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

Nigel Campbell By

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His presence has not swayed the minds of dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. The years-long struggle for the privilege to compose for Panorama was an exercise in the fleshing out of de facto prejudices that disallowed foreigners from composing or even arranging for the competition, much less a tune without lyrics. Triumphant in 1999 in breaching the divide, Narell was once again in Trinidad arranging his composition "The Last Word" for Birdsong Steel Orchestra for the 2013 Panorama competition. This is his third competition, and controversial to the end, judges and commentators noted that the tune doesn't "reflect Trinidad's energy or language!" Champion steelband Despers' arranger Beverley Griffith noted in a conversation with ethnomusicologist Shannon Dudley: "Excitement is one of the key things in today's Panorama; you hear that on every judge's score sheet: 'It could do with a little more excitement.' They wouldn't tell you exactly what it is..." De facto prejudices and de jure standards are continuing challenges to Narell.

A narrow focus on ensemble music for pan can limit the Trinidadian's need to accommodate him. He is more than an arranger. It is not without trying that he succeeded to place the instrument in the context of global music industry via prolific recorded output, sales and performances. According to his bio:
He's one of only a small handful of steel pan players in the world who are playing jazz, and perhaps the only one among that coterie to commit an entire career "live and in the studio" to creating new music for the pan in that context.
The intersection of location and presence can yield surprising results on music output. Narell was categorized by the music industry in the US—sheet music publishers and reviewers of his initial Heads Up recordings—as a Latin Jazz artist, even if not so self-described, thus negating the growing influence that the music of the Caribbean isles had on his growing canon of music. His effortless movement and adaptation of Latin American melodies and rhythms including his work with Caribbean Jazz Project and on the album Behind The Bridge in the mid-to- late 1990s signalled new directions in music.

In 1999, he reaped the benefit of post-apartheid South Africa's adulation of him and his music at the Arts Alive Festival, with 60,000 fans "singing" his lyric-less steel pan melodies. The juxtaposition of an Afro-Caribbean bred instrument in Africa led to recordings there. Later relocation to Paris and meeting with exiled French-Antillean jazzmen there led to the formation of Sakesho and the resultant two CDs. The corpus of Trinidadian steel pan music allows space for this maverick.

Narell, the frequent visitor—in 2013, he performed at the annual Jazz Artists on the Greens in Trinidad in March, Jazz in the South in St Lucia in May, and St Kitts Music Festival in June—if not the fortunate traveller has created music that to the local ear resonates with the sound and energy of calypso and the harmonic and melodic sentiments of the Panorama compositions of calypso legend Lord Kitchener, and steel pan players/arrangers Ray Holman, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, Robert Greenidge, among others. This town—Port of Spain, paradise—has rubbed off on him. He belongs to Trinidad.

Photo Credit
Ari Rossner

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