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A passion for pan

Jason making some adjustments to the song.

by Latoya Burnham

The happy sound of children at play fills the air – feet pounding on paved walkways, a scream of surprise followed by a shout of laughter, as a sudden high breeze rustles the leaves of a tall tree.

And in the background, through an open door come a strange tinkling of a stick striking a steel pan, and it grows, as an equally joyous sound of laughter punctuates the pan.

The location is the Eden Lodge Primary School, where the SKF Steelsounds and Pan Institute hosts pan rehearsals sometimes twice a week with students from the school as well as children from the area.

For the principals of SKF, Jason Williams and wife Jennifer, this is just a short break in a three-hour long rehearsal, preparing for the National Independence Festival of Creative Arts.

Jennifer explains that the family has been playing pan, in her case for 11 years; in her husband’s case for 20 years, and in the case of their children, almost from birth — they are 17, seven and six years old. The institute started as a way to help develop pan in Barbados, focusing on a core group of young people ages six to 15.

“We started with about 18 or so. We did not have enough pans for all the kids. So we used to change from time to time. When we are rehearsing they used to alternate. When it boiled down we actually graduated eight of them,” says Jason, about the organisation that first registered in 2009.

Named after their children, Shaquille, 17; Kristel, 7 and Faith, 6, the SKF Institute, Jennifer says was intended to take local pan music beyond the Bajan shores, and so far they have done reasonably well.

The group’s PRO, Charles Roach notes: “They’ve done tremendous performances. We performed at NIFCA last year and reached the semifinals. We’ve performed twice for the Cabinet [of Barbados]. We’ve done Spirit of the Nation, where we won Best Overall Performance.

“We’ve played for numerous community events. We had a pan night at the community centre with some of the top bands like Mosaic and BL&P Olukunde. I remember Jason telling me one time that these children play more than any other steel pan band.”

Jason says at one time the SKF Steelsounds band was performing either every week or every other week, but he decided it was best they should take a break to concentrate instead on preparations for NIFCA.

“Last year we just made it to the semis and it kinda bothered me … that we didn’t get to finals. So I said this year we really got to try to take it serious, concentrate a little more… Last year they had just started and we went straight into NIFCA one time. Although the music was good, I still think they were kinda young to the competition aspect of things. Now they know what they have to do, they know what they can do. It shouldn’t be a problem this year.”

But, Jason added that their biggest challenge is instruments. Although Eden Lodge is the only school they have a programme in at the moment, with talks ongoing for their entry into one of the older secondary schools with a similar programme soon, the directors say there is a shortage of instruments for the children.

So serious is the situation, Jennifer adds, that they have had occasions where parents in the surrounding districts on hearing the music come to get their children enrolled, but unfortunately, with so few pans and the instruments being so expensive, they have had to turn some away.

There is already a waiting list, with children who come to practice and stand in the wings until they can rotate, or who are “lucky” enough that when another child drops out they can immediately fill the vacancy. It is not an ideal situation, but for the Williams, it is the reality.

Jennifer states: “We can carry it [to other communities], yeah, but a lot of other communities and schools don’t have pans and it is costly, very expensive to get steel pans and that would be their issue. We don’t have our own as yet, though we are looking to be suppliers of pan in Barbados as well. Hopefully in the very near future, but being able to supply them is a very costly thing.”

Jason explains: “One tenor pan right now is about US$3,000, and that is just the pan. That don’t include the stand and the case to put the pan in. That is US$3,000 and to bring that from most likely Trinidad is additional. So it is really expensive.”

Roach adds: “You are talking at least three tenor pans and then you have additional pans such as the bass pan, the bass section carries six drums, then there is the cello that carries three, then second bass and second tenor to improve the sound. So you know what kind of money you are talking about.”

They have had to borrow instruments from the Division of Youth Affairs and even the Combermere School to keep the children in the programme.

“The interest is there. It is just the ability to accommodate the numbers that are asking. We have to keep telling people, just hold on. We are working on getting to that point.”

The SKF Steelsounds at the moment consists of about ten children who alternate for chances to play the limited steel pan instruments or rotate around the other percussions that also form the band.

“So again we have to borrow some percussion instruments or pans and get them to join in with the others. There are some just standing watching the others. Some unfortunately, that graduated, gravitated to other stuff and then some others came in. As fast as some might leave, others come. As Mr. Roach said, people are just on the sideline waiting and then when one of the children decide to do something else, they just slip in one time. There is never really an empty pan, the pans always full.”

The heartening thing though, is the interest from the males. He says the boys now outnumber the girls in the band, but the group counts it as still a plus, because these are young men they are keeping from being idle.

Jason, a Trinidadian by birth, says like these boys his love of pan was something that developed. In fact, it was pan that brought him to Barbados. As a lad, he did not like the sound of steel pan and would switch the television station each time it came on.

But a friend took him into a pan band room and his perspective changed, converting him to a lover, player and teacher of pan for the last 20 years. It also brought him to Barbados as a featured band member at a south coast venue, where he met his wife.

His love of the music he says, comes from “the mere fact that when I playing a lot of people come a look underneath and try to figure out where the sound coming from. It used to amaze me at first too and then when I went to do a pan training course and I got to understand the rudiments of the instrument itself, I get to understand that it is something magical about it that makes me feel … and then the arranging part, when you hear your own music coming out of it.”

It has also fostered another love — travelling.

“I travel a lot with steel pan. That is actually how I came here to Barbados. I’ve been to Guadeloupe, Haiti, Toronto, most recently Dubai and from Trinidad to Tobago over and over all the time. I’ve been travelling a lot.

“A friend came to me and said some people need a pan man in Dubai, if I interested. I was like, ‘Yeah!’ and he organised the relevant visa and I end up going and do it for three months. It was a real life-changing experience in terms of musicians, seeing the entertainment which is on a different level in Dubai. The entertainment, customer service is on a different level.”

It is that kind of level now that he is hoping his “children” in the band can reach. And even as rehearsals wrap up with some questions and a few jokes from the youngsters, they still hang around long after practice has ended to spend a little more time with the sweet steel pan.

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