By Klieon John.
The steel pan arose in the late 1930s among the African descendants in Trinidad and Tobago. Having very little money, persons had to make do with discarded materials in order to make musical instruments. It was soon discovered that if pounded constantly, large, steel oil drums produced musical notes. Thus, the steel pan was born.
By the late 1940s, this new style of music had spread to the other islands and began to feature in Carnivals across the Caribbean. Since then, Kittitians and Nevisians have always had a strong interest in steel pan music, introducing it in schools, forming steelbands and orchestras and even having training programmes for youth during vacations.
However, has the island’s ‘feel for steel’ died out in recent years?
Ever since the passing of steelpan icon Earl ‘Boots’ Jones in April of this year, who dedicated his career to training young persons in this discipline, people are wondering: Will we be able to enjoy the melodious music of the pan for much longer?
Members of the St. Kitts National Steel Orchestra (SKNSO) and the Tornado band – the two groups founded by Boots – are dedicated to keeping the legacy of their beloved patron alive. They are now being coordinated by Kazrano Gumbs, a former pupil of the steel pan legend. He, along with other tutors, is now responsible for arranging and teaching music to over 30 members of each group.
Gumbs told The Observer that this endeavor is not without a number of challenges.
“Boots was the best at tuning the pans, which go out of tune very quickly. So when the pans go out of tune, they won’t be able to be tuned as well as they used to. Also, we are now faced with having to give people assurance that there will still be a safe, healthy and fun environment when kids come to play pan. People are now looking to the band to see if we, as young people will be able to perform by ourselves.”
In an effort to ensure that the steel pan effort remains strong, a committee has been formed called ‘The Old Boots Jones Pan Movement’. It is comprised of parents and members of local steel bands in St. Kitts. Together, they arrange performances and organize the summer programme, PANSKAN, scheduled for the July 16 to August 25 of this year.
For PANSKAN this year, Gumbs expects a large turnout, despite the absence of its usual organizer.
“Lots of people are interested in PANSKAN this year. Even people from overseas are asking about it, so I think there will be a good turnout.”
Gumbs said he is of the belief that playing music enhances performance in other disciplines.
“When I play pan it eases my mind. It helps to develop the brain into making critical decisions such as in exams. It also creates a sense of trust because when you play in a band you have to trust each member to create one sound.”
It is with these sentiments that he and others remain steadfast in their efforts to continue the tradition of steel pan playing.
Another steel pan musician, Melvin Hewlett, known to most as ‘Mellie’ is also keeping the fight alive. With his new steel pan based CDs, Mellie Vol. I and II, he is promoting an appreciation for steel pan music among persons across the federation and extra-regional.
Mellie also teaches steel pan music at the Cayon High School, from which he has formed a group that plays in the community. In an interview with The Observer, he gave his thoughts on the response from young persons regarding steelpan.
“The group I deal with in school shows a lot of interest, but I find that young people in St. Kitts on a whole don’t really have an interest in steel pan. They are more into dancehall and other wild music. Part of the reason is that in school, it only goes up to second form so after that, they tend to lose interest.”
He also stated that music helps students to do well in examinations by giving them motivation.
“A few parents think that it is a distraction, but the pan is more of a motivation for the children than anything else. All of the students from my group do well in CXC. ”
In addition to his work at the Cayon High School, Mellie intends to help with PANSKAN this summer to ensure it stays running as long as possible.
“I think I’m going to take a little part in that, especially with the adults this year, for the first time, so PANSKAN will go on.”
When asked if he thinks steel pan will eventually die out in St. Kitts he was resolute.
“Once I’m alive, it’s not going to die out. I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”
So it is quite evident that although the steel pan tradition has suffered a few blows in the past, it is and will continue to remain an integral part of our culture in St. Kitts and Nevis.