The recent Birdsong annual Scholarship Benefit Concert was one of the best productions staged at the Lord Kitchener Auditorium of the National Academy of the Performing Arts (NAPA) since its opening. Staged by the Birdsong Academy, an academic appendage of Birdsong Steel Orchestra, the institution reaches beyond pan to include teaching its young students in other instruments, including keyboard, string, wind, brass and percussion. Stage managed by Maria King and Calvin Bartholomew, the programme ran seamlessly, featuring celebrated US pannist Andy Narell, academy faculty member and keyboardist Raf Robertson, US-domiciled Vincentian keyboardist Frankie Mc Intosh, sight-impaired Berklee College vocalist Nyol Manswell, jazz singer Vaughnette Bigford and Birdsong Small Ensemble.
The programme was opened on a high note by Manswell, an affable young man who is blessed with a unique and special voice. His ability to blend and manipulate chords and notes was outstanding, complemented by his diction and delivery. His repertoire included items like The Way You Make Me Feel, Crazy Love Dance, High Love and Round Midnight. A significant ingredient in Manswell’s performance was the musicianship of Italian Noe Socha and Rajesh Mohammed, also sight-impaired and also products of Berklee. With Mc Intosh on grand piano, Mohammed augmented on keyboards, while Socha astounded all with his virtuosity on guitar and hamonica. Bigford was at her crowd-pleasing best, especially when, accompanied by Mc Intosh, she did a sensuous and provocative cover of No Money No Love, one of Sparrow’s countless classics. Robertson led the Birdsong Small Ensemble in a segment that included well received numbers like Bernie’s Tune, Armando’s Rhumba, This Feeling Nice, Comeback Home and Endless Vibrations. Six players of conventional instruments and six young female pannists gave the Mighty Trini’s Sailing a new and enticing veneer of musical magic.
The playing of the small ensemble is more than sufficient testimony of the infinite possibilities of the birdsong music programme. Professionalism and talent oozed from these young musicians, underscoring the theory that pan and music is a possible balm to quell the current surge in crime in the country. McIntosh, who is renowned in local music circles, especially calypso, for his tremendous arrangements through the years, excelled when he played Kitchener’s Pan in Harmony and Skylark. The foremost non-Trinidadian pannist in the world, Narell showed why former Pan Trinbago president Patrick Arnold gave him the distinction of being the first non-national to be given permission to arrange for a steelband in the national Panorama competition. Playing double tenors tuned by the legendary Ellie Mannette, Narell’s selections included Sugar for Pan, Kalinda, Laventille, Baby Step and Coffee Street, the latter his composition that took San Fernando’s Skiffle to a national Panorama final. Since its inception in 2004 more than 600 young people have benefited from the academy’s programme. All instructions are free in instruments sourced by birdsong. This month, under the auspices of the Ministry of National Security, seven additional steelbands are expected to adopt the Birdsong model of community-based music education.