There has been a significant Guyanese contribution to steel pan technology

Dear Editor,

I was pleased to read, if belatedly, the Wednesday, February 22, Stabroek News editorial headed ‘Pan-O-Rama.’

As a member of the steel pan fraternity, I must say that while much of it was okay, I found some key points to be both extremely misleading and disturbing.

O P Steelpan (Music) Nation, of which I am the founder/proprietor is a full service establishment, the leading supplier of quality steel pans and accessories for over thirty-five years. Our clients are both local (Allied Arts Unit, Ministry of Education, churches, private schools, community groups, individuals) and foreign from the USA, Barbados, Brazil, Belize and French Guiana. We are currently negotiating an order to supply our products to the Bahamas.

Beginning some time in the year 1995 discussions with persons including myself, Prof Joycelynne Loncke, Mr Roy Geddes, Mrs Mildred Lowe, Ms Edith Peters (deceased), and many others were held at various times to find a way to revive the declining steel band art form. In our deliberations we identified the need for more specialist steel pan makers and to propagate the art form in schools. Having a desire to make a meaningful contribution to this revival, I applied to the United Nations Educa-tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I was awarded a partial fellowship within the framework of the UNESCO Fellowship Pro-gramme which enabled me to commence steel pan technology training in Pittsburgh, USA.

It is from this professional background that I note the following observations in your editorial and offer my comments:

“The latest technologically developed pans will be required to be imported from Trinidad, the home of pan…. ”

This statement belies an ignorance of the significant Guyanese contribution to steel pan technology, particularly as exemplified by Mr Phil Solomon. Born in British Guiana, by age seventeen he was making steelpans and arranging music for his first steelband ‒ The Bell Boys. He formed the Atlantic Symphony Steel Orchestra in 1966, and later the Pegasus Sound Waves. He received national recognition when he won, ‘Musician of the Year’ from the National Arts Council of Guyana for his composition,‘O Martyr to Cuffy We Sing.’

His most significant contribution is in the area of design and  construction, inventing and perfecting the trademarked Grooveless Method and the Synchronized Note Placement System.

Today, his company, Solomon Steelpan Company not only supplies steel pans worldwide, but also works with community-based organizations, using them as a means of engaging young people in music. OP Steelpan (Music) Nation is an offspring of the Solomon school.

On the issue of the supposed need for importation, it should be noted that beginning in 2008, steel pan pieces were imported to represent Guyana at Carifesta X. Let me quote from Caribbean Net News published on April 26, 2008, “Government has contributed $30M for this venture.” Over the last nine years this has been happening, up to as recently as late 2016.

I strongly believe neither Minister Dr Rupert Roopnaraine nor Minister within the Ministry of Education Nicolette Henry is aware of this.

Mr Vincent Alexander, Special Advisor to the Education Minister was asked, “Is it necessary for the Ministry of Education to have to purchase steel pan instruments from Trinidadian pan makers for our schools in Guyana, as is about to happen in 2016?” After making it clear to us that the answer was not his, but what had been given to him, his response was: “The ministry has a new policy; from here onward the ministry will be importing steel pan instruments from Trinidad for two sections of our schools’ steelband orchestras.” The Administrator of the Allied Arts Unit, Mrs Desiree Wyles-Ogle was asked the same question, and her answer was, “CSME.” It should be noted that at the time of the writing of your ‘Pan-O-Rama’ editorial, an Allied Arts Unit steel pan order from Trinidad, was lingering at a port of entry, waiting for clearance.

Your editorial says, “The local level of pan tuning must be raised to international standards.” Well, this statement is not only erroneous, but it’s also the epitome of ignorance in relation to local capacity.

Guyana already produces steel pans to international standards and has tuning talent. Our Belizean client admitted he’d rather have our Guyana steel pan sound than the ones he heard from elsewhere.

All those instruments he acquired had the label, ‘Made in Guyana’.

Space does not permit me to address other issues, but I should note three critical issues surrounding state management of the steel pan sector that constitute the reason myself and other individuals refrain from participation in Panorama:

(1) The use of the state steel pan for personal gain, an issue that was raised in June of 2015 by Transparency Guyana Inc, but which had not been resolved as of January last year.

It was covered in the article ‘Transparency Group raps Department of Culture over steel pan probe’, (SN, January 22, 2016). It has not been resolved up to now.

(2)The procurement of a Trinidadian national to tune up the state-owned steelpans in 2014, 2015, 2016, sometimes twice a year, and the complete misrepresentations offered as justification to the National Assembly. (Notice Paper No 309 (Q 209 Opp. 206) published on April 2, 2014).

(3)The recent procurement of a foreign steelpan order, through a less than transparent process.

In closing, I am hereby appealing to President David Granger to look closely at this matter. Investment in the local creative sector has been a key policy position of our new administration, and continued external procurement is contradictory to that policy.

As such, we are requesting an urgent meeting with the key policy-makers and officers to discuss the way forward.

Your faithfully,

Oliver Pross Steelpan  

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