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​Pan’s Labyrinth

Photographs by Mark Lyndersay. Photo credit requested.

Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersay

My name is Ralph James and I do everything to do with pan.

I remember the days when pan didn’t have respect. Is there I come from.

I grew up in a very powerful village called Tunapuna, a borough! Something like Port of Spain, but not really like Port of Spain. Every little thing you think about, you get it in Tunapuna. You don’t have to go nowhere. It had THREE big cinema. Eros, Palladium and Monarch, right on the Main Road.

I come from a big family. A worldwide family. They not easy. Money does follow them. I had was to tell my little nephew that, your father kick the bucket and you get through with everything. He went and fix up and call the next brother, no bacchanal. I tell him, money does follow all-you. That ent slipping out your hand! Money easy to spend and finish. Money doesn’t come just so; you have to come good.

Boy days in Tunapuna is so powerful. The talking is nice. Football, riding roller skates, not much cricket, scooter, trolley. Swimming. Fighting. Thiefing. Mango. Anything, anything, anything, we thiefing. But wasn’t me alone. You have to go in a group. That is school days. Almost the whole class plan to do that.

Primary school was Tunapuna Government which anybody could go, even a bachac and, they don’t want to know where you from. But the rest of schools taking you in a religion styling. It was the only school I went to. I reach in the secondary department in post-primary and I start to work after that. They just put you to work to learn something.

That was the first thing: to learn something.

I didn’t like too much school but staying away, I couldn’t do that. All friends in school, Monday to Friday. The book-writing and the book-learning, I wasn’t too acquainted with that. I did rather doing thing like you guessing – what they call “creative.” Because, when they put book-work in front of you, the amount of studies, you can’t go nowhere! You know the things! But to learn the things by heart? No way!

Everything you have pack up in book, from foundation to finish, but you have to go home and learn it. I carry it home but to learn it, that is where the trouble start. Because the amount of thing it had outside. Going in the savannah, going in the river. Hear nuh, when you come back home, is late evening. You had to clean up the yard, do all what you didn’t do. And, time you make two turn, is night. And that lesson thing in the night? I ready to sleep!

My parents wasn’t too strict on the home-lesson thing. Nah, they let you do what you want. I think this was much better. Because I watch friends study and become police and reach sergeant, military and thing. But when I watching the ending, is a resigning thing! Up to a certain time and then you have to stop. And then they gone off driving taxi or they have some business going. This kind of resigning thing, it could frighten people. I ent study that small, I study that late.

Is this one want me, that one want me, you have to choose them, because you getting versatile, you understand me? The practical understanding is something in that, it have a secret. Everything have something they call “techniques.” And you doesn’t learn them thing until you old. Techniques is secret. You reach a point and you getting problem but you have to have somebody good or you can’t find out nothing. And I ALWAYS bounce up on somebody good. The people I find, they taught me the secrets of what I doing!

Since I small, these pans around me. Pan was a serious, serious thing since in the earlies. Whatever you doing, when you finish, throw it away, you know! Don’t make no mistake and carry that home. Because your mother even self would throw it away before the neighbour complain. ‘Cause you going poong-poong, poong-poong-poong!

From the first few weeks I leave school, about 13 going in 14, I used to be outside just liming but my brother put me to learn in a big tyre company. Just like the pan and them, tyre all over you! You had to learn about it from foundation to finish and, whilst I learning that, my friend and them say the neighbour up the road opening a steel band. Them days with steel band ent easy. The [steel band] war was about to quiet down. I feel good because I always like pan and studying it.

Picture courtesy Mark Lyndersay

Me and my friend went up. He is a big time pan man. He is a overall, too. Glen Ward. They’s call him Sandopie from Tunapuna. He’s a favourite. He does come here by me. He is one of my teacher. He teach me to play the pan, not make it.

I was so anxious to play the pan. if you hear how nice them pan sounding. When I get lunchtime, Carnival season, I busy gone down the road to the pan yard. They making pan. And I watching on. And I watching on. You can’t go and interfere, but you watching. And they get to know you. They accustomed to you. So when the fella go to take a five – the hammer big, anybody must want to take a five – so, when he gone, I lift up the hammer and I doing what he was doing. Nobody ent tell you nothing, they glad for you to do it – is WUK you know. Next ten minutes, I rest down the hammer and I gone back to do my work in the tyre shop.

Is not the captain, is somebody else learning too, that is why I could stand up so close! If was the pan-maker, I woulda done know to move from there already!

I taking lunchtime from the tyre shop and helping them sink pan, I see what they doing. Next time I come back, I see they grooving the pan and I just FEEL I could do that kinda thing too and I’ll tell you why: in school, they have a subject they call art and I was tops in art and sign painting. And when you could use that stencil brush and make the letters, and you take up a piece of iron and they mark out on the pan, it come like the same art!

You have to be sensible! This is the stencil brush in sign-painting and this is the iron in pan-tuning. And the stencil brush painting the lines of letters. And the iron is putting a permanent line! They have a way of doing it and I watching and I watching and I watching. And I pounding. And I pounding and I pounding. And I ent going and take that iron. Is when they call me, I come. And I doing it. But, as I reach my mark, I stop. I know I can’t cross that mark. I leave and I gone. And them will come and finish it. And when I see what it is that they finishing… Is a PAN!

When I coulda call myself a pan-tuner? Well, all right, 1965. ’66. ’67. 1968. All that is coming through, learning and playing. 1969, I get a break: the captain Glen went away with a next band and we band can’t come out. So the big man tell me, “You does always be in the yard with your proom-proom and your bram-bram, you have a chance to see how far you could reach!” He talking now ‘bout thing for people to kill yuh! But, when I hear him say so, I know what I could do!

I used to get oil drum after the Carnival and carry it in the bush and do the same thing, over and over [until] I get through with [making] the pan. But, when I finish, I put it for dustbin for people. I did know how to make it, but not tune it.

To understand to tune the pan, you have to be a very good player. Tuning pan, that is a secret! So anytime you touch, you will know what ent good. You go know what is all right, you go know what is good and what is master.

They bring drum [for me to sink pan]. And I end up leaving my work for a while because you have to be there! This is not no run ‘way and go back, you have to be DEY! Is a whole steel band I was tuning. Five tenor pan, double-tenor, double-second, bass, everything-everything. The tenor pan is the lead and I get stick up there. When I start to see the notes small so, I start to get frighten because I get through the rest, but this tenor pan now… The note wouldn’t sound!

I had a friend who was learning too, he had done gone far already. So I go up easy-easy-easy by he, tell him I take over and I bringing out the band but I get block by the tenor pan. He say, “I will do the whole front, you do all the rest.” I have to be there because I is the boss now and I watching. And I watching. And I watching. If you see how nice he do them three tenor and the double-tenor pan. It was his break, too, same time as me. The band Jazz Cat come out for the Carnival. Jazz Cat doesn’t come out again. Everybody get big. And who die out and thing.

I tell you it have a secret and that secret mean, when you could tune really good, it have something they call research. And the research is changing your whole quality of sound, which mean you listening to a different thing and you change it back and you listen and you change it back. Which one of all those different thing you want? You have to want one. It have quantity. But I is a quality! Quantity does go boom-boo-doom, boom-boo-doom, that is where it start, the birth of pan. They call it thirds and fourths but we in fourths and fifths now.

I end up learning to play the pan real good. But, after he come back, he don’t like that. I mean to say, nobody going and like that. When he see the pan and them, he make ONE BIG confusion!

The ‘nother part, at the same time I was learning to play the pan and make the pan, a friend was teaching me how to put the music on the pan! Not no group, PERSONALLY. From then to now, since ’65, I doing everything with pan. Making, playing, tuning.

You can’t stay one place, you have to climb. Any time you ent climbing, you duncey!

When they hear that is me putting over the music – that mean “arranging” – nobody ent coming! The way we band does sound, them can’t believe I could run past that! You could be my brother, you don’t want to go on the road and people boo me down. I can’t doubt them, they never hear me. Nobody want to play. So I bring my neighbour and them, little boys, about 20 of them. Root them out of school and thing. And I teaching them and I teaching them. And they glad! Who say they didn’t catch up? And, a two weeks later, when the band start to perform they little thing, the big men now want to see what going on.

The big men come back. The first one say, “Well, I go play the double-tenor.” The next one say he go play a second pan. But I want room for them little boys because all-you say you ent playing no pan. I can’t leave out the little boys and let them go back home. I can’t do that. Everybody get pan and by everybody get pan, I show up on the road. I do it. And the band sound good. That was 1969.

After he come back after Carnival and they tell them is Ralph [bring out the band], he didn’t have no answer. One set of confusion. He pack up all them pan, he not using them pan. Why? The fella try and he get through, you should give him a little boost up. He don’t want them pan! Confusion. The leader say is I leading the band and we using the pan.

The band that I form and stand up for 15, 20, 25 years, Tropical Ebonites, Fairley Street, Tunapuna. Coming through the exercise, not Panorama, music.

Don’t bring no friend to play in your band. They will ham-bug the players who learning. When you learning and your players learning, everybody will rise up together. But if you bring somebody who know more than you, he become your teacher!

The nicest part of being in pan is knowing you could make and play the pan on your own, a solo pan, playing by yourself to enjoy it. The hard part is playing with a steel band because you have to practice. And you have to go and practice; the solo pan, you could practice home.

A Trini is somebody who born and grow in the island.

Trinidad & Tobago to me mean the world of everything.