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International Steelpan Jazz challenge today

Sunday, October 27, 2013
This little woman from San City Steel Symphony is focused during the band’s performance of the test piece Mr Pan Maker. PHOTO: SEAN NERO

Today, the Queen’s Royal College Foundation will stage as a key event of The Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan and Jazz Festival 2013, its third annual International Steelpan Jazz Challenge at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s. I am honoured to join my colleague, Dr Dawn Batson, as co-adjudicator for an expectedly successful celebration of arranging, improvisation and steelpan virtuosity. The Challenge—a competition geared to stage-side-format steelbands, with a maximum of 12 musicians—encourages bands to combine pans with brass, woodwind and/or additional percussion instruments. Ensembles choose from a pre-selected list of songs by native and Caribbean composers and arrange their selections while employing the techniques of re-harmonisation and spontaneous improvisation.


Though not a completely new idea—this marriage of small ensemble arranging and improvisation in steelband competitions—the Challenge has prompted the producers to continually look for novel ways to broaden the competition’s appeal. I am encouraged by their efforts to provide workshops to assist these young musicians in improving the skills not just for the sake of competition but for their professional careers in music. For this year’s Challenge, the producers have added two new awards in order to recognise outstanding improvisational skill on steelpan and or any other ensemble instrument. I hope that by next year’s Challenge, successful soloists or arrangers who wish to pursue advanced study can receive some scholarship assistance through the Foundation. This award can be matched by a contribution(s) from a participating sponsor, educational institution or charitable donor.  


Over the last ten years, I have become aware of several local competitive and non-competitive events for steelbands, and though I cannot speak to the criteria for these competitions or comment on the vision for these events, I can speak to some of the advantages I see for participating ensembles in the Challenge.


From a personal view, I see some of these gains as:
• Opportunity for a collaborative exercise in crafting an arrangement in the ensemble’s vision as opposed to the single arranger focus. 
• The opportunity to discover and rework compositions from legendary and emerging Caribbean composers.
• Opportunity, support and visibility for a younger generation of arrangers and steelpan soloists.
• Creative exploration and experimentation with arranging for small steel and/or combined instrumentation. Experience that should be useful later in a college or advanced study environment.
• Opportunity for more experienced musicians, arrangers and composers to serve as advisers and mentors to the small ensembles.



Constructive feedback
The Challenge is young and has tremendous possibilities for expanding locally and internationally. Some of these initiatives may include reaching out to high school and college ensembles (regionally and elsewhere) and facilitating their participation as guests with existing bands or competitors in the next Challenge. The organising body should vigorously continue the workshop series and strive to make the Web site a more informative and interactive experience, with related Web site links, study materials and interviews. I urge and support the organising committee in moving hastily towards these short-term goals and enthusiastically look forward to Challenge 2013. 


Ron Reid is an educator and musician. He can be reached at [email protected]


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