Despite it being his first time arranging for Panorama, or any steelpan orchestra at all, 21-year-old David Yundi, is confident in his abilities and that of small conventional steelband, Genesis Pan Groove.
The steelband placed 20th in the preliminaries but moved up to ninth in the semi-finals, and played Bun Dem by the late Leroy “Black Stalin” Calliste in the finals on Saturday. He said with the band’s significant improvement from the prelims to the semis, and with the feedback and constructive criticism he got from the judges, he was confident about the finals.
“There’s a lot to improve on but we made some changes to tackle those weak points they told us about. I think we’re in a good position.”
His sudden urge to arrange sparked when he was a competitor in the online steelpan competition, PanoGrama, last year. He had to pick a song, arrange it, and improvise on it.
“I kind of had an awakening. In those three rounds of the competition I realised, if people like and enjoy this music and my improvisation so much, I guess I could do this on a larger scale. That’s how I decided on Panorama.”
He told Sunday Newsday he asked the arranger for Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra, his lecturer at UTT, Leon “Smooth” Edwards, if he knew of any bands for which he could arrange. Smooth recommended Yundi to the manager of Genesis and she accepted.
Initially, he had some dissenters and there were times that he thought he could do better, but those doubts pushed him to do more and he never doubted his ability.
Yundi said he enjoyed the challenge of Bun Dem because most arrangers preferred to do songs in major. Bun Dem, however, is in E minor as well as a two-chord song, which arrangers usually stay away from.
“I seconded the motion for this song because you can’t really do much in two chords, but I felt I could show the judges and arrangers there’s still a lot you could do with just two chords.”
Initially, he just wanted to make the composer proud and give the audience something to remember with his arrangement. But when Stalin died in December, instead of making him proud, he wanted to give Stalin “a good send off.” His death also increased the resolve of the band as a whole, to do their best.
Yundi said his start in steel pan was an accident.
He recalled, in 2009, when he was eight years old, he was walking around St Margaret’s Boys Anglican School after classes when he heard music. He was curious about the sound he was hearing and walked into the pan room to find some of his fellow students in the middle of a steelpan class.
The conductor asked if he was there to play pan and he said yes, even though he did not know what the instrument was. He fell in love and never left, and played with the St Margaret’s Boys Anglican School Steel Orchestra for 11 years.
“The difference with St Margaret’s, and something I actually like, is that they focus on and teach you the practical, but they also enforce us learning the theory. They have us do the ABRSM's (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) Music Theory exams and to continue as a player in the band, we had to progressively do up to Grade Three theory.”
Even as he continued playing with St Margaret’s, when he passed for Belmont Boys' Secondary School, now called St Francis Boys' College, he joined the school’s pan programme.
At age 17, he joined Silver Stars Steel Orchestra, and met Marcus Ash of Silver Stars and Genesis. So while he did not do music for CXC, he studied music theory with Ash, and got a distinction in the Grade Five exam.
“When I finished school in 2019, I originally intended to go back to America. Music was at the bottom of my list of things to do career-wise, because I didn’t expect to find a perfect avenue to continue to do music over there since pan isn’t that well-known in New York. I fully intended to find another avenue of the arts to travel down.”
The decision to move to the US was because he was born there to Trinidadian parents, and he came to Trinidad and Tobago around age two or three. His mother passed away when he was six and his father was in jail so he never really knew him. He went to live with his aunt and it was difficult for him to get citizenship.
In addition, in 2019, just two days after getting out of prison, his father died of a heart attack. However, he said he had a lot of replacement parents and support over the years, including Ash who helped him get TT citizenship.
Once that was in place, music “shot to the top of the list” and he decided to do a degree in music, realising it would give him career options. Ash helped him get into UTT where he is in his final year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts in performing arts.
After UTT, he intends to attend the University of Florida to get his master’s degree and then doctorate in the performing arts, and intend to return to TT as often as possible to play for Panorama.
Yundi described music as his intake and pan as his outlet.
“I’m not really an expressive person. I think I express myself better through pan. It’s like speaking a language. I speak better and more clearly through pan.”
He said he was a player first and he took every opportunity to play, including playing for multiple bands during the Panorama season. He also used to perform solo pieces in shows or for events but that had to stop when he started UTT and became too busy. He also composed for UTT courses but had not yet showcased his work to a wider audience.
“My end goal changes every time someone asks. I didn’t see myself being an arranger this year but now that people are actually enjoying my music it’s like, ‘Ok, I could be an arranger. That’s interesting.’ So really, I could be a lecturer, a conductor, an arranger, a performer, or a mixture of things. I’m not really sure as yet but I’m not limiting myself.”
To young people who want to play the steelpan, his advice is to never stop practising.
“Keep your head on straight and your eyes on the prize. Because there could be a lot of noise and unfocussed people around you who could lead you to a different path, even in the music world.”