Toronto's Steel Pan Queen is Wendy Jones

In Trinidad in the 1940’s, the steelpan and those associated with it were looked down upon.

Mostly poor and less than middle-class, these ‘hooligans’ would take cast off steel containers from the island’s substantial oil industry and cut the barrels in half. They then softened the flat ends over an open fire, pounding and shaping the steel to produce notes – thus creating the 20th century’s only new musical instrument.

As a boy, my father was so taken by this music that he would sneak out at night to go listen the group, Casablanca. ‘Band members would remove a slat in the back yard fence so that that I could slip out at the appropriate time,’ he said.

Then he’d follow the path from the neighbour’s house to the pan yard. Here the ‘disreputable’ musicians would rehearse for hours. ‘My mother was not amused,’ he said. If the pan yard was off limits to the son of a headmaster, it was certainly off limits to decent girls and women.

Pan Now and Then

Steelpan has come a long way since that time. One can receive a Masters’ degree in pan at many universities throughout the world. Last week, I spoke with Wendy Jones, band leader and founder of Pan Fantasy, the largest steel band in Toronto, Canada. The pan yard is set in an industrial park in the north end of the city.

Inside the expansive warehouse, we sat on a comfortable couch, sipping red Solo on ice.

Band members arrived one by one for what was to be a four hour rehearsal.

‘I wasn’t allowed to go near pan in Trinidad. It was not a place for girls. I learned pan in Toronto.

By the 1970’s, arranger Earl Lapierre Sr had created a high school pan program. ‘When we moved here from Trinidad, my mother could not object to my playing, as it was a credited course.’

A year later, in 1979, Jones joined Afro Pan, one of Toronto’s first steel bands and has never looked back. She is known as ‘The Last Original Woman on the Bass,’ as most of her peers from that era have stopped playing.

Surrounded by six bass pans, Jones is mesmerizing to watch, as she spins, reaching for the notes.

‘I learned from the best. When playing the bass, there is a style in the shoulders, in the wrists.

I studied with the men who came here from Trinidad for Expo ’67 – men from famous bands like Starlift and Desperados. They were some of the original masters of pan.’

One can now hear pan in concert halls all over the world and in other unexpected places.

‘After Pan Fantasy performed at a church function,’ Jones tells me, ‘the women at the event, all in their 60s, 70s and 80s wanted to learn how to play.’ So, Jones, along with Elton Jones, have been teaching and arranging for the group ‘Gems and Friends’. They successfully fund-raise with tea parties and pan concerts for sold out crowds.

Two Islands

When author, entrepreneur and performer Itah Sadu had an idea of connecting the music of Trinidad with that of Canada’s First Nations, Jones ran with it. For the last few years, Pan Fantasy has been travelling to Beausoleil Island to the community of Wikwemikong First Nation.

‘We’d have workshops to learn about each other’s music and then we’d eat’, laughs Jones.

‘They’d give us buffalo meatballs, we’d bring jerk chicken’.

The alliance led to an invitation to attend a Pow Wow in 2010. ‘It was out of this world’, says Jones ‘and the elders loved it!’ In 2013, drummers from Wikwemikong travelled to Toronto to perform with Pan Fantasy at the launch of the Pan Am games.

Caribbean Carnival in Toronto

This year, Pan Fantasy performs at Pam Alive, a competition for best arrangement and performance of a popular calypso. During the summer, preparation entails a rigorous schedule - Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, four hours a day of rehearsal, for all of June and July.

I asked Jones, how she pulled off leading a band, working and raising a family.

‘I’m a social worker with the Catholic School Board, so I don’t do school work during the summer,’ she says. ‘Oh – and everybody plays – kids, husband, everybody!’

 

Pan Alive Competition Champions

The band has placed first in Pan Alive for three years in a row. This feat requires team work.

The arranger, Al Foster has been working with the band for the last 12 years. ‘He came to the band at 16 years old already knowing how to play’, says Jones. ‘With his phrasing, knowledge, history and talent, we assumed that he was Trinidadian and were astounded to learn that he is actually of Jamaican heritage.’

Like a choir, the band is divided into sections. There are sopranos, altos, tenors, basses.

Of course in the poetic Trinidadian lingo, nothing is referred to as such. The soprano pans are called ‘tenors’ because they sing. And then there are the guitars, cellos, quads and bass. A player could be playing one or two pans on tenor to 6, 9, or 12 on bass. The latter leads to spins and almost dance-like moves to play passages and chords.

Foster, an enormous talent with perfect pitch, calls out notes for each section.

Each memorizes their part, and then the orchestra plays that passage together.

The process is magical. Outdoors, in a deserted industrial area, lit up by the occasional GO train roaring by, the sweet pan arrangement is carefully woven together.

 

Next, the driller, Ben Jackson arrives from Trinidad. He works intensely with each section.

He cleans up the passages and phrasing, so that each section sounds like one instrument.

All of Pan Fantasy’s instruments are made by Roland Harigan. He also travels from Trinidad to do the final ‘blending’ of the pans. ‘Still with fire and a hammer?’ I ask incredulously. ‘Yes,’ Jones tells me, ‘the process is essentially the same’.

With outdoor fires forbidden in the city, tuners use a gas tank with four prongs over top, like a stove. The drum is placed over top to soften the steel. ‘You’ve got the factories making the pans now, however it doesn’t sound the same. When you go back to the original process, that’s where the great sound is.’

Of course there are the dedicated players who range in age from 9 to 65. Several families have two generations playing in the group.

Pam Moms

Most importantly, there is a team of dedicated ‘pan moms’ – mothers, wives, friends of the band. They are the support beams of this group, providing transportation, snacks, finding lost t-shirts or whatever else is required. Due to their free reign to critique musical arrangements, band organization or whatever else needs fixing, they are affectionately referred as ‘the Peanut Gallery’.

© Gloria Blizzard is a Toronto-based writer

      Photo: Steelpan (Pan Alive)