Docu­d­rama un­furls steel pan mu­sic’s global reach

The Washington Post Sunday - - THIS WEEK - BY CELIA WREN style@wash­post.com Wren is a free­lance writer. PAN! Our Mu­sic Odyssey June 14 at 4 p.m. at the AFI Sil­ver Theatre and Cul­tural Cen­ter, 8633 Colesville Rd., Sil­ver Spring. Tick­ets: $7-$12. 301-495-6700. www.afi.com/sil­ver.

An enor­mous poster of the movie “Casablanca” looms over a desk as film pro­duc­ers Kim John­son and Jean Michel Gil­bert speak, via Skype, from Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago. The poster does not sug­gest any par­tic­u­lar pas­sion for Humphrey Bog­art. Rather, it is a sly ref­er­ence to the his­tory of the steel pan, also known as the steel drum, the in­stru­ment in­vented ont he is­land of Trinidad, and the sub­ject of a 2014 film pro­duced by Gil­bert and John­son.

Ac­cord­ing to them, the steel pan bands of the 1940s and 1950s took their names from popular movies of the day. “Casablanca was one of the great­est early bands,” says John­son, a na­tive Trinida­dian and a lead­ing scholar of the his­tory of steel pan mu­sic.

That mu­sic is the sub­ject of “PAN! Our Mu­sic Odyssey,” a docu­d­rama they pro­duced with Barthélémy Fougea. The film will screen June 14 at the AFI Sil­ver Theatre as part of the 2015 DC Caribbean Film Fest, run­ning June 12-14.

Di­rected by Jérôme Guiot and Thierry Te­ston, it’s no cookie-cut­ter doc­u­men­tary. “It’s a very pe­cu­liar hy­brid movie,” John­son ad­mits, re­fer­ring to the film’s blend of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, talk­ing-head in­ter­views and re­al­ity-TV-style chron­i­cling of a con­tem­po­rary steel band con­test.

The fic­tional nar­ra­tive evokes the his­tory and pre­his­tory of steel pan, fo­cus­ing par­tic­u­larly on the pe­riod dur­ing and af­ter World War II, when Trinida­di­ans be­gan cre­at­ing per­cus­sion in­stru­ments from the metal drums that were used to store oil and other liq­uids on U.S. mil­i­tary bases.

Inthe en­su­ing decades, the­mu­sic’s pop­u­lar­ity spread across the globe. The film demon­strates that in­ter­na­tional reach with doc­u­men­tary footage fea­tur­ing Ja­panese and French steel pan vir­tu­osos who ar­rive in Trinidad to com­pete in a battle of the bands.

Ini­tially, says John­son, who wrote the screen­play, the film did not in­volve weav­ing to­gether so many types of sto­ry­telling. “My orig­i­nal idea, when I thought of mak­ing a movie about steel pan, was a straight doc­u­men­tary — a Na­tional Geo­graphic, Ken Burns, his­tory-of-jazz-type thing,” he re­mem­bers.

But af­ter cre­at­ing a short film about steel pan for a mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion he was cu­rat­ing, John­son teamed up for a longer movie with Gil­bert, a French mu­sic and film pro­ducer who has lived in Trinidad for over two decades. Gil­bert brought on Fougea, a French doc­u­men­tary spe­cial­ist whose cred­its in­clude the César award-win­ning 2013 film “On the Way to School.”

Ac­cord­ing to John­son, Fougea thought the tra­di­tional doc­u­men­tary for­mat would be “bor­ing.” At Fougea’s sug­ges­tion, the screen­play grew to en­com­pass not just doc­u­men­tary but also his­tor­i­cal fic­tion and battle-of-the-band seg­ments. “We want peo­ple to be in­formed and to learn some­thing,” says Gil­bert, “but we want to do it in a way that is en­ter­tain­ing and that keeps the viewer com­pletely in­volved.”

For the dra­matic sec­tions, John­son wrote a story fea­tur­ing a char­ac­ter named Stephen “Gold­teeth” Clarke, a 19-year-old who plays in a band called the Mal­tese Fal­cons (get it?) in the years af­ter World War II. De­spite run-ins with the po­lice, Gold­teeth suc­ceeds in cre­at­ing a craze for con­vert­ing 55-gal­lon oil drums into mu­si­cal in­stru­ments. The his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion con­tained in this story line com­ple­ments some of the rec­ol­lec­tions shared by the movie’s ex­pert in­ter­vie­wees.

John­son says that, all in all, “PAN!” is a no­tably up­beat film.

“It’s very fash­ion­able in doc­u­men­taries to fo­cus on suf­fer­ing and re­pres­sion,” he says, es­pe­cially when a film is “about third­world peo­ple and about black peo­ple.” But the tale of the steel pan is a “tri­umphant” one, John­son added, in­cor­po­rat­ing artis­tic ac­com­plish­ment, hos­pi­tal­ity and open­ness. The sound of steel pan is so ap­peal­ing that it has at­tracted prac­ti­tion­ers from around the world. And Trinidad’s mu­si­cians wel­come the in­flux, he notes.

“If you are good enough,” John­son says, “it doesn’t mat­ter who you are— your reli­gion, your race, your na­tion­al­ity, your gen­der, your age. In the steel bands, and es­pe­cially the large ones, there are rep­re­sented ev­ery sin­gle hu­man group. And that is quite a unique achieve­ment.”

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