The steelpan artform is in serious trouble
Steelpan means a great deal to many people of Caribbean origin. It is a year-round, England-wide reminder of Caribbean culture, an emblem of carnival and an icon of the success of the Caribbean community in Britain.
Steelpan is much-loved by people of all races and identities in Britain.
But the steelpan artform is in serious trouble.
Because of steelpan’s traditional reliance on performance fees and fundraising events, it has been hit hard – harder than many other artform as it receives very little grant funding.
The pandemic’s immediate financial impact
The pandemic led to the cancellation of performance fees for steelbands throughout England, and the loss of income from fundraising events. Overnight the funding for steelpan stopped.
Metronomes, for instance, lost £9800 in confirmed bookings and £2000 from cancelled fundraising events, pitching it into its most serious crisis since it was founded in 1974.
Metronomes recovered because it had already begun the process of moving from being reliant on performance income and fundraising, to gaining grants in the publicly funded cultural sector.
Metronomes was able to start its year-long Virtual Panyard (#virtualpanyard on Instagram) with an emergency grant from Westway Trust. The Virtual Panyard was sustained with a grant The Arts Council, and we were able to put on Easter 2021 liver-streamed performance with funding from the Kensington & Chelsea Foundation.
A few other steelbands and steelpan organisations received grants, but most didn’t. Traditionally, steelbands have received very little grant income.
The cultural impact
The closure of panyards was a bitter blow. At the time when people most needed to turn to each other for help, people weren’t able to gather together.
In insolation people had to face the risk to elders in the community, and the huge burden that the army of Caribbean keyworkers faced.
During this time, the murder of George Floyd for many symbolised the betrayal of the ideal of black rights, at a time when black people across the world, and in the UK, faced the hardest challenges for a generation.
The pandemic has caused a new impoverishment in Britain’s Caribbean community as people have seen their incomes reduced at a time when they have had to dig deep into their pockets to support family and others struggling financially.
People have badly missed the fellowship of steelpan, the opportunity to meet with friends, and enjoy everyday life in Britain’s Caribbean communities.
People couldn’t go home to Trinidad or other Caribbean islands at Christmas, and Trinidad Carnival was cancelled along with Notting Hill and other Carnivals throughout the UK.
People are looking forward to Panyards being able to reopen, but nobody can pretend that life is going to resume just as it was before the pandemic.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty as to how things will unfold in the coming year and beyond.
The impact on steelpan music in England
There will be bookings this summer and some fundraising events, but it will be some time before steelbands recover financially. The commercial market for steelpan performances might not fully return until well into 2022.
Steelpans will not purchase and tune themselves. Rent will not pay itself and musicians and tutors who have had to find an income outside of steelpan will not be able to return.
Just about all small arts organisations, and community-based arts organisations have suffered during the pandemic. However, the situation for steelpan is especially dire.
Whereas many community / socially engaged arts organisations will have been receiving grants before and during the pandemic, steelband won’t have been receiving this income.
As the country emerges from the pandemic, there is a headlong rush to apply for funding. As many steelbands don’t have a track record of applying for grants, they are not well positioned to apply and will very likely lose out.
Steelpan is incredibly popular, and in general terms people know what it’s about.
But the problem is it is taken for granted.
Has steelpan become a victim of its own success?
People forget that steelpan is an artform created in the margins, by people who had little or nothing.
It is sustained by people who have little or nothing.
Steelpan isn’t going to go away, but it is in real danger of being greatly diminished, and never achieving in Britain its full potential.
All those interested steelpan in Britain need to join in an urgent conversation about its future.
Vice-chairperson of the British Association of Steelbands (BAS), Director of Metronomes Steel Orchestra
We have named this discussion paper after Len “Boogsie” Sharpe’s, much admired composition Hard Times.
Tuesday 1 June 2021