“I’ve got goosebumps on my arms just talking about now,” exclaimed Jeremy Kunkel during a recent rehearsal of a student steelband at Minneapolis South High School led by Trinidadian Joshua Bedeau.
Just a few blocks away from the site where George Floyd was infamously murdered, Minneapolis South High School – like much of the surrounding area – is still healing from the social unrest that rocked the city during the summer of 2020, the reverberations of which were felt across the globe from London to Tokyo to Port of Spain.
On this April afternoon, however, the reverberations were of a different sort: a student steelband jamming along with Kunkel and Bedeau to the Ray Holman classic My Band.
Kunkel is the founder and director of the Pan Outreach programme based in the Minneapolis/St Paul metro area of Minnesota. It brings Caribbean culture, pan lessons, and steelband playing experiences to inner-city and suburban students across the region.
Kunkel launched the Pan Outreach programme in 2018 and takes great pride in its innovative and culturally diverse approach to music education.
“Pan Outreach’s future is bright,” beams Kunkel, adding “It’s provided to local schools at no cost to supplement existing music education programmes.”
Kunkel himself is an accomplished educator who first started playing pan in the late 1990s, studying with noted Nashville-based pannist Mat Britain.
“After my first lesson with Mat, I remember thinking, 'I like this, this speaks to me.'”
After years of studying and playing, Kunkel made the pilgrimage to Trinidad and performed with Silver Stars Steel Orchestra for Panorama in 2019, later describing Panorama as "a life changing experience!”
Pan Outreach has several unique features which distinguish it from other school steelpan programmes across the US. First, it's delivered at no cost to students or host schools. Kunkel and his team of educators provide pans, transport, learning materials and instruction to primary and secondary schools for what are typically one-three-week residency programmes.
As is typical of the Midwest of the US, few if any of the host schools have steelbands and some do not even have regular music education instruction. The inherent accessibility of the steelpan and the multicultural perspectives it brings to classrooms are highly sought after in the US – especially in areas like Minneapolis, which, despite a population ranging in the millions, boasts a small Caribbean community and few steelbands.
Another element that sets the Pan Outreach programme apart is its buy-in from host school faculty. That is, Kunkel and his team insist on working with teachers at the schools they visit, involving the school-based teachers in every facet of the steelband residency. Pan Outreach aims to enhance and supplement school instruction and teachers, not replace them. This collaborative approach enriches the experience for all involved.
“When I meet with teachers ahead of time,” notes Kunkel, “I make it clear that we’re partners in pan – they’re not just going to sit and play on their phone while I teach pan.”
To further improve the experience, Kunkel has recently partnered with Northern Illinois University (NIU) to bring in Trinidadian graduate students as teaching instructors for Pan Outreach. The collaboration has fostered an invaluable connection between students from the US and TT, says Kunkel: “To have someone from the birthplace of steelpan teaching it here in the Midwest really enhances the experience for these students.”
The teaching opportunity is also important for the NIU graduate students, who gain real-world experience teaching pan in the trenches of the American primary and secondary school system.
The first of what Pan Outreach hopes is many sets of NIU graduate students to teach for Pan Outreach were Joshua Bedeau and Jalen Charles.
Bedeau is a native of San Fernando, an alumnus of the Golden Hands Steel Orchestra, and a graduate of the University of Trinidad and Tobago.
Charles hails from Petit Valley, played with the Sadiki Stiks on Steel and Invaders Steel Orchestra, and is also a graduate of UTT. Through Pan Outreach the two experienced firsthand the challenges and joys of teaching pan in the US.
“I felt a real connection with the students, many of whom didn’t speak English as their first language,” said Bedeau.
“In Trinidad,” noted Charles, “we are accustomed to syncopation, so that was a challenge, but the Minneapolis students got it eventually!”
Beyond the classroom experience, the NIU students gained valuable organisational leadership training from their work with Pan Outreach.
“It was great to see how Jeremy worked with the teachers and students to make this programme successful,” noted Charles.
The Pan Outreach model may be the future of steelband education in America, suggests Bedeau, “I think this programme has great potential.”
For more information on Pan Outreach, go to: https://www.panoutreach.org/
Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pan player, and professor of music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.