The Saharan summer turned to autumn overnight. Fallen leaves from drought-stricken trees turned Green Park yellow and the air was far from mellow. A flood stopped the Circle Line from circulating and the buses broke down in despair.
It wasn’t an auspicious start for the return of Carnival Culture in the Park as steelpan took the spotlight on the Opera Holland Park stage on Wednesday 17 August. But, as the song has it, “Things can only get better” – and they did.
This year we had two more bands to enjoy. Last year’s stars, Ebony and Mangrove, were back again and were joined by Pan Nation, from Tottenham, and Croydon-based Endurance SO. Each steelband was restricted to 12 players. The limit was presumably to allow four bands to occupy the space without the need for time-consuming changeovers (one of the bugbears at Panorama), but it proved to be a masterstroke. Martin Jay did the honours as MC for the night.
First up was Mangrove, which gave us their usual powerful, bassy sound. They sounded very much as you’d expect, though some commented that the percussion was a bit overwhelming. They were followed by Ebony, whose lighter sound and (to the reviewer’s untrained ear) livelier arrangements seemed rather better suited to the space. If you only had only been able to catch this half of the show, you would probably have gone away well satisfied with what you had heard.
Mangrove and Ebony then got together to provide the music for the remarkable voice of Trinidadian soprano Anne Fridal, looking spectacular in a sparkling silver gown – to dominate that vast stage you do need to dress like a diva as well as sound like one! Singing Kitchener’s Pan in A Minor, Anne was in her element, of course, getting the audience to join in the chorus of ‘Beat pan’. She then explained that she has created a ‘calypsopera’ called London is the Place for Me, from which she sang the title track, duetting with Marvin Smith.
After the interval the audience settled back in OHP’s delightfully mismatched armchairs to listen to Pan Nation. Except that from the first notes everyone was forced to sit up and pay attention – this was something quite different. Their second piece, in particular, caused many in the OHP audience to look at each other and say “Wow!” The selection of songs, the arrangements and the joie-de-vivre with which the music was played upped the game considerably.
And we weren’t disappointed when the time came for Endurance to take over. Once again, we were being given a complete change of style as these young players rendered familiar songs in new and exciting ways. They have a very smooth, flowing style, which worked beautifully on Janet Kay’s 1979 hit Silly Games – you could hear her high notes singing right out of those pans.
It was all over far too soon, but what we heard was a revelation – one of those magical musical experiences that will remain in the memory for a long time. More importantly, perhaps, it showed what can happen when you allow smaller bands to showcase their imagination, liveliness and talent.
Afterwards, several respected observers of Carnival and its music agreed that this is a formula that should be adopted for a new and more inclusive kind of Panorama, one that allows all bands to compete on a level playing field and that de-links the competition from whatever song has just dominated Trinidad Carnival. A genuine music competition, suggested one audience member (a musician), would reward the best playing of the best arrangement of the most interesting and challenging song, not simply something that has been handed down from 7,000km away.
Steelpan Summer has shown there is another way. Why don’t we explore it?