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The Joy of Pan

Published: 
Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Three members of PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars Steel Orchestra, during their semifinal performance in the Large Band category at the Queen’s Park Savannah in January. PHOTO: EDISON BOODOOSINGH

Something that too many of us in T&T take for granted is the beauty of pan music, in all its diverse, fluid possibilities—from music that’s lyrical and meditative, to jazzy or classical compositions, to the visceral explosiveness of a Panorama. Not so the many musicians and music students who visit here every year, from the US, the UK, Japan and other countries, who are taking pan in all kinds of directions, yet who still deeply respect its origins. For many of them, trekking to Trinidad for Panorama is akin to a musical pilgrimage; to not only see and feel the space where the instrument was born, but to actively participate in a unique experience.

The talented Liam Teague, the “Paganini of the steelpan,” encouraged many American pan students to visit T&T for Panorama this year. Teague, who is Head of Steelpan Studies and Associate Professor at Northern Illinois University (NIU), has been an unflagging ambassador for pan through his music, his teaching, and his many musical collaborations with ensembles from all over the world. 

This Carnival, Teague arranged music for PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars Steel Orchestra at Panorama—his third year doing this—and with him came students from NIU as well as other US universities, to play with Silver Stars for Panorama. They played Panoramic by Nesta “Sekon Sta” Boxhill, placing seventh at Panorama finals.

“2016 marked my third year arranging for Silver Stars. The late Edwin Pouchet (former arranger and leader of Silver Stars) handpicked me to serve as the band’s arranger when health circumstances made it impossible for him to continue in the role of arranger,” said Teague in a Guardian interview. 

“It is such a pleasure to be able to work with this talented ensemble,” said Teague of his experience this year with Silver Stars: “To hear 120 musicians play one’s composition is an experience which is almost indescribable. The management is second to none and the players are very gifted!”  

The Guardian interviewed some of the visiting US musicians to see why they came here, and whether they would return. Today we hear from Brett Morris and Amanda Duncan. Tomorrow, Patrick Altmire, Joseph Galvin, Marcus Rattler and Tom Berich add their voices.

Brett Morris, Kearney, Missouri 

Brett Morris began learning pan when his percussion professor started the steel pan programme at Truman State University (TSU). “I have learned to play on all of the pans, but my favorite to play is the tenor pan...The only pan culture where I live (northeast Missouri) is the TSU university steel pan programme—Truman Steel,” he said.

“I had not been to Trinidad before this year...I had wanted to experience Panorama after my first steel band concert and from watching Panorama videos on YouTube. 

Morris added: “Playing in T&T Panorama was something special. Pan was born in this country so it was incredible to be playing at the instrument’s home. As a musician, I learned more about how to enjoy the music more, as well as learning to entertain a crowd. What stood out to me most about playing in Silver Stars was that almost everyone was there because they love the instrument. Putting the show together was more fun that way because money was not the sole purpose for our playing.

“What I found unique about the T&T culture was that music really does seem to be everywhere. The people I talked to seemed to always have some sort of inflection in their speech, almost as if they were singing. And seeing people being able to pick out a tune and arrange it for a band without the assistance of sheet music is incredible to me. There are some people in America that can do that, but it is not as common,” he said.

Amanda Duncan, Long Beach, California

“I started playing steel pan in my first year in university in 2004, at California State University, Long Beach,” said Amanda, a percussion major. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in music, and earned her Masters in percussion at Northern Illinois University, where she played in the NIU Steel Band under the direction of Cliff and double seconds, and teaches three steelpan classes at Santa Margarita Catholic High School, where she is the Director of Percussion. She says there are many pan musicians in Southern California.

“This year was my first visit to Trinidad. ... I’ve played pan for 12 years...but by far the best way for me to learn was to visit the country and immerse myself in the culture firsthand. Steel pan has become my passion, and I feel that through this trip, I’ve finally started to dig deep into this tremendous love that I have for it, but I’ve only just scratched the surface. I need to continue to explore this love by coming back to Trinidad,” she shares.

“While a versatile and beautiful solo/chamber music instrument, I feel the pan is at it’s most powerful when played in a steel band,” she says. 

“I will never forget the feeling of stepping into my first rehearsal at the Silver Stars panyard, and the incredible rush I felt as we played through all of the intricate licks and runs I had practiced by myself for so long.  

“Performing on finals night was by far the greatest musical experience of my life. Sharing that stage with so many other people who love pan as much as I do was indescribable, and there is nothing at home in the US that comes close to that kind of performance.”  

JOY of PAN concludes tomorrow

Mourning a colleague

Asami Nagakiya (1985–2016) was a Japanese steelpan player who loved pan and visited T&T every year to perform for Carnival. She studied music at the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music and played in Silver Stars this year. She was found dead at Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain on Ash Wednesday; cause of death was murder by strangling. Visiting US pan players who played alongside her in Silver Stars this Panorama react to her murder, and say whether the violent crime in T&T will affect future visits:

Amanda Duncan: “I met Japanese pan player Asami Nagakiya in the Silver Stars panyard... and we played together during rehearsals and the finals competition. We were all part of the Silver Stars family, and her death greatly shocked me. My deepest condolences go out to her family and friends in Japan, and everyone in Trinidad who knew her. While her murder is a horrific example of the serious crime in the country, it will not deter me from returning to Trinidad.” 

Patrick Altmire: “I met Asami and spoke with her a few times on my trip; she was a great player, but more importantly, she was an incredibly kind person with an energy and spirit that positively affected everyone around her. She will be greatly missed and my deepest condolences to her family and friends. Though this is a horrific tragedy for a person who was so in love with this culture, I don’t believe it will prevent me from future visits.”

Marcus Rattler: “Asami was a good friend of mine that I met during my month with the Silver Stars. Bad things happen to good people, but this tragedy will not keep me from coming back. Every time I return to Trinidad to play, Asami and her love for the pan will be in my heart.” 

Tom Berich: “While I did not know Asami well, I certainly saw her every day, ALL day (at Silver Stars practices). I considered her a colleague in pan... Her death actually made me want to defend Trinidad even more. I cannot stress enough to foreigners that, while her death was tragic and unfortunate, it should NOT be a direct reflection on the beautiful culture that is T&T. I anticipate coming back for as many Panoramas as possible and even hope to make a trip to see Independence Day in August.”

Joseph Galvin: “I was (and still am) shocked and horribly saddened to find out about Asami’s murder. It certainly does drive home the notion that violent crime is a serious problem for Trinidad. Unfortunately though, these types of crimes happen everywhere... So I try to not let these horrific events paralyze me with fear, thus keeping me from returning. You never expect these things to happen to someone you know, though.

“I am very aware of Trinidad’s problems with crime. Luckily, I have not personally experienced any problems during my trips, although I know that it is always a possibility. I am diligent in taking precautions... I would like to play in Panorama again in the future - I have research to conduct for my doctoral degree on pan. Asami’s murder and other issues with violent crime may keep me from certain activities, though. I do not get the impression that Panorama is particularly dangerous, but I may avoid other Carnival events for that reason.”

Brett Morris: “Truly a sad story for such a gifted, loving person. I got to know her pretty well during my stay... Her death will not deter me from returning to Trinidad.  I had a wonderful time in Trinidad, filled with loving people. I will be back again to make beautiful music with my pan family in memory of Asami’s incredible personality. It is my hope that the proper authorities will always remember this event and come up with ways to prevent similar situations from happening again.”