National Steel Orchestra director makes steelpan dream come true
Akua Leith has a dream. The young pannist has a vision to capitalise on Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument, steelpan, in a way that can take beyond the country’s borders and make it as ubiquitous as the piano – the world’s most popular musical instrument.
So, in 2018 he started to plan. “I wanted to put something on paper for what the best practice of steelpan could look like,” he told Business Day. He envisioned a world-class manufacturing facility, that did more than just make steelpans but actively engaged in research and development to make pan better – from metallurgy to craftsmanship to tuning to playing – straight through the value chain.
And that’s how Musical Instruments of Trinidad and Tobago (Mittco) started.
“This is part of it and it’s unfolding with the right minds and the right approach… the vision has to be on collaboration to the point of execution and evolution.”
But Leith is an artist, not a businessman. So, he pitched his plan to the Hadad brothers, the founders of manufacturing and distribution company Hadco Ltd. Robert, John and Joseph Hadad jumped at the opportunity, not the least because they loved steelpan (Hadco is the banner sponsor of Phase II), but as local angel investors, they saw the potential in Leith’s venture.
Leith didn’t focus on going the government route. “It’s not about bashing the government but the government has to do their part and other people have to do their part too. It has to be a collaborative thing and the government can only do so much. We know the economy we are in, especially with covid19. And it can be unfair to just always be looking at the government and pointing a finger.” Luckily, the private sector was willing to see, support and invest in his vision.
Trinidad and Tobago is the home of steelpan, Leith said. “We have, without doubt, the best artisan steelpan craftsmen in the world, and there is no better time than now establish a world-class company with international reach. Mittco's goal is simple: to keep the authenticity of steelpan manufacturing alive, here where it belongs, in its country of origin."
Mittco is on track to start production at the start of the last quarter of 2021.
And from its factory in the e-TecK Diamond Vale Industrial Estate in Diego Martin, Leith is ready to take pan to the world. “We are still building out the factory but we have identified craftsmen and tuners and other stakeholders. We have a lean staff of about 15. The projection for a last quarter start is based on that momentum right now.” And he intends for it to be a year-round project, not just seasonal – and most importantly, sustainable. As a pan professional, he well understands the challenges of finding a job in the field, but as pan’s profile grows internationally, he believes it can be possible to make working in steelpan an viable occupation.
“Pan is now global. And there are some places where it’s still new. We have to build that up and out. It doesn’t exist (yet) that someone can leave school and find a job in pan in the easiest sense. Yes, there’s the National Steel Orchestra that hires professional musicians but how often do we do that? There a people graduating from school specialising in pan. It should be better but not where it should be. Internationally, there are people who are hungry for information so there is opportunity there to drive and capture than demand (by) packaging it in a way that is accessible.”
Leith is one of the lucky ones who has managed to find a full-time job in steelpan. He’s the artistic director and conductor of the National Steel Symphony Orchestra and has played, conducted and taught steelpan in tours throughout Europe, Asia, North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
He’s also a Fulbright fellow, graduating from the Northern Illinois University master’s programme in steelpan (the only post-graduate programme specialising in steelpan studies, founded and led by a Trinidadian, Clifford Alexis).
Leith started playing steelpan as a boy – in secondary school he participated in Junior Panorama, and soon after, joined a semi-professional pan side that toured the world. As his interest grew, he quit his job (he was working part-time in TSTT) and enrolled in UWI to study steelpan in greater detail, eventually graduating with a bachelor's in musical arts. He’s also crossed the spectrum in learning about his instrument and his craft – he worked for four years at a steelpan manufacturing company. His breadth of experience means Leith is uniquely positioned to understand every aspect of steelpan – from making the instrument to playing to marketing it around the world. Add the Hadad brothers’ business acumen and Mittco is poised to redefine the steelpan industry.
“Mittco will be a manufacturing facility that will bring us quality instruments and services across the region for both the local and export markets. We bring to the table this collaborative approach where we have a professional musician, the artisan/craftsmen and then seasoned businessmen. So, each person can now lend to that aspect of the company where they focus on their strength and that collective coming together is what will take this platform and this instrument to places maybe it’s never reached before.”
Leith is also passionate about ensuring that pan is present in schools. “It’s happening slowly. It’s definitely moved on from having no pan in schools.” Education, he believes, is what will drive interest in steelpan, providing the catalyst for greater development – and a means of diversification.
“Let’s empty the oil and take the barrels to make pan. We are an oil and gas country but the steelpan is the national instrument. We need to have the boldness to dream – cut down the barriers and dream about what is possible.” Pan is growing at home, he said, and he’s seeing the interest in young people who want to be professional musicians and artisans. And while he believes TT should be the cradle of that innovation, it is an industry that is poised to go international.
“The reach of the pan has been significant but hasn’t yet reached its full potential. Steelpan is still a baby. Piano has had centuries. We are still in the embryonic stage. We are now teaching certain things, still discovering the best ways to teach it, which metals work best. So, we are still tweaking and figuring out new things. We have to keep pushing to getting it better and better.”
"National Steel Orchestra director makes steelpan dream come true"