Dave G. Houser

Brooklyn Summers, Steelpan Nostalgia

Marlon Peterson

October 25, 2022

A born and bred Brooklynite on the peril of the streets — and the sanctuary of the panyard.

A born and bred Brooklynite on the peril of the streets — and the sanctuary of the panyard.

Brooklyn summers, I love them.

Nostalgia is an “eye-of-the-beholder” kind of thing. Mega, Jaga and me, Skeez, walked four miles round-trip every night during the Brooklyn summer of 1996. Along our journey from Crown Heights to Flatbush as 14- and 15-year-olds, we walked past groups of young boys and girls dabbling with the idea of being Blood, the newest street organization. Mega sometimes rode his freestyle bike alongside us. One time, we passed by an older man sitting on a crate smoking crack on Nostrand Avenue before sundown. More than a few times, we shortened our travel time by hopping the turnstile at the No. 3 train stop at Nostrand Avenue. I got caught once, was chased by eager police once or twice and laughed it off every time. That’s what kids did for some adventure and fun where I came from.

The end justifies the means. We were young musicians running to our instruments. We were kids of Caribbean parents who acculturated their children in the ways of the islands. We were American kids in Caribbean bodies. The panyard was our destination. Guns aren’t the only metallic objects that fulminate in Brooklyn during the summer. Our instruments were perfect for poverty. Repurposed disposed oil drums cut into different sizes equipped to play the chromatic scale on par with your best Lincoln Center philharmonic performance. We played pan.

The panyard was a place perfect for our instruments borne out of poverty and the relativity of nostalgia. The panyard was a refurbished car lot, decorated with cheap mismatched green and red rugs, older people and young boys like me chain-smoking weed, Indian hemp and cigarettes during our practice breaks — and for some, the smoking never stopped.

The new junior high school playground across the street from our ghetto Carnegie Hall is where we worked off our young smoke-filled lungs by playing basketball during some of our breaks, and if I’m being honest, it’s where we played hooky from our practice sessions. But it was adventurous to scale the gate impeding our entrance to our pickup basketball games.

The panyard was our summer camp. There were some questionable adult things that happened in front of our teenage eyes. The occasional shouting match between people in love triangles provided the HBO-type content that couldn’t be rewound, only remembered later for gossip. It’s probably during those reality spats that we, the kids, snuck off into the park while the adults figured out their 1990s version of Kanye, Kim and Pete. Yeah, we picked up less-than-great examples of honesty in romantic relationships. People cheated on their partners all the time; sometimes with other band members. Yet the thunderous harmony of the tenor pans, cellos, guitar pans and my favorite, the 6-bass, silenced the human discrepancies that could easily make a Shade Room post.

Some of us, the young pannists, were fledgling gang members, low-level drug dealers and boosters, too, but not at the panyard. The panyard was the place we went to be safe. No one was ever shot there. No one was killed by the popo there. No one was sex trafficked there. No one was bullied there.

Though, drama always happened during summer nights in Brooklyn — on the way to the panyard and heading back home — but never at the panyard. It was an oasis of flaws, but not a den of violence, the type of violence that law enforcement enthusiasts use to justify an abundant multibillion-dollar police operating budget.

Once, when I was about 15 or 16, leaving the panyard with my 8-year-old nephew, cops in an unmarked car stopped and questioned us about our whereabouts. We had left the panyard, taken the bus home, and as we were walking onto the block where we lived, these four white cops stopped us to interrogate us about possession of weapons and drugs. When I responded, “No,” they wanted to know where we lived. When I said “across the street,” they ordered, “Let me see you go inside the building, if you really live there.”

We followed their instructions. Triggered and traumatized, words we didn’t use back then, we were just happy to be able to leave the block the next day to go back to the panyard, navigating policing along the way.

One night on the way to the panyard, a kid from my neighborhood, a Blood-gang superior, probably another hurting Black boy, robbed me along with his trio of friends. They jumped me, took my chain and left my ego battered and bruised. Jaga was there, and Mega was nearby. It was tough. It felt debilitating and defeating.

My inclination was to make use of the other, more nefarious sounds that ring loudly during Brooklyn summer nights — gunshots. But there was still music to practice. Pan to be played.

Another night, on my way home from the panyard, I heard and saw a ruckus. A bunch of boys from my neighborhood were encircling a man. Amid the haphazardness, I heard the voice of a younger friend. Shaugn was two years younger than me, a new Blood, and my Friday- and Saturday-night house-party co-adventurer. He was face-to-face with the slightly drunk grown-ass man who was about three times Shaugn’s pubescent weight. I intervened, threw the first punch before the other Black boys took turns at pummeling this man of little description other than slightly drunk. I broke my left hand on his face. Police came. I ran into a nearby apartment building. From a friend’s apartment, I could see the now punch-drunk man trying to explain to the police what happened to him and the possible whereabouts of me and the other teenage adventure assailants. 

After a few minutes, the police left, I left, the doubly drunk man left, and Shaugn left.

Two weeks later, I was back at the panyard, struggling to play the instrument I love with one of my hands in a cast. Pain was pleasure. Nostalgia is relative.

Mega and I played the 6-bass and Jaga the 4-bass. I also met one of my first girlfriends in the band that summer. Though that teenage love was short lived, this person became one of my lifelines over a decade later when I came home from a prison sentence.

You see, I played pan every year from 1996-1999. Mega and Jaga and I survived our neighborhood for 18 years by being away, even if it were only two miles away down the complicated corridor of Nostrand Avenue. Police, hurting Black boys and people using drugs in public, were a worthy obstacle course to traverse to get to the one thing that saved us from the worst of our environments.

This was never more apparent than summer 1999. The band I played with, Pantonics, won the annual Labor Day weekend Panorama competition among Brooklyn’s top steelbands. Jaga was on his 4-bass, me on my 6-bass, and Mega, though not playing that summer, completed our trio as a bystander. I was 19, a high school graduate, college dropout, pannist and employee at a telemarketing company in midtown Manhattan. I almost survived my neighborhood.

One month after our victory, I was arrested in my neighborhood for a crime that would take me away from the instruments I loved for 10 years. A few years after I was released, Jaga was gunned down from a bullet not meant for him, in our neighborhood. Mega had left the neighborhood and became heavily involved in the church with his wife and kids.

After Jaga was killed, I organized a shooting response rally with Save Our Streets Crown Heights. We held it the afternoon of September 3, 2016, two days after he was killed, on the block we lived on; the starting point of our four-mile journey to the panyard that saved us every summer. Later that night, I went to the annual Panorama competition, this time as an observer and mourner, not performer.

Survival is also an “in-the-eyes-of-the-beholder” type thing. I miss those good ol’ days when we clashed with stop-and-frisk cops and hurting Black boys, witnessed toxic love triangles, engaged in underage smoking and played pan. 

I have returned to playing my 6-bass every year since then, but without Jaga. Without Mega. As an adult, pan still saves me from the traumatic memories that are triggered by gun violence today. Today, the protection is mental; therapeutic.

Despite it all: Brooklyn summers, I love them. I love the nostalgia of the steelpan, the other, more savory metal objects that resound harmoniously during the night. Even back then, we understood what safety looked like.