Music for the People – The Irreverence of Fonclaire

When last have you heard rollicking steelpan music that just compels you to dance, shout, drink rum from a posie, beat a steel chair as if it is a Bobolee, ignore the commands of Fire Fighters and go home at 3.00 a.m. after countless hours of joy?

Well, all of that is Panorama and Panorama 2017 has started!

Panorama is guaranteed to present moving musical vibrations that will nudge you into some steps during the verse and chorus interpretation and then once there is an extended jam, keep you dancing. As Super Blue sang in his immortal song Get Something and Wave in 1991, “Mr. Police Commissioner, the action start from Panorama!

Panorama is a special segment of musical interpretation within the larger than life annual festival of Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago. Panorama brings together steelbands from all across Trinidad and Tobago in a series of zonal competitions in their geographic areas. A panel of music judges scores each band firstly in the intimate settings in each panyard (applause for this development!), and the top scoring bands proceed to the grand finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah. This final event occurs on the Saturday night before the two days of Carnival.

I write this with diminished emotion about the competition itself as I have become detached from an annual roller coaster ride that ends with a crescendo on Carnival Saturday. There are myriad reasons for my detachment and these reasons surround the management of Panorama as an event. However, suffice it to say, I remain as excited about the sound and potential of pan as an instrument as a compelling musical force as I have ever been.

It is tempting to me as is a blind man in an orgy to go beyond the mere touch and wade into the substance that is the mismanagement of Pan Trinbago, but I have decided to delimit my essay today to that iconic San Fernando band, Fonclaire.

Fonclaire derived its name from the merging of the first syllable from Fonrose Street and the whole name of Claire Street in the heart of San Fernando. Fonclaire became synonymous with an uptempo style of music infused with American soul music and funk rhythms. This is a dead giveaway to the era of the genesis of the band.

Many people grew to love Fonclaire from its timeless rendition of Pan by Storm rendered for the annual competition in 1990, but Fonclaire has been my band since I saw and heard the band at Panorama preliminaries in Skinner Park in 1976.

Fonclaire’s selection then was Tourist Leggo by the Antiguan calypsonian King Short Shirt. The song featured on the “Ghetto Vibes” album and was an exciting piece with a thrilling climax of a chorus that spoke of carthasis experienced by a female tourist in the abandon of Carnival in Antigua. Fonclaire captured that feeling in its arrangement and interpretation of that wonderful song. On that sunny Sunday afternoon in February 1976, throngs of people were jumping with the band as it made its way to the portion of the cycle track immediately in front of the judges.

For all readers who never experienced Panorama in Skinner Park, the cycle track is the southern version of the strip from Memorial Park to the eastern entrance of the stage of the Queen’s Park Savannah fondly called the ‘Drag’.

As the band moved along the cycle track as a mass of steel and man, the musical force underpinning the propulsion of the joyous crowd, there was a scuffle between two men immersed in the sea of people. This scuffle caused a parting of the sea as if Moses himself was standing with his staff outstretched above the crowd next to me in my vantage point in the Penthouse of Skinner Park. Thinking about it, Moses would have had his staff in the air waving as if he didn’t care in response to King Short Shirt’s musical story about a woman from Halifax, Canada who wanted to romp and dance, and jump and prance.

Blood began to ooze freely from the head of one of the combatants. Unlike the ‘blood rule’ in the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States where a bleeding player must be substituted and/or treated, the crowd quickly assessed his injury as not critical and the jamming continued. Without any sign from Moses and as quickly as the sea had parted the people on all sides reunited and the mass of humankind once more flowed rhythmically in the direction of the music emanating from the pans of Fonclaire.

It was spontaneous and a compelling sight.

The music drove the response. It was irreverent steelband music. That music that was all about revelry, happiness and jam. It was music for the people. There was a wicked pulsing bass, funk inspired, supported by tenor runs working Short Shirt’s hook line, “bi dang dang bidang bi dang bidang dang bi dang bidang dang bi dang!

The distinctive vehicles of expression for Fonclaire were those chocolate painted pans with flowered tarpaulins covering the pan racks, which moved with the energy of the excited fans. Fonclaire rendered a performance that was raw Carnival.

I see that performance in my mind repeatedly.

It was clear that music is a major part of the fabric of Carnival. The cataclysmic energy from the music of Carnival creates the excitement and gives the people the release to dance and jump and for a short moment to forget everything. Fonclaire has persistently been part of that musical upheaval and has won many fans with their music. Apart from its distinctive bass arrangements, a tribute to the sterling capabilities of Milton ‘Wire’ Austin, one of the original founders of the band, the approach to drumming needs special mention. Fonclaire has always used a distinctive off beat percussive style where the drummer accentuates the beats by playing the top of the cymbals, not the snare drum. The drummer is the heart of the engine room that glues the music together. Fonclaire has been blessed with excellent drummers.

In its rendition of Kitchener’s No Pan in 1980 there is a persistent rhythmic staccato drumming drawing the listener from the introduction in the first minute of the selection and punctuating the entire ten-minute rendition. This drumming is loud, electric and fantastic! Then again, the funk power and irreverence of Fonclaire is evident again in 1982 with Kitchener’s Pan Explosion and then there was Rudin Austin’s scintillating interpretation of Blueboy’s Rebecca in 1983. This style also infused the rendition of Blueboy’s Lucy in 1984.

Fonclaire’s introductions always started with the tenors and this meant that each arrangement started on a high note. Literally.

In a bygone era Fonclaire took its people centred music to the streets during J’Ouvert celebrations. After all, Fonclaire was declared the People’s Choice at Panorama 1971! The people waited on Fonclaire and from the first count in the wee hours of Carnival Monday, chipped from the Coffee to the Promenade, down Chancery Lane, up High Street, around the Library Corner and then back to the Coffee.

I witnessed Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore atop Fonclaire’s float on the drums on Carnival Tuesday in 1981 jamming as if it was no one’s business while the band played Blueboy’s Ethel. ‘Pro’ was cutting loudly and working those drums and cymbals like a professor of percussion! He was not yet a world-renowned steelband arranger/composer nor a sought after soloist. He was just ‘Pro’ in a yellow Fonclaire jersey, but his characteristic effusive style of playing was on display. His magical drumming supporting every command by Blueboy as he told Ethel to shake for him, was typical Fonclaire!

Fonclaire’s has been playing Professor’s compositions in recent times. Since Pan By Storm, that trend has not worked out either for ‘Pro’ or for the band as hoped. The songs, though good songs, have not been popular enough to give the ordinary fan to chance to appreciate the song. After all, that build up through regular airplay helps on the big day in the ‘Big Yard’ that is the Queen’s Park Savannah.

Even so, the infusion of unbridled excitement that seemed the norm in most of Fonclaire’s arrangements seems now only a memory. It is almost as if Professor is playing it safe. Arranging what he thinks that the judges expect. His arrangements are still good, but not good enough.

A friend said to me, “Fonclaire needs to paint their pans chocolate brown again if they are to win!”

Winning is certainly less about superstition or the cosmetic changes in the colour of the pans themselves but more about the substance of the music, the discipline of the players and the organization of the band as a going concern.

That is another story.

I still love Fonclaire.

In the meantime, the green traffic light on the western side of the stage of the Savannah shines brightly! Panorama start!

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