Summer evenings in East Flatbush, Brooklyn are filled with the tinkling sounds of steel. Each year from June through September, the CASYM Steel Orchestra sets up its “pan yard” on Church Avenue between E. 37th and 38th Streets, turning an empty lot into a bustling hub of activity.
“There are section leaders teaching players the notes," said Michele Williams, a long-time band member. "The guys are working together to tie things up. We’re here all day painting and drilling holes and tuning.”
On Saturday, Williams and the other 99 players in CASYM will go up against ten of New York’s best steel drum orchestras in the annual Panorama competition that takes place every year during Brooklyn’s West Indian American Day Carnival. The weekend-long festival is New York’s biggest celebration of Caribbean culture. It culminates on Labor Day with a parade along Eastern Parkway in which some 2 million revelers attend.
Brooklyn’s steel drum scene is the biggest and most skilled outside of Trinidad, making a win at the Steel Drum Panorama Competition a major honor. All summer long, the groups work hard to prepare for the event. For the two weeks leading up to the competition, CASYM rehearses every night, rain or shine, from 8 P.M. to 1 A.M.
Tenor pan players practice in the CASYM pan yard, located on Church Avenue. (Marlon Bishop/WNYC)
The steel drum, or steelpan, was invented in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1940s when laborers in the country’s petroleum industry discovered that steel oil drums used to ship crude could be transformed into fully chromatic instruments by using hammers to make different-sized indentations in the drums. Today, the steelpan is played throughout the Caribbean, especially at annual carnival celebrations.
Just like classical orchestras have violins and cellos, steel orchestras have steel drums that come in all different sizes — from the high-pitched tenor pans to barrel-sized bases. Double-seconds play counter-melodies and so-called “guitar” steelpans are used to play chords.
Each year, Brooklyn’s steelpan groups fly in professional arrangers from Trinidad to come up with orchestrations of popular calypso songs for the Panorama competition. As is tradition in Trinidad, the performers learn by ear and perform from memory — no sheet music is involved.
CASYM’s captain is Travis Roberts, a 36 year-old computer technician who grew up playing steelpan in Saint Vincent. He’s served as the band’s leader for nine years, and knows what it takes to ready a band for the battle ahead.
“You have to be very tight," he said. "The band has to sound very clean, the instruments well tuned, and you just have to give out good energy towards the audience and the judges. Because if you go up there looking sour, the music is going to come out sour.”
Travis Roberts, Captain of the CASYM steel drum orchestra. (Marlon Bishop/WNYC)
Roberts sports an extremely laid-back demeanor, a must for dealing with the high pressures of the pan yard. Although CASYM includes drummers of all ages, many of his players are children. Some are as young as 7 years old, and play the steelpan with remarkable skill despite their small statures.
Debbie Jack has two kids in the orchestra, and comes to sit in the pan yard bleachers to support them whenever she can. She started her oldest daughter on the pans at age 8.
“I’m from the Caribbean, but my daughter was born here,” said Jack, who was raised in St. Vincent. “So just to have a little bit of the Caribbean in her blood, I wanted her to play the pan. It keeps the kids off the street and gives them something positive to do. And it’s keeping the culture alive.”
The orchestras do help keep Caribbean culture alive for West Indian communities, but running a band comes with a hefty price tag. Steel pans are expensive, high-maintenance instruments that require constant tuning. Preparing for the West Indian-American Day Carnival can cost a band up to $40,000. A single tenor pan costs $800 to replace, and there are expenses associated with costumes, yard rental, food and guest arrangers from Trinidad.
The CASYM costume director. (Marlon Bishop/WNYC)
Raising the necessary funds has always been a challenge for the bands, but according to CASYM President Bernice Moses, it’s been even worse since the economic downturn.
“We’ve been grossly affected,” he said. “Where we used to get generous donations, now we are getting nothing. We are getting zero.”
Two years ago, CASYM lost its sponsorship from The Daily News. Now, with little outside support, almost all of those funds have to be raised within the community.
The Pan Sonatas' Band Launch
Elsewhere in East Flatbush, hundreds of guests are packed in a yard for a band launch, which involves steelpan music, drinking from a makeshift bar and eating Trinidadian specialties like roti and saltfish. Tonight, seven steel orchestras are set up in two rows, their pans shimmering in the streetlights. They play calypso and soca, but also funk classics, jazz standards and pop hits that range from Gyptian’s “Hold Yuh” and Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” to Chick Corea’s “Spain” and Bill Withers’ “Just the Two of Us.”
The entrance fee is $5. Proceeds go to support the band that throws the launch. In this case, that's the reining champions, the Pan Sonatas.
"A band launch is basically the host band gets together and some of the other bands help support,” said Ainsworth Cust, the captain of the Pan Sonatas. “This way we can raise the money. We do it every year, and we go to the launches of different bands also and help support them.”
Partygoers crowd around a steel band at the Pan Sonatas' band launch fundraiser. (Marlon Bishop/WNYC)
Cuff says that at a certain point, the bands realized that they need to work together and help each other in order to survive. CASYM is one of the bands here to help the Pan Sonatas raise money, even though they are archrivals.
“For the last 10 years, it’s been Pan Sonatas and CASYM in the top three,” said CASYM captain Travis Roberts. “If they win this year, it will be three years straight for them, which we’re trying to stop.”
Roberts says he’s confident that his band’s arrangement will lead them to victory against the Sonatas this year. Cust, from the Sonatas, says he’s not worried about losing the throne. The competition is generally friendly, but with Panorama so close, tensions are high.
“Now all the bands are pretty much connected," said Wilfred Kill Jr., a longtime member of the Despers USA band. "We know each other on a personal level. We hang out, we do whatever, but we all know it’s a competition, and every band here — it's going for that prize money. Another person in another band can be your best friend, but that night — I don’t know you until I get off that stage.”
The first place prize at Brooklyn Panorama is $20,000, which is pocket change compared to the $2 million prize for winners of Trinidad’s competition. Organizers say they hope to bring in more money in the future. But for now, the bands are content to compete for the glory and prestige of being recognized as Brooklyn’s finest.
That is, until next year’s competition.