You are here

From Texas with love

—pan tuner Emily Lemmerman
Published: 
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Emily Lemmerman, the 38-year-old Texan who runs Barracuda Steel Drums, is also the first and, so far, only female professional pan tuner engaged in the annual Panorama competition. PHOTO: MARCUS GONZALVES

It’s brunch on Ariapita Avenue six days before Panorama Finals. The electricity is out and everyone’s late. It’s a warm but breezy morning and Tobago surf is still in Emily Lemmerman’s shock of curly, red hair as she hurriedly rounds the bend.

It’s been a relatively brief but intense pan season for the 38-year-old Texan who runs Barracuda Steel Drums—a pan-tuning and building company in Austin—and who is also the first and, so far—only female professional pan tuner engaged in the annual Panorama competition.

A weekend in Black Rock, Tobago, working with medium-band finalists Katzenjammers must now give way to long, intense days with large band finalists Skiffle in San Fernando. There are bloodshot eyes across the table.

In between, it’s back to Tobago for a session with Katzenjammers. “It’s anyone’s game on Saturday!” says Emily “Bacchanal” Lemmerman’s Facebook status midweek; fresh off the ferry in Port-of-Spain.

Though still conflicted about the impact of competition on the development of pan music—to the point of choosing her words carefully and wondering whether she should be quoted on this—she concedes that while judging is “a tricky thing because it’s subjective … a competition does inspire a lot of energy towards excellence. It does elevate the standard for all the bands.”

“But it’s a shame there is only one winner.”

This season Lemmerman has tuned for the two Panorama finalists in the medium and large categories together with Tokyo and Harvard Harps, who didn’t make it, while troubleshooting for a few others.

She speaks with reverence of the initial doubts of panyard “elders” about a tuner who breaks the traditional mould. Here is a young, white, female, foreign exponent of one of the more difficult arts associated with pan music. “I understand why there was some doubt,” she says.

US-based pan pioneer, Ellie Mannette, is responsible for all of this.

Lemmerman once had her eyes set on a career as a timpanist in a symphony orchestra but during her music studies was introduced to the steelpan as a percussion instrument. It was love at first sound.

Later encounters with Mannette, the decorated pan musician and innovator, helped settle the question between an interest in the taut skin and copper shell of the timpani and a deep affection for the finely-tuned steel drums from two small islands some considerable distance away.

In 2000, it was off to Trinidad for the first time with her mentor, Mannette, and other music students to witness the marvel of the annual competition among the ranks of the Invaders Steel Orchestra. When the legendary Port-of-Spain band didn’t make it to the finals in 2009, she switched to Silver Stars who won that year.

Lemmerman is confident about the future of pan in T&T and believes it is among the things that make the country unique and distinguishable in the international community. As a “young” instrument, and unlike other longstanding traditional instruments, she believes the pan will continue to carry the country’s name with it for a long time to come.

“I think it’s a long way away from losing its own cultural attachment to the Caribbean,” she says.

Lemmerman also does not share the fear that young people might be losing interest in playing the instrument. “From a foreign perspective, it seems like there are plenty wonderful platforms (for the pan),” she says, citing the Pan in School programme and the hundreds of youth turning out for the Junior Panorama competition and as members of the senior bands.

“It’s hard for me to look around Trinidad and not see that pan is well supported,” Lemmerman says. “It’s a significant part of the population that participates.”

She does not enter the “Greens” discussion easily, but when she does there is both bemusement and bewilderment: “Everybody complains about it,” she says of the Pan Trinbago managed side-event to the Panorama Semi-Finals, considered by many to be a disruptive to the proceedings on the competition stage.

“No one likes this,” Lemmerman says. “I don’t understand its relationship with Panorama. It does not appear to support the event.”

For her part, though, she keeps her ears trained on the instruments as they make their way to the Savannah stage.

Though she has played and tuned for pan competitions and concerts throughout the Caribbean, United States, Canada, London and Europe, Panorama at the Savannah remains a unique and special jewel in her professional treasure-chest.

“I think pan is a long way from being separated from its own heritage which is so very clearly right here.” 

She does not sound like she is giving up on this any time soon.