Salah Wilson is a busy man. During the summer of 2015 alone, he is teaching a pan summer school in Toronto, starting work on his doctoral dissertation on pan at York University, getting his steelband ready to compete in Toronto and in Montreal and–oh yeah–getting ready to bring his band, Salah's Steelpan Academy, to compete in the International Conference and Panorama as well as giving a talk at the conference on pan education work in Canada.
Salah's Steelpan Academy may not be well known in Trinidad but, watch out, they are serious competitors. The band has won the Montreal International Steelpan Festival competition nine times and Toronto's Pan Alive steelpan competition five times.
Wilson's tune of choice for the International Panorama is Outta de Box and his way of preparing the Salah's Steelpan Academy steelband for competition is equally innovative. For the International Panorama, Wilson has assembled players from Montreal and Toronto as well as support from Trinidad to bolster the size of Salah's Steelpan Academy steelband to a robust competition-sized steelband.
The players from Montreal are organised by two of Wilson's daughters, Miriyam and Fatima Wilson, and the players from Toronto are students and colleagues of Wilson himself.The Canadian members of Salah's Steelpan Academy steelband will be supplemented by Trinidadian players from Flamingoes steelband of St Augustine–with whom Wilson has a working relationship.
Wilson is also being supported in this venture by Jimi Phillip, pan tuner/musician of Chaguanas, Reanna Edwards, a teacher from Princess Town, and Curtis Edwards of Witco Desperadoes Steel Orchestra.
The process of combing steelbands works due in no small part to a fully notated score of the arrangement and musically literate (notation) pan players leading the smaller groups in these four disparate locations–the bands will not come together as a whole until just days before the competition.
For Wilson, the logistics of preparing separate groups of players in remote locations is a challenge and he is looking forward to showing how strong a steelband can be with only limited combined rehearsals.
Wilson's tune of choice Outta de Box is truly a collaborative venture as the music was composed by Mark Loquan and Seion Gomez, the lyrics are by GB Ballentine, and the song recorded by calypsonian Shanaqua. During the 2015 Panorama, Outta de Box was performed by a number of steelbands including Harmonites, Valley Harps, Tokyo, St Margaret's Superstars, La Harquetta Pan Groove, Pandemonium, and Nutones.
Salah Wilson grew up in St John Village in St Augustine, Trinidad, and was raised in and around the Flamingoes Steel Orchestra panyard. Like so many of his generation from the area near St John's Village, Wilson and his wife emigrated to Montreal in 1973.
Once in Canada, Wilson left Trinidad but he did not leave pan and he immediately started performing in whatever situation he could drum up. In 1991, he started the first pan in the schools programme in Montreal and in 1997 Wilson expanded his school programmes by starting the first pan academy in Canada called Salah's Steelpan Academy.
For Wilson, pan is a family affair–family first a favourite motto–and he taught his children to play pan. The apple does not, as they say, fall far from the tree and now several of Wilson's children are involved in Salah's Steelpan Academy as instructors.In particular, two of Wilson's daughters (Miriyam and Fatima) have taken over the day to day operations of Salah's Steelpan Academy as he returned to graduate school in pursuit of a terminal degree.
His considerable performing prowess and steelpan academy aside, education and music literacy have always been a central theme for Wilson. In 2013, he earned a masters degree in ethnomusicology music, with a thesis examining steelpan development in Montreal and Toronto, and he is currently pursuing his doctorate in ethnomusicology.
Wilson published his first book Steelpan Playing With Theory in 1999 and the work has since been translated into French. He has since written five other tutorials on the subject of pan, steelband, and music theory.Wilson has also released several album recordings including a holiday solo record, an album featuring the Wilson family steelband, and two albums featuring community steelbands from Canada.
Despite living in Canada for the better part of four decades, Wilson's heart never left Trinidad and he has returned on numerous occasions for Carnival and played with many leading steelbands including Witco Desperados, Starlift Steel Orchestra, and Exodus Steel Orchestra.
Wilson's most recent labour of love, however, is the revival of the Flamingoes Steel Orchestra. After Exodus Steel Orchestra split off from the Flamingoes Steel Orchestra in 1980 the latter band declined over the years and by 2007 it was a shell of its old self.
Wilson become involved again with the band in 2009 and his has since arranged for the band in several successful seasons of competition. As Wilson notes, "If at any time the old African saying that "It takes a village to raise a child" has a meaning, it is now. Flamingoes is that child and it surely needs the village to participate again."
Reviving a community band has been a challenge, yet Wilson, like he has done in Canada, has pressed on, organising music literacy programmes for the band membership–both the youth and senior members.
Wilson sees his work as an attempt at village-wide community development with the hope that St John Village can once again be proud of their steelband and it, in turn, can assist in stopping the spread of crime and bad elements in society, as he has been doing in Canada. He is working hard to build music education around pan in both Toronto and Montreal.
At the International Panorama, the public will have a chance to taste the cultivated fruits of yet another returning son.
Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pan player, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.