Steelpan, music for youths

Students of Naparima College and Naparima Girls' High School perform together as Naparima Combined Steel Orchestra to win the secondary schools category of junior Panorama on February 24. FILE PHOTO
Students of Naparima College and Naparima Girls' High School perform together as Naparima Combined Steel Orchestra to win the secondary schools category of junior Panorama on February 24. FILE PHOTO

"THE steelpan is swimming against the current of the 21st century. Pan in TT has lost its youth; it has lost young people's interest."

This is the view of Dr Kim Johnson—author, steelpan enthusiast, historian, former journalist and Senior Research Fellow at The Academy for Arts, Letters, Culture and Public Affairs at The University of TT (UTT). Through PanGEA 2019, a steelpan workshop, Johnson and his colleagues are hoping to change this. The workshop will be held from August 5 to 7 at the Republic Bank Exodus Panyard, St Augustine.

On the official website,, it says, "Steelpan teachers and other interested educators will be exposed to the best pedagogical practices for the instrument and its traditional music, in its native environment. Workshops will be led by some of the foremost Trinidadian and Caribbean-based teachers. Topics will explore steelpan pedagogical practices that include improvisation, ensemble arranging, history and sociology of the genre, and musical theory of the African diaspora." Johnson believes the workshop has the potential to help "revive" youth interest in the steel pan.

He told Sunday Newsday, "The problem is this: What the Ministry of Education does is it lets you learn the quavers and so on, you know – the basics. But that is based on 19th-century classical music – that is irrelevant to our music. There's aspects of what you learn and how you learn. When they are teaching kids pan in primary school, they teach them music theory in their copy books. In other words, you're not standing behind the instrument, you know. They teach you to write this, to write that. So for instance, write a four beat rhythm. So the child will be able to write it but not be able to play it or even clap. It is so separated from action, that is madness. Let the students study their music, the music they like. Let students learn music playing with their friends."

He believes the history and culture associated with the instrument should be implemented into local schools' music curriculum. He said TT has to take pan more seriously.

"CXC music have the highest number of dropouts of all subjects. That is crazy because we as West Indian people, we love music. I'm not against literacy but you don't start there. But there are people who push for it. You start with people playing what they like, you start with people enjoying the instruments and that is what pan does. Pan is the most beautiful instrument for teaching music, because unlike every other instrument you don't have some manual difficulty."

PanGEA is aimed at music educators and those interested in teaching steelpan for the first time, music students, steelband directors, ethno-musicologists, and "anyone with a passion for sharing their love of steelpan through education." Johnson said the workshop is "just the start" for the revival of the steelpan in TT, mentioning there are several steelbands based in the US and the UK that look to TT for direction.

Guaico Presbyterian Steel Orchestra players celebrate their win as the 2019 primary schools Panorama champions at their school in east Trinidad. FILE PHOTO

"In the US alone there are about 1,000 steel bands, college and high school steelbands. What usually happens is some high school forms a steelband and they will hire somebody who maybe just studied the oboe and say 'Okay, you in charge' and they don't know what going on. We are the mecca of pan."

Malika Green, director of steel orchestras at Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras in the US, will also be one of the teachers at the workshop. Green has been playing the steelpan for over 20 years. In 1993, her mother, Lorna Green, who was born and raised in TT, sent Malika to the En­ter­tain­er Pan Camp in Arima. Green returned to the US and her interest in the instrument continued to grow, which has brought her to where she is now. She told Sunday Newsday she hopes the workshop can help TT improve its approach to music theory and literacy.

"I feel it's a really exciting, innovative project. I think that it's something that is needed not just in TT but around the world."

She said she wants teachers and instructors to reconsider the teaching methods used for the steelpan, and that they would take away new approaches to help engage students. "People value when they can work with musicians because it gives them the ability to live in the moment and play by ear, compose and make music, so we're starting kids off with that from the very beginning."

Johnson said Pan Trinbago has pledged full support and endorsement of the workshop. Sunday Newsday spoke with Beverly Ramsey-Moore, Pan Trinbago president, who said, "We stand ready to work with the various stakeholders on any project that is about the upliftment of young people through the national instrument, and it was really a pleasure to have a conversation with Dr Kim Johnson and his team. We look forward to providing the necessary support because we believe it's more than pan and that training will go a long way for our young people in the various panyards."

She said the aim is to get young people more interested in the steelpan outside of competitions. "Our vision now is prosperity in pan, and social prosperity is a great focus. We believe we can do so much to change lives and develop human capital in the sacred space that is the panyard. So Pan Trinbago's focus is totally different than just being a festival organisation. It's more than just festivals and it's more than just pan."

Johnson said he will continue to urge people from other countries who are interested in TT's national instrument to visit the country.

"I always say, to me the power and glory of pan is still a band playing a Panorama arrangement. What I always tell foreigners is if you like this instrument, there's only one place you would hear it in its power and glory, which is in TT. Come to TT and experience it because that's the only way you will really feel pan. And it's not only Panorama, it's going to the panyard, liming. All performing artistes practice privately, but pan, from day one, they let you come in the yard and listen. We invented an instrument, a genre, a movement that gives back to people. TT invented a glorious thing. What we have did is phenomenal."

Registration for the workshop ends on August 5. Those interested in participating can register at


"Steelpan, music for youths"

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