At the age of 31, steel pan arranger Kendell Bowen, has been participating in Panorama competitions for over 20 years, and playing for over 25.
Bowen told Sunday Newsday he has been around the steelpan since birth and playing since he was about six years old. Both his parents are involved in pan, with his father being the captain of Simple Song Steel Orchestra for many years, and his mother, the current manager of the Arima community band based at Pinto Road, on the outskirts of Santa Rosa Park.
His older brother, and younger brother and sister play with the band and, after the Panorama season, Bowen teaches the youth of Pinto Road and environs to play pan.
“I was always in the panyard so I always hearing pan in my head since I was a baby. My mother told me, in 1997, I was crying to play for the Pan is Beautiful festival that year. So they taught me pieces and it was plenty practice, and that’s how I started to play pan. I learn right in the panyard.”
Born and raised in Arima, Bowen attended Five Rivers Junior Secondary School, now Five Rivers Government Secondary, where he “was always in the band room” and did music for CXC. He also took music theory classes on evenings.
After graduating in 2009, he continued working on his craft in the pan yard, practising until he could play every type of steelpan. He would also pay attention to all the different arrangers as he was interested in learning to arrange music and become one of them.
In 2011, he started arranging stage-side music, music to play at functions, for the band. Throughout the year he was in the panyard regularly and he was one of the players who could arrange. So when the opportunity arose, he took it and used it to improve his skills.
In 2014, he got his big chance. Simple Song had no arranger for Panorama so he was asked to arrange the band’s Panorama tune, the 1983 song Rebecca by Blue Boy (Austin Lyons, now Super Blue).
“At that point I was not experienced at all arranging for Panorama, but based on being around the arrangers who passed through the band, you must learn something. Then too, I always home practising and working out music, trying to get the cords for songs, and all of that helped me develop as an arranger.”
Since then, he has been the official Panorama arranger for Simple Song.
In addition to being an arranger, he also wanted to be a soldier. He said he did not like boring jobs and soldiers do not do the same thing every day so, to him, it is exciting.
Bowen explained that his older brother, who is in the Regiment, once played in the Defence Force Steel Orchestra. Bowen would watch the band perform at events, and, as a civilian, he would visit the base and practise with its members.
In 2015, Bowen achieved that goal when he joined the Regiment.
In addition to his military duties, he was in the Regiment band for two years before being transferred to the Defence Force Steel Orchestra, which won the small conventional band category in 2019. He has also arranged stage-side music for the band, but not for competitions.
Since joining the Regiment, he has travelled to Switzerland, England, Finland, and Scotland to perform in military tattoos with the Defence Force Steel Orchestra.
“If I’m in an organisation with a steel orchestra, obviously it's there I’ll want to be. And I have the extra pride of being in the position to serve my country.”
Wanting to be the best steelpan arranger he could be, he applied to UTT to study music and, in 2022, he started his Bachelor of Fine Arts programme in the performing arts.
He said as a soldier, he had to get permission to go to school. He expressed his gratitude to Warrant Officer Class One Montique who encouraged him and recommended him to their superiors, seeing that it would also benefit the orchestra.
“I wanted to be qualified as a musician and, I know personally, there’s more to learn and going to school will get you better. So I got the opportunity, I applied, they accepted and I started in September gone.
“I just love the creativity of arranging different parts of the music, different chord structures to create different moods. I’m addicted to it. I can’t stop.”
Like Defence Force Steel Orchestra, Simple Song Steel Orchestra took part in the Panorama small conventional semi-finals on Saturday with the song Out and Bad by Voice. He said the band made it to the finals of Pan in De Sancoche in 2022, so he believes this is the year they would make it to the Panorama finals.