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From Classroom Project to Film Festival Premiere: Panazz’s Extraordinary Journey

By Klysha Best

There are some stories we just never knew we needed to be told.

But God, as we know, works in mysterious ways.

For 20-year-old Adam Bartholmew, a school project to highlight a musical genre and band, helped place him on the path of telling the amazing untold story of the groundbreaking local pan ensemble, Panazz, which was led by his uncle Barry Bartholomew.

Formed in 1993 by Barry (Bartholomew) and Yohan Popplewell, Panazz included ace tenor player Dane Gulston, pannists Natasha Joseph and Donell Thomas, who was seven years old when he joined, percussionist Keith Coombs and saxophonist Arturo Tappin.

A school project with a twist

The documentary, Panazz The Story, started off as a way to present steelpan music to his classmates in his dual programme at Harvard-Berklee. Instead, it turned into much more – a captivating tale of a small pan side from T&T that produced genre-blending albums and toured some of the most prestigious halls in the world.

Currently being shown at the 2023 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF), Bartholomew said he was not around during the days of Panazz.

“But growing up and having my uncle Barry, who was the leader of Panazz, I heard all the stories about how great they were, and I started listening to their music. They have some of the best steelpan ensemble recordings and I have always admired them.

“So last semester at Harvard, I took a musicology course on musical ensembles and musical genres that have pushed boundaries in music and in society and sort of defied social expectations and norms at the time. And for that class, we had to do a project on a band or artist of our choice and my mind shot straight to Panazz, because they really helped to elevate the status of the instrument.”

Bartholomew was given the project in March and noted that just the month prior, he went to a show at the Boston Symphony Hall, and shared the photos in his family group chat. He said when his uncle Barry saw where he was, he immediately shared that Panazz had performed there.

“Being in that prestigious hall and then realising Panazz performed there, made me realise ‘Wow’, Panazz was something different, and to make a documentary about them was not only something necessary, but something really special for me,” said Batholomew.

From interviews to immersive experience

When the time came to start the project, the former Fatima College student said he sent his uncle a message, asking if he could help him put together the interviews. Bartholomew said he had one week, during spring break, to come to T&T and get it all done.

“I interviewed my uncle in his kitchen because he’s a chef now and then he got in contact with Dane Gulston, Natasha Joseph who played double second, and Donnell Thomas, who was a seven-year-old playing bass.

“So with those four key interviews, I was able to get the overall content of the documentary and then I incorporated all of the Panazz music from my uncle, which I’m really grateful for and that formed the background music or the score so to speak.”

Bartholomew said he had a great deal of fun editing and interweaving the interviews so that it’s a fully immersive experience. He said the audience is not only learning about Panazz through the dialogue but also experiencing them in a very intimate way.

He said he spent approximately two months editing in between his classes and it was finished just in time for the deadline to be submitted to the TTFF.

“I sent my uncle a copy and when he saw it, his first reaction was just tears from the moment he pressed play, as it brought back so many emotions and memories seeing it all completed.

We worked together on defining it and adding in some more interviews with some of the other players.”

A spiritual connection to filmmaking

Bartholomew said he had so many magical moments while creating the film, and he couldn’t wait for the day to share the film with the world.

When it premiered at the opening of TTFF on Thursday, September 21, Bartholomew said it was amazing and meaningful just to hear the responses from the audience, especially those from the pan, music, and cultural fraternity – how deeply impacted they were by this documentary.

Bartholomew does not consider himself a filmmaker, despite the rave reviews for Panazz The Story.

His major at Harvard is molecular and cellular biology, while at Berklee he is studying scoring for film.

He said his focus wasn’t on the film aspect of Panazz The Story, but just on the need to convey a story.

“So, I’ve always seen filmmaking as just that. As much as I love movies, it’s always just been a means of expression for me. But now with this whole thing of getting it into the film festival and being labelled as a filmmaker, it has made me start to think more about the film aspect of the film itself, which is actually something I’m really passionate about and hope to do more of in the future.”

Bartholomew said during his journey from Holistic Learning Center, to Fatima and now to Harvard and Berklee, God has always been by his side, especially in difficult times.

“Being a Fatima boy, under Father Gregory’s leadership, he inspired me, in just the kind of person he is, to not only have faith in God but to have faith in everyone else.”

“Father Gregory (Augustine) had such a tremendous faith in me, always pushing me to do things musically and as a leader and as the head prefect as well, and I am tremendously thankful to him. Even the motto of our school, ‘Nitendo Vinces’ (By striving you shall conquer)’ has been so ingrained in my soul.”

Bartholomew thanked his mother Aimee for all her assistance.

“I can’t pin down one thing that mom has done, but everything me and my older brother Luke are today, is because of her, with regards to my virtues and how I treat other people.”

In terms of future plans, now that Panazz The Story is a done deal, Bartholomew said he doesn’t have any.

“Just as we were talking about faith and God, for me there must be something spiritual that connects me to a project and drives me to do it. So, I am just open and waiting for the possibilities.”

Panazz The Story premieres at Movie Towne, Port of Spain on Thursday, September 28.