Help us! It’s not a distress call to save souls, but it is a plea to bring the soulfulness of steelpan music to the citizens of New Zealand so that they can experience its magic.
For the first time, steelpan music is being taught at a tertiary education institution in Australasia. Two Thursdays ago, the T&T flag stood prominently in Victoria University’s conservatoire as the New Zealand School of Music (NZSM) began its first steelpan class. English-born musician Marion Titmuss, who fell in love with the instrument back in 1987, is leading the charge to develop steelpan culture to the South Pacific nation. This semester’s course is a trial and if successful, it will be a ten-point paper open to any university student.
Notwithstanding the excitement, Titmuss said support from T&T was critical to the feat she is hoping to accomplish as New Zealand is in dire need of arrangers, tuners, and players to help train the Kiwis.
And with Panzfest coming up on September 19-22 in Brisbane, Australia, she hopes that a link will be made.
"Important is the support from you guys in Trinidad & Tobago. There is not much support here in New Zealand, no minister of the arts, no grants available and it is hard. What I’m trying to do now is get people in Australia who play music to get involved in steelpan, not necessarily to play but to write music.
"There is a total lack of know-how in New Zealand and I want steelpan to be more known and for people to see the possibility of what you can do with it," Titmuss said.
In 1987, a younger Titmuss, who is a classical flautist and harpist, got a job at the John Bunyan Supper School on the outskirts of London, England. There, she found steelpans lying around but had no clue what to do with the instrument. Luckily, she met Trinidad-born Richard Murphy, who had been playing and teaching pan in London.
"I went to spend a couple of weeks with him and he explained how to at least understand what the different instruments could do. He taught me to understand them as a choir of steel. What he transferred to me was his love of an instrument that was totally unique. There is not another instrument in the world like it and you can take people who never played an instrument before and teach them."
From there, she started the Steel the Beat school band where students have gone on to become professional pannists. Steelpan was subjected to prejudice but overcame its scorn and has cemented its place in English culture. She said one of the students even got a Doctorate in Steelpan.
Fast forward to 2011, following the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, a new chapter opened in Titmuss' steelpan odyssey. She and her husband Steve migrated to the country to help restore it to its picturesque state. Inside their shipping container were clothes, furniture, and appliances, minus their washing machine which had to be left behind to make way for a few tenors and guitars. Although Titmuss has never visited T&T, the birthplace of the magical steel drums, her quest is the teach the New Zealanders her love for the pan.
For seven years she had written universities seeking to get steelpan into their curriculum and like pan’s history of non-acceptance, she was rejected.
The Kiwis thought little of the steelpan, thinking it was an ethnic percussion instrument that originated in Jamaica.
"When I came to New Zealand, I didn’t realise I was beginning all over again. After 25 years of teaching in the UK, the world change. New Zealand is part of UK commonwealth and I thought there would have been steelpans here as well.
"We fundraised for a decade and with the instruments here, I started a band. The adult band I am running at the moment has nine members with a combined age of 587 years. It's a new development for me working with the more advanced part of the community, age-wise and going out and gigging with them. I've also started two youth band; Bay Silver Stars and a school band Otamatea High School."
But persistence paid off and the university accepted Titmuss' proposal to include steelpan in its curriculum. But now, help is needed.
"There is a limit to what one or two people can do. It needs to be a united front that moves pan forward internationally. With the high standards that come out of Trinidad, understanding how to teach some of those arrangements when it is not your culture and with the intricacies exposed, it is difficult. I’m not unaware of my shortcomings. Another big issue is there are no steelpan makers or tuners. While there are two steelpan makers in Australia, getting instruments tuned is a nightmare."
She said the cost of purchasing steelpans in New Zealand was also high as it has to be imported from the US or Trinidad as there are no pan makers in the country. Overseas purchases incur taxes to encourage citizens to buy local. There are shipping costs, a ten per cent import duty and an additional 15 per cent of the entire cost. She said they need T&T players to vacation in New Zealand while helping to build the music there.
"How do you get people out here? I’m getting old. I’m not a young chicken. I want to see steel bands taken on in schools everywhere in New Zealand right through to adulthood. I want to see young people becoming skilled and making steelpans and we need colleges here to run courses, but it has to come from that wealth of education that you guys have."