Initiate a conversation with Michael Cooper, Chairman of the Laventille Steelband Festival Foundation (LSFF), and two things will quickly become obvious. The first is the importance of the Laventille community in the work of the Foundation; the second is his love for Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, the steelpan.

“We try to do events in the community so people can come into Laventille. Our mandate of community development with pan started as a fight against what was happening, in terms of criminal activity, in the community,” Cooper revealed in a recent interview.

A member of the LSFF since inception, Cooper has watched with pride as the Laventille Steelband Festival, which will take place this year on August 4, has grown into a crime-free, premier event on Trinidad and Tobago’s musical landscape. And while the event started as a parade, a conscious decision was taken by the LSFF to place emphasis on creativity, as opposed to competition, which allowed bands to focus on offering their best music.

“We started the festival to get something going in the community and celebrate Emancipation with the intent for it to grow and become established, bigger and better,” he added.

To date, the festival has outstripped all expectations and this year the committee expects 37 of the nation’s top steelbands and thousands of people to be in attendance. It is the LSFF’s largest undertaking, but it is just one of several successful initiatives established by the foundation.

Over the past 15 years the foundation has hosted other events, including steelband management workshops – for bands in the Laventille area – children’s steelpan camps, community awards and steelpan concerts.

The one-week steelpan camps catered to as much as 40 children, and featured activities such as pan making, however after four years, the LSFF stopped and focused their energies and resources elsewhere.

“We let go of the event because Angostura (Ltd), our partner, started a camp targeting the same children. After discussions with them we decided the step out,” Cooper explained. To this day the camp is still very much alive and open to children of Laventille, and while its focus is not exclusively on the national instrument, there are opportunities for the young participants to have exposure to the steelpan.

Another enterprise which showed initial success was a series of pan yard concerts which were hosted in pan yards within the Laventille area during the weeks leading up to the festival.

“At inception, TIDCO (the now defunct Tourism and Industrial Development Company of Trinidad and Tobago) supported us with the event. One year the TIDCO executive accompanied us to all the events and the next year they started Pan Yard Sensations which blew us out of the water. Of course, with the resources they had we could not compete, so we pulled back,” Cooper recounted.

It was a withdrawal, not with a sense of regret or acrimony but optimism. According to Cooper, once the LSFF can be a part of the process to initiate successful events that celebrate the steeplan there is a sense of accomplishment.

After several years, the Pan Yard Sensations events faded away and two years ago the LSFF decided to rekindle the event, however due to financial constraints they were unable to host any pan yard concerts this year. And while they would like to stage the pan yard concerts next year, without financial support, this may remain in the realm of wishful thinking.

Another LSFF event which was adopted is the March for Peace. After the first year, Cooper said, churches in the area organized a March for Peace “and lick us up”. “It did not make sense so we pulled back,” Cooper added. Ironically, after pulling out, the March for Peace was discontinued.

“It was sad because the event was growing in popularity in the community. It seems we were starting things and handing it over and the relay was not continuing,” Cooper said.

Of the events they have held on to, the foundation has enjoyed both longevity and success. Last year the LSFF hosted the fourth installment of the biennial Eight of Hearts concert series in Laventille, which features 30 minute performances from the top eight bands in the national Panorama competition.

“The fourth concert was well attended and it is growing,” said Cooper who revealed that the event may be hosted at a venue in Port of Spain next year to allow even larger audiences to attend.

Also seeing continued growth is the Laventille Steelband Festival, which – despite the stigma of its home community as a crime “hot-spot” – is attracting an international following having built a reputation for good music in a safe environment.

Cooper said he knows of visitors who come for the event and in an effort to develop the potential for community tourism the LSFF engaged in discussions with the Tourism Development Company Limited – but it did not go much beyond talk.

They also approached the Ministry of Tourism, but a meeting with the Minister Stephen Cadiz set for July 30, was postponed by his office. “They were supposed to come look at the event and assess it in terms of evaluating it as a tourism product,” said Cooper. He could not say what would be the next step.

For now, with an ageing and shrinking base of volunteers and contributors, Cooper’s biggest concern is the future of the LSFF and all their programmes.

“We are tried for resources, funding and capacity of human resources,” said Cooper. He believes the organization must start selling itself to a new audience if it is to survive.

“My wish is to have a young cadre of people, with passion and vision, to succeed the current people so this becomes stronger over many years. Too much is invested for our work to wane,” he says.

For the future, Cooper envisions an organization that not only hosts a successful community festival, but one that is self funding and provides significant training, advisory and managerial support to other cultural groups within Laventille.

“Last year we did a workshop entitled the Role of the Pan Yard in Community Development, 17 bands from the community were represented and we came up with a paper, which was submitted to the Ministry of National Security, on how steelpan can act as a social change agent,” Cooper discloses.

“If we can get 50 per cent implemented I would be happy, if we get 100 per cent of the recommendations implemented I would be in heaven.”

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