Panning for first place

SMCHS Director of Percussion Amanda Duncan travels to Trinidad to participate in an international steel pan competition.

After her absence from Jan. 29 to Feb. 7, Director of Percussion Amanda Duncan has finally returned to SMCHS. Her time away was spent in Trinidad practicing nonstop for the Panorama: a carnival where steel bands come together from around the world to compete.

Once an instrument only for the lower classes and gangs, steel pans grew to be accepted as an icon of Trinidadian culture. Today steel pans are played with pride as Trinidad’s national instrument– some 80 years after its discovery.

“There’s so much beautiful music out there in the world, of all kinds of styles and genres, but at the end of the day, the steel pan is just more fun to play,” Duncan said. “I was a very active little kid with a lot of energy so it kind of seemed like a natural pick for me. There’s something about the sound; it’s so unlike any other percussion instrument that we have. It’s something almost magical. People are drawn to steel pan when they hear it.”

The Panorama carnival is the Trinidadian version of Mardi Gras and happens yearly before the start of Lent. The culturally important carnival rivals the Super Bowl in steel pan playing. Panorama season lasts from the end of December to the Saturday before Ash Wednesday, when final competitions begin.

“I knew that one day I’d make the journey to Trinidad, the birthplace of the steel pan– otherwise known by Americans as the steel drum,” Duncan said. “I’ve played steel pan for 12 years and I’ve wanted to play in Panorama for 10. Everything worked out this year as far as scheduling and money, so I had to go.”

Duncan began steel pan in her first year at Cal State Long Beach as a music major. Her love for pan grew upon joining the university’s steel band.

“In that band, even though I knew how to play so many other instruments, I had to start by scratch with pan because it wasn’t like any other percussion instrument that I knew,” Duncan said. “We would learn a lot of music that was simple enough but it was also a part of the early history of the steel pan. Through that music our professor would teach us about the culture of the instrument how it was created and thus about Panorama.”

After so many years of playing the pan and hearing about the Panorama from her older college friends, Duncan finally found the time, and right steel band, to join in competition. Her artistic passion to visit Trinidad never died.

“Outside of school I’m firstly a professional musician,” Duncan said. “Before I got this job as a teacher, I was a full-time free-lance musician. I would do everything from repairing instruments for a school district to arranging for this person’s gig. All this time I’ve never stopped playing pan.”

This year, Duncan travelled to Trinidad to perform in the finals with PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars Steel Orchestra– a band of around 100 steel pan musicians.

“In our large band category the finals had 10 groups, other groups were eliminated in semi-finals and preliminary rounds,” Duncan said. “I couldn’t be there for the preliminary rounds because I could only get one week off work, but most people in my group were able to stay for the whole month of the competition.”

Each band arranges a two or three minute pop song into an elaborate and sophisticated arrangement, around eight minutes long. With the competition at the end of the week, Duncan rehearsed with the rest of her steel band every night for seven hours. Practice went from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Groups that made it into the final rounds received prize money, first place prize receiving over $150,000. Duncan’s group placed seventh, against some of the world’s best steel bands.

“Yes, I went to Trinidad play in Panorama but I also went to experience the culture of the birthplace of the steel pan,” Duncan said. “I’ve been to other countries before to experience not only the music but the culture because that’s what influences the music anywhere you go. It’s kind of like if you’re a Muslim, you’re expected to make your pilgrimage to Mecca at some point in your life. This was like making my pilgrimage to the motherland of the steel pan.”

The different function of music in Trinidadian versus American culture is striking, according to Duncan. In the U.S., music serves as entertainment to the public. However in Trinidad, music, more specifically the steel pan, plays a larger role in everyday life.

“I had to go. I’ve played for so long. I’ve researched about it. I know my history but you don’t know it unless you go and live it,” Duncan said. “I was only there for a week, but I definitely feel like for all the knowledge that I’ve gained these past 12 years in pan only now I’m starting to truly understand it.”