Rhoma Spencer, Artistic Director, Pan Alive. Photo: C. Bird

Steelpan drum players gather for ultimate Pan Alive steelband music competition

In celebration of freedom and diversity, Lamport Stadium will be alive with the sound of steelpan music as steelbands compete in the Pan Alive Competition to decide Ontario’s Champion Steelband on Aug. 3, 2018. Artistic director Rhoma Spencer tells us about her role in the festival as well as a new event on the Friday night leading up to the Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival Grand Parade, also known as, Caribana [article, video].

The annual competition produced by Ontario Steelpan Association (OSA) began as a non-competitive event at Ontario Place in 1997. It has now become the only community steelband competition in Toronto, and a major artistic component of the Peeks Toronto Caribbean Carnival Grand Parade.

At the media launch on May 15 they announced that right after the Pan Alive festival at Lamport Stadium, there “will be a party almost a j’ouvert, which is what we’re accustomed to in Trinidad,” Spencer tells me, “leading up to the beginning of the Carnival on Saturday morning. That’s something that is new that is going to happen right after Pan Alive, so that’s very exciting.”

Spencer has been the artistic director of the Pan Alive celebration for the last two years, is again tasked with coming up with “a theme or a statement for what is happening” for this year.

She is the host of the event and also does the commentary for the competition along with a partner who commentates on the music. The idea of doing the music commentary during the show is something that Spencer came up with when she started in the position two years ago.

Spencer says she works with a script that guides how the entire evening will unfold. “From the moment the bands are set up to go on stage, when they perform, when they leave,” is all managed from that primary event schedule.

Watch the video with Rhoma Spencer talking about her role in the Pan Alive festival on YouTube.com/CoreMagazines:

How does the Pan Alive competition work?

Each steelband performs an eight-minute arrangement of a calypso. The verse and chorus of a calypso usually amount to one minute of music, so the arranger has to create the additional seven minutes. The final results are determined by a panel of three to five adjudicators who award points for arrangement (40), performance (40), tone (10) and rhythm (10). This year, the reigning champions, Pan Fantasy Steelband, will be going all out to retain their title.

A conventional steelband is composed of both tuned and un-tuned percussion instruments. The tuned instruments are tenors (really the soprano voice), double tenors, double seconds (alto voice), guitar pans-double or triple (tenor voice), ‘cellos, quadrophonics, tenor basses (baritone voice) and low basses (six, nine or twelve steelpans). The un-tuned percussion, which is referred to as the Engine Room, consists of a drum kit, iron (brake drum), congas, cowbell, scratcher and other percussion instruments.

The competing community steelbands are based in downtown Toronto, Scarborough, North York, Brampton and Hamilton. They consist of 700 volunteer pannists, ages nine to 70-plus, and 300 non-playing volunteers who provide the necessary infrastructural support for the steelbands’summer activities. The majority of the pannists do not read or write music, so they rehearse four hours per evening, seven days per week for around five weeks in order to learn the arrangement and play it from memory.

by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird


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