Thursday, October 11, 2007

WE Culture - Sharing the Steelpan with the world

by Monica J. McIntyre

On a recent visit to Las Vegas, while walking along the Strip, I was delighted to hear steelband music wafting through the air. I followed the melody and discovered, in a busy market square, a trio of musicians. A young, white American was playing a steelpan, accompanied by a guitarist, and percussionist. They were entertaining a group of shoppers who were taking a respite from the desert heat. Some sat at tables and listened to the music, while others were dancing.

After the set, I approached the pannist, who told me that he used to play drums for a steelband in San Diego. A Trinidadian taught him to play the pan, and now he was earning a living playing the steelpan, in Vegas.

Trinidad nationals are proudly showcasing and sharing the steelpan with the world. As the only acoustic, melodic instrument created in the twentieth century, the versatile instrument is used to play not just calypso, soca, and reggae, but also classical music and jazz. Today there are steelbands in many countries, including North America, Australia, Japan, China, England, France and Switzerland, to name just a few.

In Toronto, the steelband continues to grow and evolve in spite of challenges, thanks to the dedicated professionals who soldier on to advance the instrument. They put on shows, teach, make and tune the pans, and arrange music.

Tommy Crichlow is one of the ambassadors for the steelband, in Toronto. He has been playing the steelpan since he was a boy in his native Trinidad. Now the veteran arranger runs a home-based business making and tuning steelpans. Crichlow also arranges the music for his steelband Pan Masters. In 1988, he was invited to start a band in Nantes, France. Crichlow made the pans, arranged the music, and taught a group to play.
“Steelband is picking up here nicely,” he says, “we started the Ontario Steelband Association.” Crichlow admits there is always controversy among the players when it comes to competition, but that “it’s a normal steelband man thing.” Pan Masters takes part regardless of the politics. “We are here to keep the thing alive,” he says.

“The steelband has come a long way,” says Danny Mosca, another professional pannist, in Toronto. Mosca leads the band Silhouettes which he founded in 1980. Like Crichlow he has been involved with the steelpan for many years. “People have a better understanding of the pan now because it is being taught in schools,” he says. His son Mark also an accomplished musician, arranges the music for the band.

Wendy Jones is a rare female in the male-dominated steelband arena. She started playing the steelpan as a grade 10 student in the school programme. She’s had her band Pan Fantasy for some 30 years. Jones says steelband is in a good place right now, the community steelbands have grown and there are about 25 school bands. For the bands to continue to grow they need help with accommodation. “A lot of bands don’t have ‘homes’ which makes it difficult to keep the band going during the winter,” she points out. “The only time the bands can come out is in May or June when it’s warmer. Years ago, steelbands could use schools or school portables to store their pans and practice”, Jones says, “but budget cutbacks changed that. Now steelbands have to pay a fee to use the schools.”

Jones and Earl La Pierre Jr. of the popular steelband Afropan started Pan Arts Network (PAN) ten year ago. It is a programme dedicated to keeping steelbands working year round. PAN puts on two steelband shows during the fall and winter months: “Snowflakes on Steel,” and “Autumn Leaves on Steel.” The shows have featured many talented pannists including Liam Teague, Ken “Professor” Filmore, and Dane Gulston.

Some pannists earn their living playing the steelpan. La Pierre who comes from a family of pannists is one of them. La Pierre plays all genres of music at functions and festivals throughout Canada, and the Caribbean. He recently returned from the Harvest Jazz and Blues Musical Festival in Fredericton, N.B., where he played a gig at the Caribbean Flavors Restaurant and worked as an official street performer at the festival. When Glen Lewis an R&B singer from Toronto was signed to a record company the steelpan played by La Pierre was featured on the track that went gold. “That record got him a contract with Sony,” La Pierre says.
In spite of its growing pains, the steelband continues to delight audiences and musicians around the world. The pannist in Vegas told me to pass this message on to Trinidad: “Thanks for the pan - it’s my bread and butter.”

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