Tue | Jan 23, 2018

Religion & Culture | The enduring soul of pan

Published:Sunday | December 4, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Ricardo Greenaway
Ricardo and Friends performing with Indian classical instrumentalist Adhi Lall (right).

There was time in Trinidad and Tobago's history when the economically blighted and cursed were associated with pan music.

There was a time in that country's history when your middle-class parents warned you: "Pan is an anathema better ignored lest you be condemned as uncouth and uneducated."

But as Ricardo Greenaway took the stage in New York you became aware of how much time has changed. Yes, the lounge brimmed with anticipation as something transformative was about happen. His was more than a spirited sound. It was the spirit and of the soul of pan on display.

Gone were the gang violence and mayhem associated with an instrumental hailed as the only new musical instrument of the 20th century.

It is Friday night at Trendz, an entertainment hotspot in Carnarsie, Brooklyn, and Greenaway, the virtuoso 'pannist', is showcasing his craft to the most discerning of audiences.


Embraces every genre


He sets the tone for his five-piece band, a musical outfit that embraces every conceivable genre. After the show he reflects for a moment and recalls his days as a Trinidad and Tobago police officer. That was some 30 years ago.

"It was nine well-spent years," he started. "Being an officer patrolling the rough neighbourhoods in and around Port of Spain was an experience that taught me invaluable lessons. I will never trade those years for the world. Responsibility and punctuality are keys to success. Being an officer also taught me to quickly assess a situation and how best to respond. These are essential attributes especially when doing business in New York."

Greenaway is equally thankful for his formative years at Malick Senior Comprehensive School where he was introduced to pan.

"I can say that this instrument kept me constructive and disciplined." He talks about daily practice on the tenor pan that guarded him from the destructive allure that the streets sometimes offered. "I can say that all the kids involved in pan were mature and never fell prey to vices."

Greenaway went on to play for several bands, including Solo Harmonites, Cordettes, Exodus and Amoco Renegades. During that time, pan took on a spiritual and transcendental quality.


'Therapeutically healing'


Music, he argued, is "therapeutically healing", a kind of spiritual balm. "When I play pan I get into a zone, away from the noise of the world. Believe it or not, but it is my kind of meditation, my religion and connection to something bigger than me and everyone."

How ironic that what was once a symbol of hooliganism is now a gateway to a religious experience.

In 1995, Greenaway resigned from law enforcement and, like so many fellow Trinidadians, made his way to the United States. "I came for a better life, for the opportunities that the States offered."

The going was challenging, and although becoming a professional pannist in New York was never a first option, Greenaway realised that he was more than capable of putting his talent to good use.

"I came to the US with my pan and that turned out to be a wise decision." He remembers his first gig in New Jersey, but it was in the subways of New York that people began to listen.

"People here see the pan as exotic and gravitate to it. I performed on the number 2 and 5, and A subway platforms in Manhattan."

But there were some hiccups along the way. Greenaway, for a while, performed without a licence, a mandatory requirement for subway musicians. He applied to the Music Under New York Program, was called to audition, and immediately wowed a panel of eight judges with a breathtaking demonstration.

"What was supposed to be a three-minute audition was cut in half. Long before the end they stopped me and immediately gave me what I came for." That many applicants are repeatedly turned down is testament to Greenaway's striking musical prowess.

Always honing his skill, the father of two teenagers attended a number of music classes to "better appreciate the arts". He also assumed the role of instructor at after-school and community programmes, including those organised by the Police Athletic League in Brooklyn.


Opening for Jimmy Cliff


Another notable achievement was performing as the opening act for reggae legend Jimmy Cliff.

Ricardo Greenaway is proof that a pannist can survive financially in New York but he is quick to add that talent can "take you so far". He emphasises the business side of the equation.

"To be successful many components must be in place. You must have an agent and a management that could get you into places you only dreamed of. This is the reality. The business aspect cannot be overemphasised.

"I can take you to the subway right now and you will hear some of the best vocalists and instrumentalists but that is the extent of their journey. You don't hear anything from them beyond the subway platform."

Greenway has followed his own counsel. Recently, he began to manage his own affairs. As agent, manager and producer of the Ricardo and Friends Show he must be resourceful.

"I am managing musicians, and if you know anything about the business you know that we have big egos, and the bigger the artist the bigger the ego. I have to learn when to be loud, when to be silent, when to be pastoral, even a counsellor. I have five band members and it takes more than people skills to keep us as a harmonious unit."

Greenaway also needs to be savvy in his business relationship with Trendz. But he will have it no other way.

Before proceeding to work on a couple of tracks he takes a minute to mention "the young and undiscovered musicians" that he invites to "jam" with his band at the club.

"It is an opportunity that they cannot refuse. It gives them the exposure they need. It also proves that pan is comfortable alongside every musical style, even religious sounds. Pan can do anything, and everything."

- Dr Glenville Ashby is author of Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity. Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby