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'Rope' savages NY youth steelband

Sympathy is pouring in from pan lovers around the globe for the plight of New York steelband Utopia Pan Soul: The Next Generation, whose instruments were last week savagely attacked, leaving the band unable to participate in the imminent Labour Day Panorama competition.

The attacker took an axe to several of the instruments rendering them unusable in what pan veterans in New York described as a return to "rope", a description that surfaced in the bad old days when panyard or inter-band disputes were settled by destroying the band's instruments.

The globally popular When Steel Talks website yesterday added its voice "in solidarity with those of the world steelband community in condemning the actions of the individuals or individual who would dare to destroy any musicians instruments. In addition," the release said, "we salute the pan organisations and individuals who have come together to publicise the unfortunate situation, and offer to assistance to Utopia Pan Soul."

What started as a minor altercation at the Brooklyn panyard of Utopia Pan Soul: The Next Generation, turned ugly sometime between last week Thursday night and Friday morning, resulting in the destruction of the majority of the band's instruments. The incident has been reported to the police who, sources said, could do little in such circumstances without corroboration from an eyewitness.

Utopia, a 15-member youth steelband, whose panyard is situated on Nostrand Avenue (between Beverley Road and Tilden Avenue) has been providing a social service in addition to pan music, by corralling young persons into productive pursuit but now it has to start all over again, raising funds to replace instruments. The band has since announced its inability to take part in the Panorama competition.

Bandleader Sheldon Elcock was not available but his fiancée, Nessa, yesterday spoke with the Express about the incident: "It was literally hours before we were supposed to perform at a major function in Rhode Island that Sheldon discovered the pans had been vandalised to the point of uselessness," she said. "Because of the resolve of the players, particularly those in the frontline who own their instruments, we were able to fulfill that engagement."

When Steel Talks reported that "a greatly-reduced but still spectacular-sounding Utopia Pan Soul met its obligation and thrilled patrons at 'Sound Session '04', an international music festival sponsored by the Providence Black Repertory Company and the City of Providence Department of Art, Culture & Tourism. The band played on Saturday, July 24, in Providence, Rhode Island."

Nessa said: "During practice Thursday night some of the guys had a minor altercation with the Guyanese-born caretaker and left him at the panyard to look after the instruments but when Sheldon passed there on Friday afternoon, he was gone and most of the pans were destroyed, apparently chopped with an axe.

"There were gaping holes in the notes in most of the pans," she said. "For example, we had five sets of basses and only one was spared. The perpetrator certainly did quite a number on the instruments, hitting us where it hurt most. We now have to go out and start over the fund-raising that put the band together and look for pans to meet imminent commitments."

Utopia is already engaged to perform for a band at Jouvert which, in New York, is a time set aside exclusively for steelband music. "The other bands are all engaged, so it is not like the mas band leader can now go and get another group and DJ music is not allowed on the streets at that time," Nessa said.

Utopia is normally supplied by Trini tuner Ronald Matthews but will have to take some of its instruments from New York based counterparts because of the time constraint- Labour Day Jouvert being a mere 37 days hence. "We could get the basses here and because a lot of the frontline players own their instruments, it is the other pans that are presenting the largest problem," Nessa said.

The band suffered total destruction of three bass clusters, two four pans, a tenor bass set and its only double-second pans. "No one expected this kind of thing," she said. "Our pans weren't even insured because this is what they used to call 'rope', a situation we thought no longer exists, since it was a kind of response that disappeared decades ago, so no one could have thought we'd find ourselves in this predicament.

"Happily, our guys did not stoop to the level of the saboteur. We have taken pictures of the damaged instruments and made a police report and will put this behind us and take the lessons it has taught us, and move on. Utopia is for the youth and we cannot let them go down the wrong road so, while it is a lot to swallow, we do not plan to retaliate," said Nessa, whose bass set was among those vandalised.

To replace the instruments would cost at least US$50,000, a sum well outside the band's financial reach at this time. Utopia does not depend solely on the imminent Panorama competition but works year-round providing entertainment and a socially acceptable alternative for youth in the troubled area.