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Steel Pan in New York

Steel-Pan Bands in Brooklyn Struggle to Find Rehearsal Space

A foreword from Listen To The World

[Jakarta, LttW] Nowadays The Movement of New York Steel Pan musician have to face an issue that they are still struggling to get any place to carry out musical activities, as quoted from an article Steel-Pan Bands in Brooklyn Struggle to Find Rehearsal Space, NY Times”, Their spirit give us an inspiration, to fight for our rights to have ideal conditions coveted by musicians and people.

Their hindrance appears because of the rejection from neighborhood residents who felt uncomfortable with the noises that came from steel pan banging; they encounter with landlords and police officers who demand them to pay rent which they normally used for practicing. At this point we assume that narrow spaces of New York’s infrastructure is a cause of polemic, money seems the only way out for establishing their activities. Therefore to conserve these music needs, a full consciousness is needed from people to understand the purposes of steel pan music, where this Steel Pan music is one of the manifestations of Caribbean culture. The cultural work is not an easy job therefore it needs all people (young, old, families, government) to give contributions to conserve the music.

Now if we would take an example from Balinese Gamelan from Indonesia, whose activities are still established in society especially in the local level. The locals are still perpetuating Gamelan Bali, because of their life and religion are standing together, although the local Government still see Gamelan as a tourism interest. Somehow the locals took outdoor places to practice, they have fields, yards, forest, and they also have “banjar” (public space for any kind activities in any village in Bali). If we compare to New York City infrastructure, Bali still have wide spaces where the Bali people still have a distance to crowded zone yet the people definitely know the purpose of Gamelan to the society.

As we know America (USA) also has cultural histories that flourished across of the world and yet these histories did not start from happiness, they even start from pains. As we know Jazz, Blues and Hip-Hop had been through the ocean’s influx and tides, from affliction living to ideals living. If we look at this history, we believe New York Steel Pan musicians could reach their dream to become reality and the World will see the impacts of their hard work.

(EU, FZ)

Steel-Pan Bands in Brooklyn Struggle to Find Rehearsal Space

by Colin Moynihan, The New York Times, July 7, 2015

Steel-pan bands, introduced to New York City by Caribbean immigrants, have joyously chimed across central Brooklyn for decades, performing at graduations and weddings and at annual events near Prospect Park like a musical competition called Panorama and an exuberant predawn street procession each Labor Day called J’ouvert.

The bands have traditionally rented or squatted on empty lots known as pan yards, which serve as rehearsal spots and gathering places where residents mingle and dance. But finding such lots in the West Indian enclaves of Flatbush and Crown Heights, just east of Prospect Park, has become harder as Brooklyn has gentrified. So with the arrival of summer this year, steel-pan bands are making agreements to use lots, searching for spots they can afford, or simply looking for places where an owner won’t know or care that a pan yard has been established.

“We’re fighting to keep going,” said Tony Joseph, 51, a civil engineer and high school basketball coach who since 1990 has led the Metro Steel Orchestra Youth & Culture band. “It seems that every year you have to move.”

Mr. Joseph spoke on a recent evening as about a dozen young members of the orchestra carried bright silver steel-pan instruments across a city-owned dirt lot in Brownsville, then began their first practice of the summer, starting with a series of scales before moving on to snippets of songs with titles like “Cloud Nine Lyrikal.”

Last summer, without making payments to anyone, Metro Steel practiced in a Crown Heights parking lot two blocks from Prospect Park until the police told its musicians to leave, Mr. Joseph said. This year, he said, the band was asserting “squatters’ rights” on the Brownsville lot, which is more than two dozen blocks from the park.

It was once easier to find a pan yard for the summer, band leaders said. Rental fees were often minimal, the band leaders added, perhaps because the bands were seen as local institutions or because hours of practice were believed to help keep younger people away from trouble. These days, many lots near Prospect Park are being developed. Some that are still empty are owned by people who may see a new value in their relative rarity.

Several band leaders said the asking price this year for lots in Flatbush and Crown Heights had climbed to about $5,000 a month, beyond the reach of most steel-pan bands, which rely mainly on the sale of food and drink during rehearsals to pay for practice space, instruments and uniforms.

And, as real estate prices have risen in Flatbush and Crown Heights, some newer arrivals have viewed steel-pan bands as noisy annoyances rather than valued neighbors, complaining to landlords or the police about nighttime gatherings.

As a result, bands that were once fixtures have moved on. Last year one of the most prominent bands, Despers USA, had to leave a yard in Crown Heights. Martin Douglas, the president of the United States Steel Band Association and the leader of the Crossfire Steel Orchestra, said that he knew of half a dozen bands including his that could not find outdoor spaces this summer in Flatbush or Crown Heights.

“It’s disturbing,” he said, calling those neighborhoods “the heart of the steel-pan world in North America.”

One of the bands having difficulty finding a pan yard, the Casym Steel Orchestra, paid $2,000 a month last summer to use a lot in Flatbush, said the band’s leader, Travis Roberts. At the end of the season, Mr. Roberts said, a real estate broker who had arranged the rental told him that the lot was being sold and that the band could not remain. City records show that the lot has changed hands twice since last August; the Buildings Department recently approved the construction of an 80-unit apartment building there with a rooftop terrace and subterranean garage.

Some displaced bands, like Casym and Crossfire, have been using cramped indoor spaces that cannot accommodate an entire ensemble, which may include 50 performers or more. Others have ended up in far-flung parts of Brooklyn, miles from Prospect Park. Such moves will make it more arduous to transport instruments to Panorama and J’ouvert, band members said, and have separated bands from communities that provided encouragement and financial support.

Steel Pan struggles in NYC (2)

Anthony Hinds, a steel-pan veteran who started an American branch of a Trinidadian band called the Dem Stars Steel Orchestra, said that he thought the City of New York should help bands find permanent and affordable homes in Flatbush or Crown Heights.

Jumaane D. Williams, a City Council member who represents Flatbush, called the steel-pan bands “extremely important, culturally,” and said he was taking part in discussions with the police, pan-yard participants and residents to balance the bands’ need to practice and the concerns of neighbors.

Steel-pan bands have roots in neighborhood carnival bands in Trinidad that were suppressed by colonial British authorities, said Shannon Dudley, an ethnomusicology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, and the author of “Music From Behind the Bridge” (Oxford University Press), about the history of steel-pan music. When British officials banned drums in the 1880s, he said, bands replaced them with bamboo instruments and then, around 1940, with metal objects like biscuit tins and garbage cans that they banged while marching. Eventually, musicians began using 55-gallon steel barrels.

Contemporary instruments are still made from such barrels: one face is sunk into a concave shape and then dents are carefully hammered into the surface, with each one producing a different note. Although many people associate steel-pan bands with calypso-style music, the bands have a history of playing songs from diverse genres, including and rock and gospel.

On a recent evening in Canarsie, members of the Pantonic Steel Orchestra, who were practicing in the courtyard of a storage complex, played experimental jazz pieces that sounded as if they could have been inspired by Ornette Coleman or John Zorn.

One member, Gwynn Glasgow, said that she had been part of the band since 1997, when it was founded by her mother, Glenda Gamory, a Trinidadian immigrant.

Last summer the band practiced in a lot in Flatbush about 10 blocks from Prospect Park, but did not return because of disagreements with the owner and noise complaints from neighbors, Ms. Glasgow said. She added that band members were searching for an outdoor lot to use this summer but had begun practicing in front of the roughly 100-square-foot storage space, where they were keeping their instruments but far from the park.

Although the storage courtyard had been better than nothing, Ms. Glasgow said, she worried about the lack of a more established outdoor gathering spot.

“If we don’t have a place to call home, our followers can’t find us,” she said, adding that a band cannot exist without an audience. “If you take away one from two, you’re really left with nothing.”


Originally published at the New York Times, July 7, 2015.

Author: Colin Moynihan

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