For many Sweet Briar professors, winter break isn’t just a time to unwind from the hustling and bustling that accompanies the end of fall semester. It’s also a time to hone their skills and explore new perspectives. Often, these things are accomplished through travel — to the Caribbean, for example.
On Dec. 28, visiting assistant professor of music and percussionist Jeffrey Jones is headed to Trinidad to participate in the 2013 Panorama competition for steel orchestras. Jones will rehearse and perform with the well-known group Skiffle Steel, from whom he received an official letter of invitation. The competition concludes on Feb. 9 with Trinidad’s carnival.
Panorama is the world’s largest and most prestigious musical competition for steel orchestras. Jones, who directs the chamber orchestra at Sweet Briar and teaches courses in musicology, music theory and conducting, plays the pan, a musical instrument indigenous to Trinidad. Pans are constructed from metal containers, usually 55-gallon oil drums, and produce bell-like tones.
A steel orchestra is an ensemble that includes pans to perform bass lines, an assortment of midrange pans to play accompaniment patterns and countermelodies, pans higher in the range for melodies and harmonization of melodies, and a drum set, congas, iron, timbales, and a varied assortment of accessory percussion instruments.
“The typical Panorama composition is an approximately eight- to ten-minute-long theme and variations based on one of the given year’s carnival songs,” Jones says.
“The genre represents the pinnacle of compositional craftsmanship for steel orchestra composers and technical virtuosity for performers.”
In other words, he says, Panorama is the pan player’s “Carnegie Hall recital.”
“It is the standard of prestige and musical excellence against which all other steel pan performances are judged,” he adds.
Jones hopes that the experience will enhance his musicianship and teaching, but he’s not just there to perform. In between rehearsals and competitions, he will conduct ethnomusicological fieldwork and complete the research needed to finish a book project he is working on about the social implications of pan playing.
Steel orchestras hold a special place in Trinidad’s culture and society. Since the late 1940s, the Trinidadian government has promoted the cultivation of steel pan in Trinidad. The federal agency Pan Trinbago supports the establishment of neighborhood steel orchestras, connecting these groups with community partners and corporate sponsors and organizing performance events.
“This is done, in large part, to celebrate Trinidad’s cultural history and encourage social cohesion,” Jones says.
While there has been plenty of research on the role of steel orchestras in Trinidadian nationalism, Jones wants to find out how they affect the lives of individual pannists.
His ongoing research program with Skiffle Steel in southern Trinidad is grounded in participant-observation ethnography, which is informed by symbolic anthropology and musical analysis.
“My work seeks to illuminate how pannists conceptualize the value of their musical experiences and employ this value towards their chosen ends,” Jones explains. “For most, musical nationalism is one small piece of a larger puzzle. Social networks, intrinsic fulfillment, and the like, are just as important to them, if not more so.”
Pannists, he adds, claim their musical experience has helped them in social situations: making friends, finding work, and mediating or avoiding conflict.
Jones collaborates with the founder and leader of Skiffle Steel, Junia Regrello, who is also a member of the Ministry of Culture in Trinidad and an advisor in the prime minister’s cabinet.
“He is keenly interested in developing ways to enhance the music and social experience of pan as a public good,” Jones explains.
So far, the music professor’s research has yielded conference papers and scholarly publications, as well as the development of a book manuscript.
“This is a long-term project in its early stages, but the feedback so far has been positive,” he says.
Between the Panorama competition and his research, one might expect that Jones would have little time for anything else, but he’s already setting new goals.
“At some point, I’d like to get my students involved with this project by establishing a sister steel orchestra at Sweet Briar grounded in the repertoire, rehearsal practices and performance contexts of Skiffle Steel.”
“I’m also exploring the process of making southern Trinidad a study abroad destination for Sweet Briar students.”
“We could bring some members of Skiffle Steel here from time to time, as well,” Jones suggests, adding that he sees lots of potential at Sweet Briar.
“Musical performance, cultural history, public policy, community development, the possibilities for intercultural exchange and education and their implications for scholarly and creative life at Sweet Briar are rich. I can’t wait to see the directions our students will take this endeavor!”
Jones holds a Ph.D. in musicology from Florida State University and is an active scholar, composer and performer. His research has been published in a variety of media and he has presented papers at regional, national and international conferences. Jones’s work as a composer and arranger has been featured in concert tours of Japan, Russia, Trinidad and Australia, as well as in theatrical productions and a television commercial. As a percussionist, Jones has performed throughout the United States and internationally with various artists and ensembles, including Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra, III MEF U.S. Marine Corps Field Band, The New Paradigm Percussion Quartet, and blues artists Thomas “Guitar” Gable, Dr. Dixon and The King Bees.