‘Yellow Bird’ and Pan: the Transmission, Circulation and Re-creation of a Caribbean Song
Rachel Mary Hayward
Doctor of Philosophy
City University, London Department of Music
May 2014 (published online August 2018)
I have decided to publicly release my PhD thesis for all to view and download. I have attempted to fully credit and acknowledge all my sources and the help and assistance of all those wonderful folks in the steel pan, and wider musical and academic communities who contributed to the research. I realise this gesture will make my work open to wider dissemination and possible plagiarism and will bring no financial reward and would therefore politely request that when quoting or referencing my work that all appropriate referencing procedures are followed. A hard copy with accompanying CD can be found in the City University, London, library. All mistakes and errors are mine and I welcome any further verifiable information on any of the topics discussed herein. Please use this website’s contact form.
Since the mid 1940s steel pan instruments have been taken from their place of origin — Trinidad — to other locations in the Caribbean, North and South America and Europe. When performing for non–Caribbean audiences pannists play a significantly different repertoire than can be heard in Trinidadian pan performance. To date, the discrepancy between what pannists choose to play for their own communities and for others has been largely undocumented, and the nature of pan performance as it manifests in Trinidad has been obscured by stereotypes created and popularized during the late 1950s. A detailed examination of an iconic exemplar ‘Yellow Bird’ and its origins as part of the ‘Choucoune’ song family reveals how the song was transmitted from the francophone Caribbean to other islands and thence to the USA, France and the UK. In 1957 a new variant — ‘Yellow Bird’ — was recorded and subsequently became part of the popular light music repertoire. The song gained further popularity in the Caribbean where it became a staple of resort entertainments and strongly embedded in the repertoires of touristic steel bands.
Taking a historical approach, nine variants have been documented and 125 versions of ‘Yellow Bird’ in diverse genres archived. Brief biographies of the personalities involved in the transmission of the song are noted, likewise the migration of pannists and the introduction of pans to other Caribbean islands, the USA and UK summarized. The song variants are analysed and compared along with exemplars from some genres and performance traditions in order to illuminate the nature of the adaptations. Additionally the iconography of album covers and presentational norms associated with Caribbean music were explored. Thus, within Caribbean musical repertoire, the ‘Choucoune’ song family has proved to be easily adapted for performance in other genres and performance modes, and ‘Yellow Bird’ itself unique amongst Caribbean songs in that it entered into the popular music repertoires of the USA and UK where it was re– versioned numerous times. The stereotypical modes of dress and demeanour associated with ‘Yellow Bird’ performance are resisted or accommodated to varying degrees by contemporary pan players. This work broadens the scope of the current literature on pan and provides a basis for further examinations of pan outside its country of origin. It demonstrates that the repertoire of touristic steel bands is based upon songs popularised during the media-created Calypso Craze of 1957 which was mainly fuelled by the rise in popularity of Harry Belafonte, and bears little relation to pan performance as it is heard and seen in Trinidad and within Caribbean communities in other countries.