Progressing through pan
by Latoya Burnham
From the time I entered the hall of the Daryll Jordan Secondary School two things struck me. The first was the punctuality of the members of the steel orchestra — more than a dozen of them were there already waiting, a few on the stage tinkering on pans, others in little groups throughout the hall.
The second was the atmosphere — everything about this little group said “family”. The gentle ribbing, the sound of happy laughter, and even more so, the deference paid to their music teachers was most delightful to see, especially the banter that more often than not ended in jovial shouts.
It’s this banter that keeps me going for more than an hour, half of which is spent chatting solely with these vibrant boys and girls. The laughter too flows for the entire length of the interview. I sit in the first row to the right of the stage and invite them to pull up chairs to sit and chat, while their steel pan master Ryan Blackman deals with end-of-term matters elsewhere on the Nesfield, St. Lucy compound. We end up in a kind of ad-hoc circular arrangement with students all around me.
We start with the ages — the youngest member, Terrell Griffith is 12 and still in first form; the oldest, Vasbert Lewis, 17, and he has been with the band for four years. It’s at this point that I learn there are two bands at the school, a junior and a senior band. This is the senior band and the one I asked to speak with after hearing them play at the recent Parkinson School pageant.
On Saturday night, these young people blew patrons away as they welcomed them to the red carpet before the show, and then again at intermission when people even paused to groove with the members’ many upbeat selections.
Band leader Blackman would later explain that usually the junior and senior bands are exclusively based on age, but the talents of Terrel and 13-year-old Tr√-Cia Brome, warranted their inclusion in certain outings with this senior band.
We go on to discuss things like how and why individual members got involved in music. For some, like talkative Ashley Webster, 16, it was all about the beat, the groove; for 14-year-old Reemar Butcher, it was his discovery of a love of music — he now plays more instruments than pretty much anyone else, and 14-year-old Weyzaro Shepherd let me know it was all of the above.
The conversation with the 17 members spread out around me was insightful, and I’ll explain why. Recently renamed from the St. Lucy Secondary School, quite often this and institutions like it, which are considered “lower secondary schools”, seldom make headlines. The students before me confess that they know the island does not really consider them as much, that they are often not seen as worthwhile in the way some other schools garner attention. That’s why these young people are out to change minds.
Kristophe Francis, 16, says that the progress of the steel orchestra has shed a new light on the school — a positive one, and one he and his “family” aim to make shine even brighter. This area of positivity makes them believe in themselves and even realise how great their potential is.
And here is where this group impresses me even more. You see this is not just a band of children learning to master the steel pan. They are also teachers, for the neighbouring St. Lucy Primary School.
Blackman, after realising the steel orchestra plays at almost every function that school has, spoke to the principal there about getting students involved in a music programme. So members of the Daryll Jordan band are now the tutors for the eight, nine and ten year olds, as well as first year secondary students who are interested in pan. You can see how much it means to these young tutors as they trip over each other for a chance to share what they do. Some even smile a little embarrassed at the fact that for them it is just about passing on what they know, and they really haven’t considered it a big deal before. But their involvement and the new attention it brings to the orchestra means a great deal to all of them.
“Everybody does come and jump up by de door,” says Weyzaro.
“They does be outside dancing and t’ing. Like when we had people here working on de school, de janitors and workers would be dancing,” adds Cherisse Alleyne, 15.
“It does mek ya feel real good — happy,” Weyzaro chimes in again.
After our chat they beg to play for me. I laugh because I did not come to St. Lucy to leave without hearing them, and the fact that the instruments are already set up means they planned to play. We negotiate back and forth about how many songs they would get to play and we settle on two, until Blackman returns to take over. We agree on Spice’s Congaline and Machel Montano’s 2011 hit, Bend Over, two of their favourites.
Blackman walks through, checks their levels and tells Ashley, “You’re in charge ’til I get back”. She nods, smiles, counts the band in and they are off, bouncing, laughing and lip-syncing along with the saucy rhythms, and as the sticks strike pans, true to word students gather at the windows.
“Before it used to be like, ‘Oh de band gine play’. Now, we have to keep the students out of practice. When the band plays this place is hopping,” Blackman confesses, after the band has played two more selections with him on bass guitar.
He has had a busy last day of term and apologises again and again for not being here, but I let him know his children kept me entertained. He laughs and reveals that he is super proud of these young ones.
“These students are my reasons for doing this. Most of them are on the principal’s honour roll because we have strict policies in this band. You have to have at least a ‘C’ average, otherwise you cannot even come into this practice room, you can’t touch the pans. That is something the choir director, Mr. Holford, and I established.
“When I first started I would let anyone who was interested play because the band was practically dead and we had to start from scratch, so I was just interested in building it back. But we decided it had to be about more than just music and that every one of these children has to go on to college and university, that is the plan. So they have to get the grades up to ‘C’ and higher.”
I get goosebumps as he continues to outline his plan for his band. It’s a kind of fever he is creating through music to bring these children around to academics and careers that will raise eyebrows. He is already tutoring them in music theory and several have sat or are preparing for music exams.
“I tell them see, that I don’t want to drive in no gas station and have them pumping my gas or packing my bags in the supermarket; not that there’s anything wrong with that because that is what I used to do. But I used it as a stepping stone and they must always be thinking of how far they can go.”
Beyond what they learn in the classroom, all his band members have to learn how to balance budgets, some form of economics; business management, how to be entrepreneurs; and English. So this Easter, they will spend a week at band camp, practicing their craft, in exercise to strengthen their hands and legs for long periods of playing, and in the classrooms, to build their minds.
Vasbert earlier explained to me that at camp they do a lot of pushups: “For musicians that play instruments like this, it strengthens the arms and you need that to play longer.”
Blackman lays out more of his plans for the band. They have worked more over the past year than ever before at all kinds of functions, but his aim is to turn them into a professional unit, with the help and assistance of old scholar and friend, David Ziggy Walcott. Blackman started the junior and senior bands, now 55 members total, to create a succession plan for when the seniors exit and prevent him having to start all over again to build a strong orchestra.
“Ziggy is like a hero to these children and that is how it should be. Since he began working with them, he now wants all of them in Mosaic. We’ve sent four, but he wants all,” he laughs, because his own plan is to see their professionalism rise to have the honour of joining organisations like Mosaic. “I want them to see as well that Mosaic is a business, not just about playing for fun. So that brings another element of professionalism.”
“They are above average now. I want to make them great and we are on the way. We have a lot of work to do, but I am confident we can get there. They have the drive and certainly the talent.”
As they continue to chat, waving at Blackman and me from the back of the room where he sent them after a brief break so he could talk to me uninterrupted, they remind me of a movie I saw some time ago – Take the Lead. In it Antonio Banderas takes a bunch of students from detention and turns them into dancers, using the dance programme to inspire them to do more in a way that got the community talking.
Music is Daryll Jordan Secondary’s Dulaine programme, and these impressive young people are certainly worth talking about. email@example.com