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Steel pan bands are fighting for survival

UNDER THREAT: Nostalgia Steel Band

A STEEL pan veteran has called for more support for the members of the bands who form the heart and soul of London’s famous Notting Hill Carnival and help keep old traditions alive.

Speaking at the British Association of Steelbands’ (BAS) 15th annual awards ceremony on December 7, Pepe Francis argued that collectives like Mangrove and Ebony help generate millions of pounds for the British economy, yet they are fighting for survival.

A 2002 report by the London Development Agency (LDA) estimated that the event, which takes place every August bank holiday, contributes around £93 million to the economy.

He said: “We work all year to find the many thousands of pounds it takes to prepare a steel band for an international platform. In return for this we get nothing. No thanks. No appreciation.”

BAS events coordinator Debi Gardner agreed, pointing to what she said was “a woeful lack of recognition of the importance and contributions of pan.”

She said: “We’ve got bands and tutors who do a huge amount of community service working with special needs groups and with young people not in education employment or training. Their work is neither recognised nor supported by the government.”

Concerns were also raised about the inability to find places to conduct rehearsals, heavy registration fees and the absence of a suitable, dedicated space for steel bands during carnival.

Notting Hill Carnival, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014, is made up of five artistic arenas comprising calypso, mobile DJs, sound systems, costume or ‘mas’ bands and steel bands, overseen by the recently-formed London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust.


ANGER: Pepe Francis

But Francis accused the trust of creating a culture of inequality among the arenas.

He said: “I recently discovered that two of the five artistic arenas sitting round the table pay no registration fee to the company yet they are involved in decision-making. This is not fair.”

Responding to his concerns, trustee director Lewis Ben, said: “We are looking to work with all arenas to ensure that they all get equal support from the company.

“We are ourselves under-resourced, underfunded and we are doing the best we can under the current circumstances.”

The awards event, hosted by actor Robbie Gee and BBC radio presenter Eddie Nestor, brought together high-profile players from the steel pan world including Keith Diaz, president of Pan Trinbago (the world governing body for steel pan) and Brent Holder, who on October 23 became the youngest Trinbagonian, at 36, to receive an MBE.

Holder insisted that the steel pan has had “an amazing impact on disaffected young people.”

The teacher, who works with special needs children, said there needs to be a change of approach to the art form if it is to survive.

VICTORIES

Among those honoured was the band Nostalgia, who won the award for Best Traditional Steel Band, and Ebony who celebrated multiple victories in the Best Conventional Band and the Junior Panorama Champions categories.

Ryan King, 18, who was named the most young and promising performer claimed his band was like family.

He said: “I think, especially for the youths of my age who might not have family support, it is a great environment.”

Worldwide steel pan player, Tony Charles, whose career spans over 60 years and who has played for royal families across Europe, won the Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement award.

He said: “Pan is our culture, our identity, our gift to the world and it should always be cherished and preserved.”

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