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Meet Safiya Richards - Pennsylvania, USA

“It makes me proud, for one, that I’m taking part in the culture of my family. Something that I’ve never had an interest in before is now one of the few things that brings me happiness during some not-so-happy times. It makes me happy seeing the steel pan is being more accepted in different parts of the world besides Trinidad and Tobago and the fact that it has a habit of bringing people together.” 

She is a Pan-baby who could not escape the allure and beauty of this magical instrument. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  scholar and panist Safiya Richards shares her feelings, experiences, and insight into the Steelband music art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself; who is Safiya Richards?”

Safiya R. - “I was born in Hollis, Queens, New York, but was raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am the middle and only daughter of my parents; my mother Donna Mae, and my father Withnel, who is also known as “Screwman” or “Fox” to some of the pan community in New York. Both sides of my family are from South Trinidad. My mom’s side is from Sainte Madeleine and my father’s side is from Pleasantville.”


WST - “When and how were you first introduced to Pan?”

Safiya R. - “I was introduced to pan incredibly early, but it didn’t catch on until many years later. Two of my uncles on my mom’s side were in a band called Phillyville that they formed with some of their friends, shortly after I moved to Philly. Anyhow, I didn’t really touch a pan until I was about ten years old. It was a Tenor Bass, and it was Wilfred Kieal who taught me first, but I still wasn’t interested in actually playing.

“By then I did however, learn to love the sound of it and appreciated the instrument and the different arrangements. It was only until 2013 when I went to Panorama for the first time in New York that something finally snapped, and I wanted to play so badly afterwards. I started playing with Despers USA in 2014 and I’ve never looked back.”

Safiya Richards with Despers USA in 2015
Safiya Richards with Despers USA in 2015

WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument and art form going?”

Safiya R. - “It makes me proud, for one, that I’m taking part in the culture of my family. Something that I’ve never had an interest in before is now one of the few things that brings me happiness during some not-so-happy times. It makes me happy seeing the steel pan is being more accepted in different parts of the world besides Trinidad and Tobago and the fact that it has a habit of bringing people together. Plus, watching the younger generation getting into it and knowing that it’s being taught as part of the curriculum in some schools is nice. My main passion, however, is the amount of friends that I’ve made over the years during the summer. They’ve become a second family to me and it gives me something to keep looking forward to.”


WST - “Being female, were you ever cautioned or perhaps dissuaded in any way, from becoming involved with steelband?”

Safiya R. - “Nope! It was actually the opposite. From my dad, uncles, and my younger brother’s godfather, I was strongly encouraged to play. I was just too much of a hard-head to listen.”


WST - “Do any of your family members play pan - and what do they think of your involvement with the art form?”

Safiya R. - “Two uncles, and two of my cousins, one of them being my uncle’s granddaughter, play pan. All of them are on my mother’s side. As for how they feel about me, they couldn’t be more happy and proud of me.”


WST - “Given that you’ve been involved with steelband for years, what is most notably different in your opinion - from when you were a younger player, to now as an adult?”

Safiya R. - “There are a lot of kids; younger than when I started, who are learning how to play. There are also more women involved with the movement as well, and there are many young arrangers who are starting to emerge also.”


WST - “You’ve performed with various steel orchestras along your journey; talk about some of those experiences?”

Safiya R. - “I’ve only really played with two bands in total. Those bands are Despers USA and Philadelphia Pan Stars. Both are unique in their own way, but there are still some similarities between them.

“Pan Stars had me experience playing with a quite older crowd than myself, so I mostly played arrangements from songs that were definitely from back in the day. It also gave me a bit of a refresher course on playing since I mostly went to New York to play during the summer. I also got to meet some very talented and wonderful people from all aspects of life there.

Safiya Richards with Philadelphia Pan Stars
Safiya Richards with Philadelphia Pan Stars

“Despers USA is where I’ve essentially learned how to play pan, and the environment is definitely the livelier of the two since I’m more around with people that are my age. Everyone there is basically my second family. The yard, my home away from home. Both [steel orchestras] were fun and it gave me the challenge of playing with two bands on Panorama night, something I’ve thought that I’d never be able to do.”


WST - “What is your opinion on the state of Pan, especially in New York?”

Safiya R. - “I feel like there is some room for improvement on how the bands are being treated and how Pan is being respected in general. This is definitely true for Pan in New York.”

WST - “Regarding Panorama specifically, what are those eight/ten minutes of the competition on stage like, for you?”

Safiya R. - “Probably one of the greatest feelings ever in my life! That’s when the adrenaline is rushing and everyone is giving it their all in those ten minutes of play time. Most of the time it doesn’t even feel like you’re playing for that long, until you realize that the ending of the song is coming up.”


WST - “Who is your favorite arranger and why?”

Safiya R. - “I actually don’t really have a favorite arranger in particular, but I will listen to Clive Bradley, “Boogsie” Sharpe, and Carlton “Zanda” Alexander just to name a few.”


WST - “Who, and what are your musical influences?”

Safiya R. - “Let’s see; I do like Jazz a lot nowadays since there’s really not that much of any good music out there, although I do listen to just about anything. A couple of artists that have some influences on me would be Prince, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Kendrick Lamar, Daley, and Gorillaz, just to name a few.”


WST - “You may have come across from time to time, people who did not understand what you mean when you say you ‘play pan’ - if this has ever been the case, talk about how you shared your steel band experiences and their reactions.”

Safiya R. - “Well, usually it goes like this: First, instead of saying “pan,” I’ll tell them it’s a steeldrum and explain why I call it a pan. Most people would otherwise know what I’m talking about right away or at least have an idea of it. Then I’ll show them a video of any band playing after giving them a brief history lesson and my involvement in pan. According to my friends of no Caribbean descent, it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen.”


WST - “What have you been most proud about as it relates to pan?”

Safiya R. - “Me being the first female in my family to take part [in pan], which led my two youngest cousins to start playing as well - these have to be the proudest moments for me so far.”

Safiya Richards
Safiya Richards

WST - “What about the Pan fraternity do you find most disappointing?”

Safiya R. - “The unnecessary drama, the politics, and the lack of respect within the community.”


WST - “Do you think the steelband community and its musicians are well-regarded/respected in New York?”

Safiya R. - “This is both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’. Yes: because within the pan community itself, we are happy to see one of our own succeed, and the fact that we have the ability to show people one of the many cultures that make up New York. No: because nowadays, it’s getting harder for bands to practice especially around the summer season, because of the “newer” residents calling and complaining about the noise, instead of visiting the panyard; and there’s also the shortage of finding a space for a band to practice in.”


WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Safiya R. - “Panorama to me is the only thing I look forward to every year. I’m anxious and ready at the same time, listening to the other bands, and fitting in that last bit of practice just to make sure I have everything right. It’s basically the finals for a big game.”


WST - “What is your vision for Pan a decade from now?”

Safiya R. - “I hope that it becomes even greater than it ever was, and more people are willing to keep the movement alive.”


WST - “If you could change one thing about pan what would that be?”

Safiya R. - “Personally for me, I would change my ability to focus on practicing more.”

Safiya Richards
Safiya Richards

WST - “Do you see yourself having a career in Pan in the future?”

Safiya R. - “I don’t unfortunately, but I do see myself sticking around for quite awhile.”


WST - “What advice would you give to young and upcoming females who would like to follow in your footsteps as a female steelpan musician?”

Safiya R. - “GO FOR IT!!! Never let anyone stop you from doing what you want to do, and aim at the stars.”


WST - “After playing Pan for some time, several young adults eventually cease playing. Do you have any plans in that regard?”

Safiya R. - “It’s too early for me to say. Right now I’m just enjoying it all while I can.”


WST - “Are there any other steelband-related matters you would like to bring forward?”

Safiya R. - “None that I could think of at the moment.”


WST - “What is next for Safiya Richards?”

Safiya R. - “Working on eventually getting to play for Panorama in Trinidad, and learning to play a pan other than the Tenor that I’ve been on for more than a decade now.”


photos 2, 3, provided by Safiya Richards


   Safiya Richards performs with Despers USA Steel Orchestra during the orchestra’s 2015 Basement Recordings panyard session




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