All photos by Sean Barlow (except one)
Ruling the Panorama grounds in the back lot of the Brooklyn Museum this year was the ebullient 2023 soca hit “Engine Room” composed by Olatunji (not to be confused with “Drums of Passion” Olatunji.) This song must have been played over 50 times—no lie—as half of the ten finalist steel orchestras (also called “steel pans” or “pan bands”) chose to perform “Engine Room.” As if that were not enough, the DJ played the recorded version of the song constantly in between performances.
We were reminded just how damn fun it is to dance to soca! For a taste, check out the “Engine Room” music video with some 2-million views.)
“Engine room” refers to the rhythm section of steel orchestras--big kettle drum players, trap drummers and percussionists--who pump out the rhythmic backbone for the smaller alto and tenor pans positioned up front, tearing it up with super fast melodies to top off the sound. Pans are tuned steel drums originally improvised from oil drums in Trinidad’s oil industry.
The other most frequently played song at Panorama 2023 was the classic “Black Man Feeling To Party” by maestro Black Stalin aka Dr. Leroy Calliste. That song sure nailed the spirit that night!
Attending Panorama in Brooklyn this year were several thousand seated patrons who all seemed happy to stay up until the last steel orchestra finished up at four in the morning. 99.9% of the audience was Black—mostly Caribbean American folks from English-speaking Caribbean islands like Trinidad and Jamaica. During the DJ breaks as the large sleds of steel pans were impressively maneuvered on and off stage, an impromptu group of musical elders played along with various percussion including car wheels.
The precision and sheer organization of 100 or so players performing fast, complicated arrangements of soca hits was simply amazing. Most of the players were young—teens and 20- and 30-somethings—who swayed and hopped to their pan strikes, making for a totally joyful ambiance. Before every group began, the mistress of ceremonies announced the names of the song arrangers to big applause from the audience as well as the names of their pan tuners.
Here is a list of winning steel orchestras, in order, at Panorama 2023.
Metro Steel Orchestra
Black Man Feeling To Party (“Black Stalin” aka Dr. Leroy Calliste)
D'Radoes Steel Orchestra
Engine Room (Olatunji)
Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra
Engine Room (Olatunji)
Also accompanying the groups occasionally were stilt dancers decked out in colorful costumes:
There were a few white musicians playing in the steel bands this year, including one core of teenagers with one orchestra. That made me think that if the pan movement spread to high schools and colleges across the country—red states and blue states—what a naturally unifying experience that would be. They all seemed to be having so much fun together. In the meantime, I guess marching bands for football teams can fulfill the same role.
As mentioned in my piece on the inaugural Caribbean Music Awards, If you like to party with Caribbean party people who are generally happy to have strangers join them, you don’t have to fly to Montego Bay or Port of Spain. The place to be on the long, extended Labor Day weekend is Brooklyn. You can hang out in the “pan yards” where steel band orchestras--100 or so musicians strong-- practice furiously leading up to the national steel orchestra competition Saturday. You can also kick things off with the Caribbean Music Awards and see over a dozen leading artists perform. You can go to the joyous Panorama Sunday night at the Brooklyn Museum.
If you’re extra game, you can also go to J’Ouvert morning, a traditional festival known as "break day," or the unofficial start of Carnival, which takes place on Monday morning in Brooklyn starting at 6 am. J'Ouvert revelers cover their bodies in colored paints, mud and pitch oil and dress as blue or red devils to dance the street. It’s an expression of liberation from the constraints of the past and in celebration of the ancestors who have gone before them. Beware, though. You might get christened in mud and pitch by a Jab-Jab!
Then the finale is Labor Day Monday when over one million celebrants congregate on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway for the annual West Indian American Carnival parade to wine and grind to soca and other sounds. And throughout the extended weekend, you have your choice of dozens of deejayed dance parties, themed parties, including “Queeribbeana,” also cruises, roof parties and more. Knock yourself out!
Further afield, there are carnivals in cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, L.A., Grand Prairie Texas. And looking at the carnival schedule for 2024.
And of course, you can also catch a flight and jump up at carnivals in Trinidad, Barbados, St. Kitts, Dominica, Jamaica, St Maarten, the Bahamas, Grand Cayman, St. Lucia, London, Toronto, Barbados, Antigua and Grenada.
And here is a link to my report from the red carpet at the inaugural Caribbean Music Awards.