Pan has lost its way and its soul

By Joan Rampersad
NEWSDAY, Sunday, March 2, 2008

A UNIVERSITY of the West Indies (UWI) graduate, former secondary school teacher, composer, arranger and pannist, Ray Holman has had more than a half century of experience in the music business with many successes along the way. He strongly feels that pan music has lost its way and its soul, given the present day criteria for judging the National Panorama competitions.

Holman spoke exclusively to Newsday on this subject, as well as other pertinent areas of his musical life, including his achievements over the years.

Holman says he has been talking about the quality of judging for the past 30 years.

“Judging Panorama is a very difficult exercise. It requires people who are knowledgeable, and who can hear and understand what the arrangers are doing. I think it is unfair to put somebody to sit as a judge who cannot hear,” he says.

“Having a qualification in music is not enough to qualify you to be a judge of Panorama music which is really about variation in improvisation. I think it is also unfair to the arrangers and the players to have to present music before people who are incapable of understanding what they are trying to do.”

Holman said either because of the direction that judges point bands towards and how they score bands, or maybe because of the judging criteria, steel band music has become very predictable.

“In most cases, almost to exception, listening to Panorama music, the way it is presented comes across as formula music. I think pan has lost its way and has lost most of its soul. That is tragedy and I am not apologising for that,” he says.

Holman adds that this direction presents a problem for upcoming arrangers, and for the future of the pan movement as a whole.

“What are they to aspire to? What sort of music are they aspiring to produce? I have heard many people say that it is not about music. So what is it about?”

According to Holman, if one compares past recordings of pan music to what the judges are directing bands to do now, it is clear that the current criteria is stifling the music.

“It is too tight, too specific, it has the arrangers in a strait jacket and it is not leaving much room for arrangers to be creative. That’s why the music doesn’t sound free. It is predictable and formula music, because the arrangers are trying to please the judges.”

Holman endorses recent calls for foreign judges to adjudicate at Panorama competitions. He says that may offset any bias that might occur.

According to Holman, based on what he heard on final night of the National Panorama competition at Skinner Park, San Fernando, he would have come up with different results: “I thought Desperadoes should have been placed higher.”

Commenting on his return to Phase II Pan Groove as drillmaster, Holman says it has been a “fantastic experience.

“The players are very cooperative and since I live a stone’s throw away from the band, I didn’t seem like a stranger there, and it is very convenient for me. Plus Boogsie’s (Len Sharpe) and my music have the same kind of vibe, therefore it has been a pleasure to lend whatever assistance I can, to the music and to the band.

“It was easy because of our long-standing relationship and our mutual respect for each other. Added to which I had the honour to arrange for the band for two Carnivals in 1994-5,” he says.

And what specifically was it like working on Boogsie’s music? Holman explains that on the occasions he’s worked with Boogsie before, he would go to Boogsie’s house where the pan virtuoso would play the tune on the keyboard and he would go on the pan and they would have fun.

“So it starts out as fun. I’ll get the feel and the vibe of the piece and that makes it easier for me to work with him. When we go into the pan yard, even though it’s hard work, it’s still fun. I respect his music, it is wonderful so I have something to work with. I don’t think I couldn’t do this anywhere else.”

Holman recalls the days when he was arranging for Starlift and Boogsie played in the band. He says that Boogsie learned a lot, started to develop, and branched off on his own. He says their styles are similar but Boogise had developed a style of his own. After just two years (2006-7) in Starlift, Holman parted ways with the band. He says he didn’t have a problem with the players but couldn’t see eye to eye with the band’s management.

“When I was asked to arrange for the band in 2006, they had placed last in the island in the previous Panorama. Fortunately I was able to take them to third place and the following year, we placed seventh.

“However if you are in charge of an organisation you have the right to employ whoever you see fit,” says Holman.

“I felt sorry that they didn’t make it (to this year’s Panorama finals) because I have a lot of friends there but I more concentrated on what I was doing in Phase II and everything else was irrelevant because that is the approach I take with whatever I do.”

If asked to return as arranger next year what will be his response? Holman says he is not thinking so far down the road. However when pressed for an answer he said: “I’ll have to think about it . . . What I would say though is I enjoy arranging but I would prefer to do so in an environment where there is a common mindset, a feeling of unity and togetherness.”

Holman has arranged and recorded with steel bands and artistes in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Japan and Europe. He has been part of televised performances with the German National Orchestra which showcased his compositions. He composed the highly acclaimed score for “Black Orpheus,” staged by Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey in 1991, and has been a featured performer in film, television and at venues such as Madison Square Garden, the Super Bowl and the St. Lucia Jazz Festival.

He has also conducted workshops at West Virginia University and was a Commissioned Composer in the California State University Summer Arts Programme. He regularly attends the bi-annual steel band tuning and arranging workshop at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California and has done presentations at meetings of the Percussive Arts Society.

During 1998-2000 he was a distinguished Visiting Artist in the Ethnomusicology Program at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Holman has won many prestigious awards, including the National Hummingbird Silver Medal of Merit and a Pan Legend Award from the New York Folk Arts Institute and the U.S. Congress.

Holman started playing pan at age 13 in 1957 with Invaders Steel Band. Later, he became its arranger.

In 1963, Holman and others revived the band Starlift and the following year he became the youngest player to win the solo Ping Pong (an early version of the tenor pan) competition at the Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival. He began experimenting with the jazz idiom as a soloist, while touring and performing on television with the Queen’s Royal College Jazz Group led by his teacher Scofield Pilgrim.

Holman emerged as the most musically progressive steel band arranger, and his innovative arrangements won two Panorama championships for Starlift in 1969, with Lord Kitchener’s “The Bull” and in 1970 with the Mighty Sparrow’s “Queen of The Bands.” In 1972, he became the first arranger to compose and play his own music for the National Steel Band Panorama competition. That composition, “Pan On the Move,” won the National Panorama preliminaries. Since then, he has arranged for many top steel bands, including Pandemonium, Carib Tokyo, Exodus, Phase II Pan Groove, Hummingbirds Pan Groove.

His first CD, A Tribute to Ray Holman, featured eight of his Panorama compositions.

His most recent CD, Changing Time is a six-track double CD that includes an enhanced data disc featuring music scores, composer profiles, as well as scorer and editor notes. The project was conceptualised by Mark Loquan, composed and scored by Ray Holman and Dr Jeannine Remy and executed by the UWI Ensemble. However In Touch, which he released in 2006, was his last music CD.

His works have also been featured on CDs Pan On The Move, Reid, Wright & be Happy, Burnin’, Anyway, and Bounce, while some of his 200 plus compositions started with “Socking It With Steel” in 1970 and includes Pan On The Run in 1973, Panyard Vibrations in 1977, Musical Showdown - 1982, Ray’s Medley - 1987, Steelband Paradise - 1992, On the Loose - 1997, Sticks - 2002, Don’t Touch We Carnival - 2004 and in 2006, Changing Time.

Holman is expected to release a new CD before year’s end with vocals by the likes of Designer and Imij and Company. He is also looking at wooing Roger George and Patrice Roberts.