Vanessa's pan ecstasy

Vanessa Headley is the vice-president and artistic director of the Golden Hands Steel Orchestra and Music School. - David Reid
Vanessa Headley is the vice-president and artistic director of the Golden Hands Steel Orchestra and Music School. - David Reid

VANESSA Headley may not be a hard taskmaster in the panyard.

But she’s no pushover either.

“My approach to teaching music in the panyard is based on a good balance between discipline and fun,” the San Fernando-born arranger told WMN.

“Playing music should never feel like a chore. It will never flow. But excellence requires dedication and discipline.

“I cannot function in chaos and I do not tolerate unruliness or delinquency in my workspace. That’s how I was taught and what has made me the musician I am today.

Vice-president and artistic director of the Golden Hands Steel Orchestra and Music School, Headley, 34, believes that in order to inspire her charges, they must be able to share her passion and excitement.

“I’ve found that playing alongside my players gives them that extra boost and I enjoy it just a as much.

Asked what she loves about the steelpan, Headley said, “As a composer and performer, I am intrigued and inspired by the steelpan’s versatility. Minor changes in one’s approach to the instrument can result in very impactful effects.”

This Carnival, Headley has taken her talents across the seas to Tobago as the arranger for Carnbee-based medium band NGC Steel Xplosion. In so doing, she has created history in becoming the first Trinidadian woman to arrange for a Tobago steelband.

Headley, who began rehearsing Voice’s (Aaron St Louis) Out And Bad with the band weeks ago, is excited about the project. BJ Marcelle, one of Trinidad and Tobago’s respected arrangers, recommended her to the band.

“I am truly excited at this prospect for several reasons. Foremost is that it has given me an opportunity to interact musically with the young steelpan musicians of Tobago. They are passionate, very skilled, open to new ideas and deeply appreciative of what I bring to the Panorama table.”

Headley was barely older than a toddler when her mother, well-known musicologist Franka Hills-Headley, a former school teacher and founder of the Golden Hands Steel Orchestra and Music School, introduced her to the instrument in 1993.

Hills-Headley, some years after completing a double major in biology and chemistry and post graduate diploma in science education, had shelved her plans for a masters’ degree to pursue a certificate of music (pan) at the University of the West Indies.

Vanessa Headley has won the pan soloist competition at the TT Music Festival on many occasions. - David Reid

She recalled Hills-Headley yearned to share her love for the pan with young people and as time passed many of her mother’s friends begged her to tutor their children.

“Mummy embraced this so much that she took all of her backpay government bonds and purchased steelpan instruments. She cleared our living room, set them up and Golden Hands was born.”

Under her mother’s careful guidance, Headley has won the pan soloist competition at the TT Music Festival on many occasions.

She was also part of the Golden Hands Champion Ensemble, which won several titles, including the President’s Award and the Prime Minister’s Award for Most Outstanding Instrumental Performance at the music festival.

“I have shared in all of Golden Hands trophies and awards, which almost number 200, from both national and international festivals.”

Headley’s involvement in pan blossomed during her high school years at St Joseph’s Convent, San Fernando, St Stephen’s College, Princes Town and throughout her 20s. She has performed at the Naparima Bowl, San Fernando, Queen’s Hall in Port of Spain and other concert venues around the world.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music arts from the UWI in 2010, she attended a five-week certificate programme in Music Performance at Berklee College of Music, Massachusetts, US, in 2011 and became the first steelpan musician to be awarded and academic scholarship. She later read for a masters’ degree in music psychology for musicians at Sheffield University in the UK.

Before completing her first degree, though, Headley’s mother and Golden Hands then assistant director, Dane Hinds, had given her the opportunity to arrange for the band for Junior Panorama and later, the national competition.

Golden Hands entered the small band category of Panorama in 2010 and four years later, Headley told her mother she was ready to compose her own Panorama piece. She got the green light and did her first piece, Pan In the Galaxy.

“I invested myself in this project and even did my own lyric video of the song which I became the first person to ever compose, sing and arrange a Panorama piece performed by a band.”

The tune, Trouble, earned Golden Hands the championship trophy in 2018 Panorama competition. The band has performed consistently ever since.

Outside of competition, Headley was also involved in the Music Schools in the Community project, which was initiated by the then Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism (now Tourism, Culture and the Arts) between 2010-2015. This led to her arranging graduation pieces for Golden Hands and other groups.

By Carnival 2020, the last before the country went into lockdown owing to covid19, Headley was arranging for three bands.

“I made history through this feat by becoming the first female arranger to arrange for a steelband in each of three categories of the Panorama competition. Golden Hands in the small band category; Penal Valley Harps in the medium and La Brea Nightingales in the large.”

This Carnival Vanessa Headley is the arranger for Tobago's Carnbee-based medium band NGC Steel Xplosion. - David Reid

She has also arranged for HADCO Phase II Pan Groove.

Headley, who won the National Youth Award in the sphere of Arts and Culture in 2017, said she has many memorable moments since she began arranging for Golden Hands at the age of 14. But one in particular stands out.

“When TT hosted Carifesta XIV, the Caribbean Youth Orchestra performed one of my original compositions, Music Matters. What made this memorable was seeing how young musicians from various countries, backgrounds, ethnicities bonded through my music. It was a Caribbean connection. They raved about how much they loved the song.”

Observing that women have been a part of the steelpan movement for a long time as “inspiration, support, nurturer and player,” Headley said she would love to see more female arrangers.

“I believe for that to happen, we have to eradicate the segregation mentally first, and respect women as musicians that produce music just as many have done for decades.”

While the arranger believes some individuals and independent groups have been excellent ambassadors for the steelpan and TT’s culture generally, she said many people continue to disrespect the instrument.

“We have been slack, lackadaisical and disrespectful to the artform. It hurts to hear Trinbagonians making insults to the instrument.”

But she quickly countered, “The fault isn't theirs. Steelpan appreciation has to be taught from the inception in our education system. Not everybody will love pan, but every citizen should appreciate and respect it. Only then, can we begin to work toward successful promotion internationally.”

For now, Headley is focused on her latest assignment – a project made easier by the fact that she has been interacting with Tobago players since her teenage years.

“I remember Golden Hands had won a junior steelband festival and as we celebrated by striking up our winning piece, Pretty Boi, Tobagonian steelpan players who were our competitors, were at the front of our band dancing and celebrating with us. That was the beginning of a long term relationship with Tobago's steelpannists and myself.”

She continued, “I have played in bands with them, they have played in my band, Golden Hands as well. I have taught them at UTT and interviewed them on Steelpan City, my radio show on WACK 90.1 FM.

“I have the highest regard for all serious steelpan musicians, whether professional or amateur just as much as I do all serious, passionate musicians. We are family and geography in no way distinguishes one from the other.”

With just days to go before judging in the preliminary round of the medium band competition begins, Headley said rehearsals at the Buccoo Integrated Facility have been are intense.

“This is because there are many logistics involved as an entire community of steelband musicians, administrators and supporters is mobilised.”

She said as an arranger “it is not only satisfying to hear your music expressed on the national instrument, but it is truly wonderful to see its impact as it unfolds to the steelpan players.

“The founder and owner of Steel Xplosion and its young dynamic management team are working assiduously to ensure that no stone is left unturned in the preparation for the upcoming competition.”


"Vanessa’s pan ecstasy"

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