Mangrove, 2018 Panorama champions. Photograph: Stephen Spark

It was my first time at Panorama for several years, but the warmth of the welcome dispelled the unsummery chill in the west London air – once I had managed to breach the defences of Fortress Horniman’s Pleasance.

The park was hidden from view by solid metal barriers, so the only way you could see the annual steelband clash was by buying a £5 ticket, which you exchanged at the entrance for a wristband. This was something new, and not only for me. If you hadn’t bought in advance, online, you were out of luck – park full. Many were the illustrious names who found themselves shut out of the show. Those who warned a charge would put people off coming to Panorama were clearly wrong, but a rumoured £10 charge being contemplated for next year might meet more resistance.

Another change from my last visit was in the people coming to enjoy Britain’s grand steelpan showcase. The audience was far more mixed, with many South Americans and Europeans evident in the queue that snaked down Kensal Road. In the days leading up to the competition, both Panorama and the steelbands received far more attention than usual from national press and broadcasters. That’s an encouraging sign, and proves that positive engagement with the media does pay off. But what to do with all the people who now know about and want to experience Panorama but can’t get in to it?

We’ve been used to the bands moving along Kensal Road, but this year they came down one way into the park itself, manoeuvred into the performance position and left by a different exit. For a small band like RASPO it was straightforward, but getting around 100 players and their kit into position, and back out after performing, proved to be a laborious, time-consuming business.

From the road there’s a slight slope down towards the performance area, roughly in the centre of the park, giving a fair view for most of the audience. On the left-hand side was a brightly lit bar sponsored by The Duppy Share and beyond it a small stand for VIPs and media. To the right of the stand was the judges’ table. Spectators could also stand behind the performance area, beyond which was the Red Bull Stage, waiting for the next day’s acts.

We started off with Mangrove playing Hulk by Blaxx, arranged by Andre White. For sheer exuberance and joy, not to mention a monster eruption of dense green smoke, Mangrove looked hard to beat – and so it proved. Then along came Croydon Steel Orchestra, who got the crowd smiling and moving to their rendition of Sweet fuh Days by Patrice Roberts, arranged by Paul Dowie. Hulk was also the tune chosen by Phase One from Coventry, arranged by Stephon Phillip. They started off unspectacularly enough but became more interesting about half-way through. With only 25 players, Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra could hardly match the sheer power of the big bands, but they got a rousing cheer from the crowd for Mad Man by Marlon Abner and arranged by Paul J Watson and Dani Richardson. Fifth on the bill was orange-attired Metronomes, whose 105 musicians played Ignorance by Jamma, arranged by Leroy Clarke. Then it was back to Hulk, in a Duvonne Scott arrangement, for defending 2017 champions, Ebony. The 90 players brought the competition to a close in impressive style, sounding crisp, clear and tight, with an arrangement that was full of interest and variety.

Having heard the contenders, the judges pored over their figures. For the first time, the audience was also able to contribute, by using the Carnival app to vote for their favourite band, in much the same way that the London Calypso Tent audience votes for King and Queen of the Tent. Would the famously partisan Panorama audience up-end the considered verdict of the distinguished steelpan judges? In fact, the result was the same: Mangrove got the judges’ nod by three points over Ebony and walked away with 31% of the popular vote.

Shaking up Panorama was always going to be controversial, and even those broadly in favour of the changes felt there was room for improvement. Soca News heard some interesting suggestions from pan-lovers in the park. Bring back the big screen, said one. Another felt a temporary wall behind the performance space would project the sound forwards rather than letting it dissipate into the back of the park. To speed up the changeovers, a Canadian visitor suggested having bands simultaneously in three positions: one dismantling after playing, another playing and the third setting up, with the judges moving position to face the band currently playing. And even though you can’t make the park bigger, you could perhaps accommodate more people by building a second, bigger, stand – giving London its own Grandstand and North Stand! The debate will surely continue…

The results are an annual source of joy and disappointment, controversy and criticism, but Panorama is about more than just points. It’s a wonderful social occasion where you meet old friends and make new ones, and can do so while enjoying roti, rum and the anticipation of the Carnival to come.

This year the glint of the pans was matched by a silvery gleam in the night sky from a full moon. Let’s hope the magic of Panorama remains accessible to all who want to show their appreciation for the music of our steelbands.

Results

Position Steelband Song Points
1st. Mangrove Steel Band Hulk 279
2nd. Ebony Steel Band Hulk 276
3rd. Metronomes Steel Orchestra Ignorance 269
4th. Croydon Steel Orchestra Sweet Fuh Days 238
4th. Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra Mad Man 238
6th. Phase One Steel Orchestra Hulk 229

 

People’s Choice

Position Steelband Song %
1st. Mangrove Steel Band Hulk 26.6
2nd. Phase One Steel Orchestra Hulk 19.4
3rd. Croydon Steel Orchestra Sweet Fuh Days 17.4
4th. Ebony Steel Band Hulk 17
5th. Metronomes Steel Orchestra Ignorance 12.7
6th. Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra Mad Man 6.9
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