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Sunday 16 June 2019
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Mr Panman

Culture Matters

“Unlike a lot of other people, or a lot of other panmen or arrangers, I am not really a competitor. I get to love it so much that I really want to see it grow. And grow ... internationally, all over the world.”

– Ken “Professor” Philmore during an interview in the 1990s

WATCHING “Professor” Philmore and Lord Kitchener perform Pan in A Minor is a mesmerising, surreal experience. In an interview, Philmore described his joy at being able to perform with someone he considered a legend, but it was obvious that Kitchener also admired and respected the “Professor’s” enormous talent. Philmore recalled that Kitchener would wake him up at three or four in the morning because he was composing. “Panman, panman wake up. You think allyuh would like this?”

In his 59 years of life, it seems that Philmore moved from one fantastic experience to another. However, were it not for his determination as a young man and the willingness of Steve Achibar, then captain of Maritime Life Hatters, to beg for him to go to the panyard, we would not have had the privilege of his life.

It was 1973, and Philmore was a teenager, with a burning desire to play the pan. His father, a Jehovah’s Witness preacher, did not agree with his son playing the pan. Eventually, his father allowed Ken to go with Achibar to the panyard for one week. The rest of the story is now part of the rich history of our country, as Philmore travelled the world spreading his own gospel, that of the steel pan.

In interviews later on, he lamented the lack of attention given to the national instrument. His brother, commenting on his passing, noted that Philmore wanted to see the construction of an academy for pan. For him it would have been the culmination of his dream to teach the pan to all young people, and have them experience the wonder of being able to play the instrument.

Although he was self-taught, he was acutely aware of the importance of being formally educated as a musician. He saw this as being essential for the elevation of not just the music, but its legacy.

Performing in the United States, Philmore was asked how come he didn’t play more “island music” on the pan. It was obviously a question that irritated him, but he took the time to explain that the pan could play pretty much any type of music and it was his intention to demonstrate that.

The story is often repeated about his not winning the 1990 Panorama with the beautiful Pan by Storm, and yes, there was an element of hurt there. But ultimately, competition was not his main objective; his desire to have global recognition for pan took precedence.

Additionally, he seemed genuinely confused at the fact that pan music was not really played on the radio stations in the very country that invented the instrument, that there was no museum of pan or place where its history was documented for generations to come.

His concern was legacy; what would be left for young people. As he articulated, “It’s more than Panorama. It’s about learning the instrument ... I feel sorry for the kids because they don’t know how wonderful it is to play the instrument... We need to educate them a lot more about the history and how wonderful it is.”

A few years ago, Peter Blood eloquently echoed “Professor’s” concerns when he wrote “the steel pan is the only instrument ever invented in Trinidad and Tobago ... by sons of our soil, many of whom literally paid a price with their blood and doing jail time while propagating this most unique instrument ... the steel pan is our only indigenous instrument, well deserving of its prestigious title of national instrument.”

Initially, Philmore disliked the nickname “Professor,” but it turned out to be prophetic. Always teaching, whether intentionally or through his performances, he was a living, breathing advocate and defender of the steel pan.

Significantly, playing the pan made him happy, and throughout his career he wanted more young people to be transformed by the pan in the way it had changed his life. “I make a living, I travel all over the world, I represent the red, white and black. This is what I want to do. I want the world to know about the instrument.”

Beat pan Mr Panman, beat pan Mr Professor, travel well and always, beat pan...

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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