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Panmen create history in Kazakhstan

A quartet of pan musicians from Trinidad created history three months ago by being the first local pan musicians to perform in Astana, Kazakhstan. The musicians are Kwesi Paul (Pandemonium), Terry Guischard (Skiffle) and, Andre Rikky Robley and Carlon Morris (Desperadoes). The tour was made possible by Asia Events and the Caricom Secretariat.

Astana Expo 2017 finally came to a close on September 10 in Astana, Kazakhstan. The theme of the exposition, which commenced on June 10, was Future Energy. The exposition boasted of participants from as many as 115 countries and 22 international organisations. The following 12 Caricom member states participated in the exposition: Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname and T&T.

These countries participated at little or no cost as the government of Kazakhstan provided a generous financial assistance package to all Caricom countries.

While T&T did not participate in the expo, the twin-island republic was well represented and actively promoted by four pan musicians of the Caribbean Steelpan Connextion Ensemble (CSCE), which is based in Belmont. Through the vigorous and generous efforts of Leela Ramoutar, Commissioner of the Caricom Pavilion, the four travelled from Trinidad in early July to Astana.

According to the group’s manager, Israel McLeod MA, the team deemed their participation “an absolute success” but one which was not without its challenges. McLeod reiterated the need for Government, together with the national steelband parent body Pan Trinbago to place on its front burner, “structured, informed and realistic solutions,” to alleviating the costs on the shipping, air freight and insurance of instruments as an example. This she felt, would help to create more international travel for steelpan orchestras, thereby making bands more “self-sufficient and consequently, increasing the income for its membership through global performances.”

When asked about the reception of the steelpan, McLeod also relayed that it “greatly mesmerised,” the attendees and exhibitors while “boosting the morale of my guys.” In fact, McLeod boasted that it was because of Ramoutar’s vision and passion, that the Caricom Pavilion won the Gold Award for Joint Pavilion Design Content during the award ceremony of the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE).

Chipping in, Ramoutar said: “These world expositions present incredible opportunities for the branding, marketing and promoting of countries.” She added that the CSCE musicians made sure that T&T was well represented as the national flag was proudly displayed at every performance and also flew high at the Expo Parade which gained international attention.

McLeod said: “By not participating in the last few expos, T&T continues to lose out on opportunities to market our cultural industries. All this in the context of the national budget and how we could use steelpan to diminish the national debt. Specifically, we are not using the steelpan too effectively (through policy development) to enhance entrepreneurship, productivity and innovation.”

McLeod continued: “We are eager to have investors come on board, particularly from the agro-processing, manufacturing and services sector, because of the interest that has been shown overseas. This would complement our own fund-raising efforts.

“We have pending invitations from the UAE (as early as this November) and more in places such as Holland other eastern continents.”

Mapping out their journey, Paul said that from Trinidad they took a connecting flight from London to Ukraine then proceeded on to Kazakhstan. He said: “Upon arrival we went straight to the expo to get a feel of the place and do a bit of sightseeing. Our first performance was three days after we arrived.”

Astana is a very new city in Kazakhstan and is still under development. Paul predicts that the city will be a popular tourist destination in the future as most of it reminded him of Las Vegas. Guischard said: “Like a real modern city, Astana has it all, bars, clubs and even casinos.” The quartet was also impressed by the city’s architectural structures and the importance its officials place on horticulture.

The musicians were a featured act at the Future Energy Expo and actually began their adventure on July 26. Looking at the lighter side of the tour, Robley said: “We didn’t have any apprehensions or misgivings about going but some people expressed concern, some asking ‘all yuh going there? Why’? Because it is a fundamental Islamic state people thought we might be in danger. But, it was the exact opposite. For instance, unlike in Trinidad, if you bought a beer you couldn’t venture out of the bar with it. It had to be consumed indoors. The laws were also strict as far as interacting with women was concerned.

“Kazakhstan is actually a state that comprises a mix of people beside Muslims as there are also a lot of Russian nationals living there. Not everyone wears a hijab or Muslim wear.”

Guischard interjected: “After one of our performances, while walking through the expo, a woman came to congratulate me. I was about to give her a bounce when she withdrew letting me know that that was forbidden; no physical contact is allowed between men and women.

“What I also found interesting that it was the first time that most of these people were actually seeing a black person in the flesh. In one day we must done about 5,000 selfies with curious Kazaks.”

The CSCE’s tour roster included three performances per day, of 30-minute sets each, for almost two months. The ensemble played a mixed repertoire that included calypso, soca, jazz, reggae and contemporary hits. Paul, who served as CSCE’s musical director, said: “We played popular selections like Shape of You, Despacito, A Train, Ethel, Bailamos and Machel’s Fast Wine. We played songs with which the Kazaks were familiar with like Despacito and Green Day’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams.”

Robley said: “The people expressed surprise to hear the kind of music that was coming from oil drums. Some of them thoroughly examined the pans going underneath them to see whether there were any hidden devices emitting the sound.

As for the future and doing any local performances CSCE is well on their way to securing gigs. “First off, we have a wedding in October,” said Robley. “Then we will be performing at Pan in D Rosa in December. We also intend staging our own concert, as well as add another musician to our ensemble, most likely a percussionist.”

CSCE has received nothing but plaudits on its historic tour. “Ms Ramoutar is very proud of how the tour went and what we did on placing the music of T&T on the global stage,” said Robley.

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