PING PI DING PING: Ebony Steel Pan has been entertaining people for decades at carnivals as well as in schools and clubs
OVER THE last few weeks, I’ve been talking to different people that make up the components of Notting Hill Carnival, the biggest street party in Europe.
You can have all the sound systems, mas bands and costumes, but if your parade doesn’t have the sound of wood hitting metal to a fine tune then something is missing in your recipe.
Because steel pans are a foundation and fundamental part of carnival culture. Originating in Trinidad and Tobago, these steel containers turned into musical instruments still have their place in the modern carnival.
In reality, they have their place in modern music. Last year there was quite a few hit songs with the “ping pi ding ping” sound. Just listen to Kodak Black’s club smash Zeze for proof.
It was the “go-to” sound for many producers outside of the genre. Someone who has made his life’s work of this metal drum and has received an MBE for his efforts is Pepe Francis.
At 76 years young, he’s been part of steel pan for over 50 years and still has a hunger and drive for the art form.
It was a Sunday that we spoke and he was busy loading the van for a Monday pan rehearsal.
I used to see some of my friends leave the block back in the day to go to pan rehearsal. At the time it didn’t seem like the thing for me to do, but I’m sure I would have my old man happy. Instead I chose turntables.
Knowing that there are so many options and choices for today’s youth I wondered if Pepe struggled to recruit for his group.
Pepe proudly tells me: ”I’m on my fifth generation of youngsters, you know?
“As they grow up we bring in more because we were involved with the schools and the youth clubs when they had them. Plus I [have] generations of families coming through.”
Pepe’s band, Ebony Steel Pan, is a powerhouse in the world of pan. Founded in 1969, they have countless accolades under their belt – including European Steel Pan champion and Panorama
champion over 20 times.
Panorama takes place just before carnival and is the battleground for all pan players. This year they boast more than 90 players, Pepe tells me.
He added: “Well we came second last year, so we are looking to come back and take our title, our crown, so the battle begins.”
I sensed that he didn’t take losing too well. Does this mean all plans are under lock and key, like a secret society?
“No, no, no – everybody knows what everyone is playing, it’s just who’s the better composer and arranger,” he lets me know clearly.
One of my loves and a crowd favourite is when you hear hip-hop and dancehall tunes get the steel pan remix treatment.
For me this is when you can really hear the art of composing, but being an elder I wondered how much is he involved in these song selections.
“This year we are playing V’ghn’s Trouble In The Morning for Panorama, ‘cos I’m coming to cause trouble,” the MBE recipient joked.
“The song is chosen by the arranger, but with the other songs we just pick what is popular in today’s day and age, with the help of some of the younger members who actually arrange some of the tunes.”
Carnival for Pepe is an all-year job. That magical word – funding – found its way back into this conversation.
With all the commercialisation of this two-day event I was sure this cannot be an issue for what should be seen as the heartbeat of why it even exists.
”Nowadays funding is very difficult. Back in the day was easier, but now it’s a hard slog! The arts council don’t really fund steel pans, they focus on the mas element of carnival,” he tells me.
Surprisingly, I was told “Carnival doesn’t really attract sponsors” again. How could this be, I thought, with that amount of people focused on parades and bands, wouldn’t this be an advertiser’s dream?
He continues to tell me that he hasn’t had a sponsor for nearly 15 years. “Back in the day we had big sponsors like Red Stripe, but now it’s very hard.”
This is one of the reasons we have to salute people like Pepe Francis MBE, who continuously pushes our culture even through obstacles and constant uphill struggles.
For someone like Pepe this culture doesn’t just come around once a year, he lives and breathes this 365 days of the year.
As he said to me when we started talking: “Pan will always be very significant in carnival and it ain’t gonna change. It is one of the leading factors in carnival.
“Carnival is mas and pan! That has always been the motto and logo for carnival!”