Panorama Steel Band competition in Trinidad – Isn’t everyone a winner?


It’s name is ‘Panorama’ and it is the annual music competition of steel bands from Trinidad and Tobago.

The first official Trinidad Panorama took place in 1963. It was the chairman of the Carnival Development Committee then, Ronald Jay Williams, who gave the festival its name. He chose it from the word ‘pan’ which is the name Trinidadians call their national instrument. It was only erroneously dubbed the ‘steel drum’ outside the island where the instrument was invented/developed.

Panorama flyer for carnival 1963
First Panorama Flyer – Trinidad 1963

The Panorama competitors are large bands of a minimum size of 40 players. Each band competes in Single Pan, Small Conventional, Medium Conventional and Large Conventional categories. However, each and every one of them are called ‘steel bands’.

As someone who runs their own steel band it does disappoint me when people refer to Solid Steel as my ‘steel pan band’. I’m even more horrified when they refer to it as my ‘steel drum band’.

So just to set the record straight, I prefer to regard Panorama as more than just a competition. It’s more a celebration of Trinidad’s national instrument, the ‘steel pan’ or ‘pan’! Participants are mostly playing pans of different tonal ranges alongside their rhythm sections made up of other percussionists, after all.

The music they play is locally described as Panorama music. This is because the Panorama contest requires them to play a certain style and the judges demand certain elements be included in the performance. This is despite the fact that steel bands can play any genre of music from ‘popular’ to ‘classical’. All of which Trinidadians, themselves, simply call ‘steelband music’!

So what defines a Panorama musical piece?

Well, there is no better way to showcase this national folk instrument than demand it plays the national Trinidadian folk music style. That genre long ago gained international recognition (thank you, Harry Belafonte) and is the music we call ‘calypso’.

Each steel band plays a popular current calypso that is highly arranged into an 8 minute piece. It must include original introductions and key variations- similar to a classical piece- but to an infectious uptempo calypso rhythm.

The calypsos are written by calypsonians who historically have written some songs that are more harmonically and melodically sophisticated. These songs need to inspire the imagination of any musical arranger tasked with writing a purely instrumental arrangement.

The greatest writer of Panorama-winning tunes was the calypsonian, Lord Kitchener. Regrettably, he passed away in 2000 having only seen 36 Panorama contests in his lifetime. However, his tunes were the choice of 19 Panorama-winning performances from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. Indeed, he enjoyed a run of 11 straight wins. To put his fantastic achievement in even better context, no other composer has contributed more than 4 Panorama-winning calypsos.

Nowadays, Panorama arrangements are as complex as ever. This is despite the songs that are their source being generally much simpler than Kitchener’s!

Panorama bass steel pan player
Panorama in Trinidad (2019)

So who competes in Panorama?

Many of the players of each band will need to spend months learning to play their parts. This with the arranger and his section leaders drilling them on an almost daily basis.

Great dexterity and rhythmic timing are crucial to deliver the best possible performance. It’s no surprise, therefore, that before the finals the instruments all receive meticulous attention from each band’s tuner.

But if the skills of the players and the tuners are important, the skills of the arranger are even more so.

He or she must write an arrangement that will thrill the crowd and impress the judges. The standards of playing are so high that it is commonly the arrangement that wins the day. An arrangement that the judges favour wins the contest for any steel band!

Not many of the arrangers and far less of the players have any formal education in writing or reading music. Consequently, the arrangers largely convey their ideas via verbal instruction and demonstration- in a way similar to teaching in a music workshop.

Nevertheless, the players with their excellent physical percussion skills work together in what is a fantastic communal effort. This is absolutely necessary to produce the musical performance demanded by the arrangement.

And ‘community’ is so important here. There are so many players and so many practice nights that socially band members become family. Irrespective of whether or not they are actually related!

An international steel band community

This community is a very diverse one too. In any Panorama steel band in Trinidad you will find that the players’ ages will range from 10 to 70. There will also be as many female pan players as there will be males. The racial mix will reflect the make-up of the island, too. Hence people of African, Indian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and European descent will all be involved.

Apart from the local players many fine players from the USA, Japan, Britain and other parts of Europe travel over to Trinidad. Most of these like to play with the bigger better-known bands like the Renegades, Desperadoes, Silver Stars and  Phase II.

Everyone combines on Panorama Finals night so that visually and aurally the performances are stunning with over a 1000 players in total taking part. And an audience of 20,000 cheer them on.

In an island population of only 1.2 million, those are impressive figures indeed.

Scoring well on Panorama Finals night earns the bands prize money, with the winning band getting $1,000,000TT. This translates to more than £10,000.

But it really is the bragging rights that bands most value from a Panorama win. In any one year there are likely to be 3 or 4 equally strong contenders for each contest.

The Large Conventional Band category is the ‘heavyweight’ title at Panorama. Two of the most popular steel bands, Renegades and Desperadoes have each won this title 11 times.

Solid Steel pannist in Panorama steel band
Panorama in Trinidad (2019)

So is Panorama good for the profile and development of steel pan?

Panorama does have its critics, however.

It is a contest and just like a sporting contest it has rules and guidelines as to how judges rank performances. As such it is now common to find particular musical tactics in many contemporary Panorama arrangements that the bands know win points.

For some arrangers the artistic shackles feel sufficiently inhibiting that they don’t really care about how the judges- who they feel are poorly qualified to adjudicate anyway- score them. So they don’t care about winning Panorama- or so they claim.

I suspect that a ‘surprise’ win for those detractors would be very welcome. And I also suspect that their hope for Panorama to ‘evolve’ into a music festival without any formal judging one day is but a pipedream.

Trinis love a contest. For most of them pan, steel band and Panorama are all ‘we ting’. This means they are things they believe belongs to them culturally. They don’t want them to change in any way nor for any other people or countries to do things differently.

Many top-flight players and arrangers would like to see steel band music embrace other musical forms like jazz more willingly, but there is little appetite for this from Panorama ‘we ting’ aficionados.

This is an annual music contest the likes of which would be very unfamiliar to most people in the UK. Despite its flaws, it is though, I would argue, the greatest folk music contest in the world!