Steelpan for the digital age

Johann Chuckaree. Photo by Kerwin Pierre.
Johann Chuckaree. Photo by Kerwin Pierre.

At the age of 29, Johann Chuckaree, runs different businesses and juggles that with a demanding performance schedule. His advice? Surround yourself with the right people and learn from your mistakes.

A well-known pannist, Chuckaree does not have a business background but, in addition to his career as a solo musician, he is also the co-founder and business development manager at Indigisounds, and the founder of JC Networking and Security Ltd.

“I’m still learning as I go along to make the right decisions. A lot of the successes and a lot of the good came from failing because of poor choices due to inexperience but, as I go further in all the businesses, I’ve started going on the right track,” Chuckaree told Business Day.

His most unique business was Indigisounds, an online company that digitises acoustic instruments and creates production software that allow the instruments to be played on a computer or keyboard.

“Once you get the library or the samples on the computer you can plug in any instrument that can be plugged into a computer and actually manipulate the tones. So, for example, the keyboardist or producer can use the keyboard to trigger the notes so authentic pan notes are coming out.”

If you’ve ever used a keyboard you may have noticed several buttons labelled with different instruments that, once pressed, allowed the user to press a key to get the sound of that instrument. However, sometimes the notes sound wrong and Chuckaree and his business partner David Chow, refused to let that happen to local, indigenous instruments.

Musician and businessman, Johann Chuckaree. Photo by Kerwin Pierre

“What we have done is taken instruments into the studio and sampled each one of the instruments note by note. For the steelpan, we took all the different pans – tenor, bass, guitar, double second, and so on – into the studio, recorded each one of the notes on each instrument multiple times at different velocities, striking patterns, and so on.”

Chuckaree and Chow met on UWI’s Steelpan Initiative Project where they were working on creating realistic sounds for the electronic pan (e-pan). When the company producing the e-pan stopped, Chow continued working on creating that authentic sound.

“He (Chow) came to the decision that hardware is very expensive and difficult to produce but one of the avenues that is untapped is the creation of tones and sounds for electronic synthesisers and digital instruments for producers... He did the pan project mostly by himself and then brought it to me to vet. He came up with the idea that, me being a pannist and him being in the realm of acoustics with his engineering background, we would take on pan first. I was so impressed with it that I immediately jumped onboard the project and into the company.”

After the company’s creation in 2013, they expanded from the notes of the pan to sample packs, the most popular being the Laventille Rhythm Section percussion samples, the Soca Starter Pack with soca guitarists and percussion, and the Chutney and Tassa Starter Pack with tassa drums, sitars, and harmoniums.

Each pack contains individual notes as well as samples where one can map one key on the keyboard to get rifts, strums, rhythms, kick and snare patterns, brass lines, and more. For example, a musician could hold down one note and get a guitar riff from guitarist Kenny Phillips or a tassa loop.

Chuckaree and Chow brought in members of the Laventille Rhythm Section, Malick Tassa Drummers, and the best local musicians to sample their playing, and worked with Precision Productions to create the packs.

“It’s groundbreaking in the sense that no one in the world has been doing that (for) our indigenous instruments. If you listen to soca you actually hear a lot of elements from us being used by producers. We are also heavily used in the local chutney and tassa production market.”

For example, Savannah Grass by Kes the Band and Iron Love by Nailah Blackman used iron and drumming elements from the Laventille Rhythm Section sample pack. The steelpan-oriented software is also popular with international producers especially in the UK, US, Europe, Asia and Japan.

Indigisounds was expected to produce more sample packs in the next few years, including string and brass instruments. The team wanted to keep the sounds as indigenous as possible using Caribbean instruments and music. “We don’t want to create anything that is not within the culture or realm of what the instrument should or could do.”

Chuckaree’s love for music started when he began playing the steelpan at age four. In 2003, he joined Phase II Pan Groove and immediately felt at home. There he learned from the members, including arranger Len “Boogsie” Sharpe.

“At one point I was the tenor section leader, so being in charge of the players, practising them, running rehearsals and that sort of stuff really gave me a deep sense of maturity and a deep sense of meaning in terms of the musical aspect. It made me see music in a different light,” he said.

Although he also plays the piano and drums, pan remains his first love. At 18, he released his first album, A Sweet Touch of Christmas, with instrumental covers of Christmas music. He then started composing his own music and in 2012 released the album, In De Yard, a compilation of original music and covers, with a live traditional band. In 2015, he released Soca Meets Pan, with instrumental covers of popular soca songs.

Chuckaree recalled hearing his music on popular radio stations and played in J'Ouvert bands. “It was great to see pan being re-accepted and seen in a different light, and embraced by everyone... A lot of younger people don’t really accept pan as something you could jump-up or party to. They fit pan into a box, it’s traditional so we like it but won’t party to it. So it was nice to bridge the connection with the traditional instrument.”

Chuckaree’s other business is more structured than creative, and focuses on his academic endeavours, rather than his musical passions.

In 2013, with a packed performing schedule and Indigisounds just a few months old, Chuckaree took a risk, quit his day job in IT and founded JC Networking and Security Ltd, capitalising on his BSc degree in information systems and management from the University of London. The company specialises in IT solutions for small to medium enterprises. From building construction to businesses now starting up or moving to a new location, the company installs all IT infrastructure including cabling, wireless access points, security cameras, alarm systems, servers and e-mail support.

Although this put more on his plate, the move gave him the freedom and flexibility to perform on his own schedule.

“It’s exciting. It’s interesting for me because it’s something that’s very problem-solving oriented verses the other businesses which are more creative. While I’m a creative person in terms of music and Indigisounds, problem-solving, dealing with issues, and the physical aspect of JC really interest me. Being able to plan and design, having to do layouts, running wire, and seeing that come to fruition – it’s very fulfilling for me.”

Fellow pannist Dale Gulston enjoys the music of Johann Chuckaree as the two perform at the recent UWI Fete in St Augustine. Photo by Ayanna Kinsale

Chuckaree is grateful he can always count on support from his family, even though he's a bit of an odd duck. His father is an electrical engineer, his mother is a school principal, one sister is an electrical engineer with a masters degree in human resources, and the other is a research scientist.

“And then you have me, who likes music and who wants to be a pannist so I didn’t really fit in. They always encouraged us to do music but when you approach your parents and say you want to do music as a career, the look you get is, ‘I love you but I’m a bit concerned.’ So while they do nurture and support me – they are the ones who got me into music in the first place – they always instilled in me that while music can be a career, (they wanted me) to do something else I enjoy and am educated in and I’ve always been interested in computers,” he said, recalling his parents' insistence that he have a back-up plan.

Running and balancing his businesses – while still performing – has led to a lot of frustration and sleepless nights, but Chuckaree is up to the challenge.

“It becomes crazy where everything demands attention. It becomes a challenge to split and balance yourself between the different things especially when you wear different hats. But you get out of your career or company exactly what you put in. If you are dedicated to it, you’re going to get that back in success.”


"Steelpan for the digital age"

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