restricted access 9 - Return to Trinidad and the World Steelband Music Festival 2000
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C H A P T E R 9 RETURN TO TRINIDAD AND THE WORLD STEELBAND MUSIC FESTIVAL 2000 It’s not just a school we operate at NIU, it’s a brotherhood. It means a lot for us to play in this World Festival. It is an experience. The instrument is being played by Universities around the world. We don’t think about coming to compete and win. There is no axe to grind. It’s all about the experience. I have always talked to my students about pan in Trinidad and Tobago. Now they can witness all that I told them first hand. —Cliff Alexis (2000)1 From the time Alexis joined O’Connor at NIU in 1985, the pair shared a hope that some day they would be able to bring the NIU Steelband to Trinidad. Beyond showing off the progress of steelpan in the United States, O’Connor and Alexis wanted to expose NIU students to the real flesh and blood of steelpan’s roots. In October of 2000, the NIU Steelband finally got its chance to sojourn to the birthplace of steelpan as participants in the World Steelband Music Festival (hereafter WSMF) competition. The WSMF was an outgrowth of the biannual nationwide steelband competition Pan Is Beautiful. For the 2000 installment of Pan Is Beautiful, a decision was made by officials of Pan Trinbago to invite steelbands from outside Trinidad and Tobago to participate, and it therefore temporarily changed the festival name to the World Steelband Music Festival. The Pan Is Beautiful steelband festival has a long history, having originated in Trinidad and Tobago in 1952. Colonial Trinidad (pre-1962) held music festivals and competitions for conventional European instruments as early as 1948, if not earlier, and, inspired by the rousing success of TASPO’s (Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra) trip to Europe in C H A P T E R 9 90 1950,2 a special category for steelbands was created. For the first competition in 1952, classical music was optional, and the test piece was an arrangement of a popular calypso-style tune. The inclusion of steelpan was a success, and British judge Dr. Sydney Northcote commented ,“We have witnessed man’s ingenuity in trying to get beauty out of something that is absolutely a waste product.”3 Over the years,regular festivals with steelband competitions continued and became a biannual institution. After a brief hiatus during the 1970s, the festivals were restarted in the 1980s under the name Pan Is Beautiful; as part of this revived tradition, the National Schools steelband competition was added as a separate element in 1981. For the World Steelband Music Festival in 2000, Pan Trinbago’s decision to invite steelbands from around the globe posed several substantial logistical problems, the most pressing of which was narrowing down the number of participants. Festival organizers set a semifinal roster with sixteen slots available; six of these were reserved for foreign bands. In 1998, Pan Is Beautiful served double duty as the island-wide steelband competition and as the preliminary qualifying round for the WSMF for Trinidad and Tobago steelbands. Steelbands from across the country were invited to participate.4 For Pan Is Beautiful in 1998, O’Connor was again invited back to Trinidad and Tobago as one of the foreign judges. Shortly after his return to DeKalb from Trinidad, two Pan Trinbago officials, Richard Forteau and Junia Regrello, came to NIU on a fact-finding mission. The pair announced to O’Connor and Alexis that Pan Trinbago was planning the World Steelband Music Festival , and impressed by the steelband program at NIU, they invited the NIU Steelband to compete.5 The presence of Pan Trinbago officials at NIU inspired Alexis and O’Connor to think about the possibilities of taking a group of students and alumni to Trinidad to compete in the WSMF. Many logistical issues had to be worked out to even consider such a trip for the NIU Steelband, and atop the list was money. Alexis recalled,“In the back of my head, I wondered if the event would come off and if we were going to enter.”6 After serious deliberation O’Connor and Alexis decided to accept the invitation, and the NIU Steelband was set to head to Trinidad and Tobago. Three European steelbands were also chosen through a preliminary competition held in Paris, France at the Parc de la Villette in May of 2000. There was, however, no preliminary competition staged in the United States...


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