing newbie it was important that I internalised the lesson and displayed respect and appreciation for the instrument to which I routinely assign glorious accolades.

Certainly, I have never been a domestic disaster tourist daring to brave otherwise prohibited turf once a year and then to pronounce authoritatively on its egalitarian impacts. It has long been clear to me that the instrument, together with the social movement that keeps it alive and valuable, has consistently delivered “beatings” of its own on cynics, sceptics, and the ignorant who have attempted to diminish its value as the single greatest thing we do as a country.

Be clear, when Merchant sang Pan in Danger in 1985 it was meant to be a rallying call to recognise its value as a national asset and not something marginal to the development effort. His message was sadly adopted as a double-edged sword to simultaneously signal some kind of decline … which never came … and to trigger jingoistic protectionism.

But Merchant was in fact administering licks on politicians and others, including the pan leadership, for not recognising the vast potential of something that had much wider meaning for T&T society. It was also not an appeal to “patriotic” passions to achieve pan exclusivity. For, even then, as the song concedes, pan playing and innovation had already leapt an invitingly low fence and gone their merry way to the UK and elsewhere. Such sharing suggests no loss by the sharer.


Pan beatings on fascist emotions over pan have since come fast and furious. Everybody, everywhere now knows and uses the appropriate size of the rubber on a pan stick. Though we remain the place where you find the best players playing the best songs guided by the best arrangers on the best pans, tuned by the best tuners in the world, the steelpan is now a global musical, social, and economic asset benefiting players, audiences, and musical landscapes far and wide.

This is not to say that we should continue missing valuable intellectual property opportunities when it comes to some aspects of pan innovation, music, musical arrangements, design, and other attributes. Because of pan, one can argue that we are the country with the most people per capita who can play a musical instrument beyond the rudiments of classroom introduction. There is no cause to be insecure about it.

All the while, though, and because music (as with all art) is about taste and aesthetic preference, there will always be those who just do not like it. That’s fair enough. But pan is clearly more than the music it delivers.

There is also the set who, even as they linger restlessly on the periphery of the instrument and all it means, gratuitously and routinely attempt to drag pan into their dark, grimy, tribal spaces.


Last weekend’s Small Bands Panorama Finals put a sound beating on all of them. Small bands from small communities with big sounds lashed hard. Young people were also there to belie a lack of generational enthusiasm. Even when the players and followers grow to become paying patrons and supporters, there is this nonsense about young people not being interested in pan. Reducing “support for pan” to occupied seats at a competitive venue betrays a complete lack of understanding of what pan means to us.

The steelpan “saved” many of us at the height of pandemic lockdowns, beating both pessimism and the ridiculous notion of mere seasonal relevance. 

This year’s Panorama contests are also witnessing a generational transition in the area of musical arrangement. This is not solely because of organised events; it is happening because pan is not in danger. The success of pan is not contingent on the quantum of state largesse – however desirable it might be as a supportive mechanism resulting from official edict or proclamation. 

There is a lot of work to be done by all concerned – Pan Trinbago being but one of many stakeholders. But pan will not be beaten. It delivers licks of its own. Bun dem!