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Gary Gibson: Pan Magic for the Pacific Northwest

Published: 
Thursday, August 20, 2015
Gary Gibson is determined to build a steelband community in Washington state through his Steel Magic Northwest programme.

Based in Edmonds, Washington, just north of Seattle, Gary Gibson is devoted to steelpan. A composer, performer, and educator with deep roots in the United States (but quite a few branches in Trinidad), Gibson is constantly playing, brainstorming, teaching and advocating for pan. 

Currently, he is focused on making Edmonds the home of Steel Magic Northwest, a youth development project built around the culture of the modern steel orchestra, with up to six 25-piece orchestras for youth from grades five through twelve, and two adult groups. 

For many years Gibson has traveled the United States as a concert artist, educator, and clinician/adjudicator. In recent years, he grew frustrated that in the typical three- to six-day artist residency, his time with students is limited and Gibson worries that despite his best efforts he rarely establishes lasting relationships with students or their community which, in turn, further meant that the pannist was rarely able to see the fruits of his labours develop over the long-term. As a result, Gibson finally decided to create a home base where young people who want to participate in a steelband can join young, develop, and stay the course for the long-term. The Steel Magic Northwest steelband program is the fruit of this labour. 

“It has been a frustration to travel around the United States and see this done so well in other cities, only to return to my home city, where there hasn’t ever really been a permanent, high quality, sizable steel pan group for youth or adults,” Gibson says. “I realised two or three years ago that if I wanted to see it here in my own backyard, I would have to create it myself. So that is exactly what we are doing. And in the process, we are going to build a support community that extends far beyond the panyard, and into the lives of the youth in the area.” 

Gibson further speculates that allowing kids to participate in steelbands all through their school years (not currently an opportunity in the Seattle region) will result in one or two elite groups with high artistic standards, capable of musical sophistication well beyond that previously known in the northwest Washington region. As artistic director and arranger, Gibson describes himself as a tightly-coiled spring of creative energy just waiting burst forth: “I haven’t had my own laboratory for my compositions and arrangements since I was in graduate school 30 years ago. I have only accomplished my work through others’ groups since then, so having my own groups locally here will unleash a creative torrent of new music for the steel orchestra.”

Gibson has many models of his Steel Magic Northwest steelband programme stretching back to the 1960s when Murray Narrell (father of Andy and Jeff, and a New York City social worker) realised that steelband was an excellent framework for a strong young development programme. More recently, one only needs to look at the CASYM programme in Brooklyn, the Cafe programme outside Washington, DC and the Virginia Rhythm Project in Virginia to see youth development programs built around steelbands that have been wildly successful. CASYM, for example, pointed to near to the fact that 100 per cent of their graduating students are going on to college; all three programmes have been very successful. Gibson foresees similar success in his community, and has been volunteering full-time for over a year to put things in place. This includes establishing a base of community support, forming a board of trustees, and hiring a small team of consultants. 

The team is currently in the grueling phase of finding sponsorship and fund-raising and just recently received their first grant to help fund the purchase of new instruments. 

When not focused on Steel Magic Northwest, Gibson is working on his latest commissioned piece. The 20-minute symphonic work for steelband and orchestra represents, in Gibson’s mind, the evolution of pan in Trinidad. The work was commissioned by the Greater Bridgeport (Connecticut) Youth Symphony with Jim Royle’s Drum Studio providing the steelband and will premiere in the spring of 2016. 

Over the last few decades, Gary Gibson has become one of the most distinctive pan composers in America, responsible for some truly unique works involving pan with symphony orchestra and pan with choir. Gibson’s work is increasingly popular and performing ensembles throughout the United States and Trinidad have performed his compositions. 

In 2009, the National Sinfonia and National Steelband in Trinidad premiered his piece Caprice: A Curious Preoccupation With Three Short Themes for symphony orchestra and steelband and the work was featured on their album, National Sinfonia in Concert at Queen’s Hall (available on Sanch). 

The work won first prize in the Symphony & Steel composition competition sponsored by the Music Literacy Trust and UWI in 2009. 

Caprice was performed again in 2010, both in Missouri by a university orchestra and in Montana by a regional community group, as well as by the Bridgeport Connecticut Youth Symphony with Jim Royle’s Drum Studio in 2012. This last performance is what led to Gibson’s latest commission. 

Gibson won another first prize in the Symphony & Steel composition competition in 2009, this time in a different category—for an original arrangement for symphony and steelband of a Kitchener composition Rainorama. 

The work was again premiered by the National Sinfonia in 2009 and has since been performed in Texas, Illinois, and Utah. Gibson’s association with the National Sinfonia has continued through various projects, including commissions for arrangements and orchestrations of existing steelband arrangements for larger ensemble combinations. 

Most recently, this included Jit Samaroo’s legendary arrangement of Kitchener’s Pan in A Minor, which Gibson scored for orchestra and steelband on commission by the Sinfonia in 2010. 

The arrangement was performed at Queen’s Hall and was very well received. 

Earlier in his career, Gibson created a steelband arrangement of Mark Loquan’s soca Frenzy for the University of Miami Steelband led by Chris Tanner. 

Loquan also commissioned Gibson to arrange two of his steelband compositions Colours Again and Nostalgia, and arrange them for a symphony orchestra, something that had never been done before. 

Both arrangements were premiered by the National Sinfonia in 2007. Gibson’s work earned the accolades of Loquan and many others and he is now a Resource Member of the Board of Trustees of the Music Literacy Trust in Trinidad.

Recently, Gibson created a 50-minute cantata for choir and steelband which has been performed several times in the United States. 

Called In the Shadows of the Forest, the work is based on the folkloric characters of Trinidad. The suite features nine movements with portraits of folkloric characters like Papa Bois, Duppies, Anansi, La Diablesse, Soucouyant, Douennes, and that modern folk myth, Pan Jumbies. 

In the Shadows of the Forest is like a cantata with little shared thematic material between the sections and moves from solos to duets, instrumental passages and full choir. 

Commissioned by San Jacinto Community College in Texas, the work was later performed in both New York and Washington. 

More recently, San Jacinto Community College commissioned Gibson to write Language of Life, Voice of the Soul, a one hour, 14-movement piece that highlights different, more traditional music ensembles, including steelband. 

Gary Gibson caught the pan bug early as a young man. He heard the US Navy Steelband when he was ten and became obsessed with pan. 

In true Trinidadian style, Gibson attempted to build his own pan. He sacrificed his steel saucer snow sled, hammering out four notes to make his first rough steelpan. 

Gibson went to college as a percussionist and composer but has never given up his love of pan; it remains his primary instrument, although he is also a jazz vibraphonist, drummer, and plays a whole range of orchestral and world percussion. 

Gibson is also an accomplished sound engineer, producer, and copyist/engraver, with experience in the feature film industry as both session musician and orchestrator. 

For the past quarter century, Gibson has performed as a freelance musician in the Seattle area, as well as being called across the country to work with as a clinician or concert artist with numerous high school, college, and community steelbands. 

He has worked with bands from Florida to Washington State, Texas to Illinois, and Maine to Arizona. Gibson has also recorded four critically-acclaimed albums, and his sheet music for pan (which include solos to full steel orchestra arrangements) sells worldwide. 

The Northern Illinois University Steelband and many other leading university steelbands around the country have featured Gibson and his music on their concerts. 

In 2004, Gibson made a first journey to Trinidad when he spent two months playing with Exodus as they went on to win Panorama with DeFosto’s War 2004 arranged by Pelham Goddard. 

The trip was a revelation; Gibson rarely left the panyard, wanting to fully participate in and absorb the whole process. 

“I spent every spare minute in that yard, learning the process, watching Pelham work, getting inside his arrangement and what changes he was making to it and why, and watching Pat Bishop work her magic as well; I was honoured that both Pelham and Dr Bishop treated me as something of a colleague, and I was therefore able to get a true insider’s view of the whole process.” Gibson was able to return to Trinidad again briefly the next year to make the rounds of several different panyards.

While he establishes his “little Trinidad” in Edmonds, Washington, Gibson looks forward to his next trip to Trinidad to help infuse more of that pan magic into his Steel Magic Northwest steelband program as he continues to write pan music, play pan, teach pan and, well, really, live pan. 

• Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Associate Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

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