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Brooklyn's West Indian Day Carnival: A Panorama of Steel Drums

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It's often said that the Trinidadian steel pan is the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century. This Saturday, it gets the spotlight at the steel drum "Panorama" competition.

At Panorama, orchestras made up of 75 to 100 musicians will be playing steel drums that come in a variety of shapes and sizes—from little "tenor" drums for playing melodies—to "guitars" and "cellos" designed for background chords. There are even big bass pan sets, which are batteries of four-foot tall drums that engulf their acrobatic players.

Each orchestra competes by playing a virtuosic, ten-minute version of a popular calypso song, and the prize goes to the band with the slickest arrangement. It's like Brooklyn's redux version of Port of Spain's massive carnival steel drum orchestra competition. The drummers' complex orchestrations are even played from memory by Brooklyn teenagers—no sheet music needed.

“They learn by ear, it’s not something they can read music for,” says Jane Alexander, the spokesperson for the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. “So, you have to practice over and over and over until the bandleaders decide that the notes are exactly right for presentation in competition.”

Alexander adds that many of the pan tuners, arrangers, and judges come from Trinidad just to perform at Panorama. “So, it’s really a very high level.”

Seven of the steel drum groups competing rented out empty lots and backyards in Brooklyn for use as impromptu training grounds in the months leading up to the carnival festivities.

Check out the video below from last year's performance by the Caribbean-American Sports and Cultural Youth Movement, one of the best local groups. The group's director and arranger is Arddin Herbert. As a young man in Trinidad, he competed (and won) in steel pan contests and, now, with a music degree from Brooklyn College under his belt, arranges music for carnival orchestras in Trinidad and London as well as for his group at home in Brooklyn.

The Panorama competition, which is part of the annual Brooklyn West Indian Day carnival festivities, will be held on Saturday from 8 P.M. to 2 A.M. at the Brooklyn Museum.