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An American in Paradise: The sense of Belonging of Andy Narell

Nigel Campbell By

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Andy Narell belongs to a pantheon of expatriate creatives who "belong" here in Trinidad and at the same time are aware of their difficulty of so belonging.
American pannist (steel pan soloist) and composer Andy Narell is an iconoclast who fearlessly challenges the narrow definitions of acceptable pan music. He is global, and his usefulness as an ambassador for Trinidad and Tobago's national instrument is tainted by suspicion long held by panmen (steel pan players) and the steel pan fraternity in general here. It may be an attitude of his own making. Long held beliefs are hard to dispel with logic. Pan pioneer Rudolf "Fish Eye" Ollivierre welcomed itinerant writer Patrick Leigh Fermor back in 1950 to Hell Yard, as described in his travel book The Traveller's Tree—"The ease of his manner was admirable"—implying a sense of awe and acceptance we have nurtured over the years in this region for "tourists." Narell has long ago stopped being a tourist. The cri de coeur of a Trinidad- resident critic sums up the native posture towards Narell:
He is one of us and thus, prone to the same criticisms and praise as the rest of us. He is critical of our music, our Panorama (major steel pan competition) and we react without obsequiousness. And rightly so, for that is the Caribbean posture, effectively practised by the panman forever; never back down from a challenge.
Andy Narell belongs to a pantheon of expatriate creatives who "belong" here in Trinidad and at the same time are aware of their difficulty of so belonging. Important regional authors were temporary immigrants to these shores in the mid- 20th century—Edgar Mittelholzer in 1941-48, George Lamming in 1946- 50, Derek Walcott in 1959-76—and their presence and experiences added to the canon of great West Indian literature. Trinidad's capital, Port of Spain, and by extension, the island is a place frequented by those wanderers in search of inspiration and succour. It still is a moving place designed to shape memory and ways of feeling.

George Gershwin's symphonic tone poem, An American in Paris is the impression of a visitor— probably Gershwin himself recounting an earlier visit—moving through the city of lights. Andy Narell is an ideal template of An American in Paradise! The idea of an expatriate musician in a foreign land and his potential influence on the music industry formed a question in the writer's head: "would an American in Trinidad energise a jazz (pan jazz?) renaissance in Trinidad, or would it foster competitive jealousy?" The answer could be gleaned from the Narell narrative.

Narell's initial visit was as a 12 year old child to perform at the 1966 Trinidad Music Festival. That life-changing experience introduced him to the panyards and the pioneers, especially Ellie Mannette, and served as the education of this lifelong student of the steel pan and the steelband movement. His annual pilgrimage to the source has been unceasing since 1985. His encyclopaedic knowledge of panmen, the music and the environment of pan suggests that he has done his work, and his global journeys in the service of spreading the sound of pan and his music are not matched by many.

Trinidad-born Nobel laureate in literature, VS Naipaul posits poetically in A Writer's People: "small places with simple economies bred small people with simple destinies." Narell, the American, sees the world differently. He recounted that when he first did a concert in Trinidad in 1985, it was billed as a shoot-out, a competition. The promoters thought that would pique interest. The implication of race and nationality was an unspoken catalyst. That idea was whispered loudly!

The apprehension by Trinidad and Tobago to fully adopt this ambassador of steel pan jazz has been noticeably clear. French film maker Laurent Lichtenstein, in his portrait of Narell filmed in Trinidad in 2009, Andy and the Jumbies, asserts that his presence and concert "may help him to be accepted as a real Trinidadian." Narell himself has noted to writer Asha Brodie in 2007 that he wasn't everybody's cup of tea: "I guess I also have a reputation for being 'avant-garde' and for not caring about who wins [Panorama], which is why my phone isn't ringing." That isolation could either be the result of xenophobia or artificial rage. "Small people with simple destinies."

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