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Steelpan In New York

Date: 10.2.06             

The Chinese Steelpan Ensemble -
part of the great Bicentennial Celebration of
the Chinese presence in Trinidad and Tobago

The Dragon Can Dance’ in Pictures

San Fernando, Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - The Chinese community in Trinidad and Tobago celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of their arrival on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago this year on October 12.  It is the first time that the community has had an official holiday to commemorate their arrival, and they have made much use of the opportunity in the weeks and months prior to the great day, proudly showcasing the talent of their people, their influences by, and in turn impact on, Trinbagonian life and culture.  The twin-island country is made up of diverse peoples, and the Chinese are a significant part of Trinbago life and the business community.  To this end, they organized many events designed to bring to the fore - the expression, sights and sounds of their Trinbagonian-Chinese culture.  These have been designed to include concerts, lectures, art and culinary displays, theater, Carifesta IX participation, a Food and Trade fair, and a  performance by a troupe of artists from the People's Republic of China.  The Chinese community celebration will culminate with a Dragon Boat Racing Festival involving thirty-six teams, originating from Chaguaramas in north west Trinidad.  But it is the first component - the concerts,  which they have taken to various parts of the country, including the sister isle of Tobago, entitled The Dragon Can Dance which are the focus here, because of the presence of a unique component - The Chinese Bicentennial Steel Ensemble.

It had been another historic first when the bicentennial steel ensemble came into being on March 26, 2006.  The first-ever Chinese steelband (pictured left) was assembled in Trinidad and Tobago as another celebratory factor of their anniversary.  For years, people of Chinese heritage have played with other Trinbagonians in the country's many steel orchestras.  But this ensemble invited all such players, as well as those who had an interest, but had never played pan before, to be part of the country's first steelband comprised solely of those in the country of Chinese heritage.  The players are a very diverse lot in terms of background and age, with the youngest member at present being nine years old, while boasting adults as mature as fifty. 

When the concept of an all-Chinese steel orchestra was parlayed, Larry Lai (pictured right) would eventually be the individual given the mandate for pulling it all together; he is now the leader.  And the result was the Chinese Bicentennial Steel Ensemble.  The band has support from and utilizes the surplus instruments of, three of Trinidad's steel orchestras: Starlift, Harvard Harps, and Silver Stars.  The primary arrangers for the band are Roy Edwards and Douglas 'Dougie' Redon, with Jeremy “Skies” Abraham coming on board later on.


At his address delivered earlier on this year in July, Kenneth Chang On (pictured left), from the Secretariat of the Chinese Bicentennial Ltd. said "...this will be the first time that traditional Chinese musical instruments such as the Er-Hu, Yer Woo, Toon Kam and Mook Kam, all string instruments, will be fused with the Steelpan our [Trinidad and Tobago's] National Instrument, as well as providing accompaniment for vocalists performing authentic Chinese songs."  Chang credited arranger Dougie Redon with the vision for this fusion.  For their performances, the band is not afraid of the marriage of the national instrument of their present country and its various rhythms, and the instruments and culture unique to their own heritage.  As a result, the Chinese Bicentennial Steel Ensemble is very comfortable when they join forces with traditional Chinese vocalists, instrumentalists and rhythms.  They are equally at home with and enjoy, other ethnic influences which have become part of their experience as Trinbagonians.  This is clearly apparent in their repertoire, which features a variety of music including calypsonian Bally's African-tinged Shaka Shaka, arranged by Dougie Redon, and another 2006 soca hit of East Indian flavour.

When Steel Talks (WST) caught up with the orchestra as the Chinese community unveiled one in their series of The Dragon Can Dance concerts, held at the Oasis Garden Terrace in south Trinidad.  They opened the evening's cultural display with both the national anthems of the People's Republic of China, and of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.  Their first selection would be Colours Again, written by a Trinidad and Tobago national of Chinese heritage and well known in steelpan circles - Mark Loquan.  He has made a name for himself in the area of composing and Colours Again, vocalized by Destra Garcia, proved a very popular selection of choice for the 2006 panorama season in Trinidad and Tobago.

WST was able to chat briefly with Candace Chow (pictured right), mistress of ceremonies, and daughter of Johnny Chow, leader of the Pacific Lion Dance Troupe which also performed.  "Chinese people have been overlooked in Trinidad and Tobago...All the other cultures - the East Indians, the Africans - all have their holidays, celebrations, and a lot of attention focused on them.  The Chinese have contributed a lot to Trinidad and Tobago.  The [Chinese] holiday [October 12] is one of the best things this year."  As Ms. Chow laughingly but wryly put it "We had to wait two hundred years for it [holiday]." 

"We welcome the opportunity to share the Chinese culture, to educate and entertain Trinidad and Tobago, because it has been more or less hidden for so many years, and also...we share our joy at celebrating the anniversary of two hundred years of our presence in the country, with the rest of its citizens.  It's a big deal for us."  Commenting directly on the cultural aspect of the show, the mistress of ceremonies said it was 'very diverse.'  "We have many different forms of talent."  In fact the entire Dragon Can Dance concert took many forms: music, dance, martial arts, and the calypso artform - negating the stereotypes of the Chinese - held by some  - as 'business only,' for example.  Ms. Chow further highlighted the performance by the Chinese Christian group as an example of the complete diversity of their community.

The Chinese steelpan musicians performed throughout the show, in tandem with talented representatives from their community, including but not limited to: the Chinese Traditional Instrumentalists, Lori Lee Lum and The Chinese Art Dancers, the  Fan Dancers (pictured below left) and the Shaolin Temple Martial Arts.  The audience was also treated to calypso, including an up tempo and catchy number - 'What You Want From Me' - by one their two calypsonians, Ming Lao Chee Tung, and ribbon dancers (pictured below right), from Rhythmica, the School of Rhythmic Gymnastics, the only school of its type in Trinidad and Tobago.  Johnny Chow's dragon also wound its way through the crowd to their delight, especially the younger attendees.

A few of the steelpan musicians chatted with WST during and after their performances, and also took time out for some memorable shots of the evening.  Double tenor player Megan Charles  (pictured below left), is a veteran in the steelpan art form, and plays with one of Trinbago's powerhouse steel orchestras, Phase II Pan Groove, who are 2005 and 2006 national panorama champions.  Megan articulated many of the sentiments expressed by Candace Chow, and viewed the Chinese cultural initiative as an event that was long in coming and now proudly welcomed.  Odelia Garcia  (pictured below right),is a percussionist with the steel ensemble, and has also played with other bands including Harvard Harps.

Later on in the programme, nine-year old Elijah Lee (pictured above, middle) stole the show for a few minutes; he has been described as a prodigy.  Involved with music for a number of years, the young pannist showed his mettle when, in addition to being a member of the steel ensemble, he excelled on his own as he undauntedly executed the Minute Waltz and was rewarded with loud applause.  Apparently acclimatized to the limelight, Elijah took it all in stride. 

Thirteen-year old Romero Edwards  (pictured left), has been playing pan for a few years, and was unarguably the pannist who most enjoyed himself as he performed, coming alive behind his instrument.  Besides being taught to play by his dad - Roy Edwards, one of the ensemble's arrangers and noted performer in his own right - Romero has also been around Merrytones Steel Orchestra based in Diego Martin, Trinidad.  The teenager is competent on other instruments as well, including the guitar and piano.  For pan, he has played tenor, double seconds, tenor bass, and six bass.

Evan Loquan (pictured right), is another member of the Chinese steel ensemble.  If the name sounds familiar, it is because his dad who has also been a pan player and heads a company called Yara Trinidad Ltd., is Mark Loquan, already highlighted above.  Evan himself has been playing pan for abut three years, and with a father who has made his mark on the steelpan scene in the country, this young pannist has a good background should he choose to make the national instrument a significant part of his life.  Both Evan and his mother, Patricia were part of the WST  pictorial highlighting members of the ensemble.

The Chinese Bicentennial Steel Ensemble plans to continue as a group, and to perform.  Their 'pan yard' is located at the Chinese Association in St. Ann's, Port-of-Spain.

Contact Kenneth Chang On, Chinese Arrival Secretariat:  1 (868) 365-6222

The Dragon Can Dance in Pictures

C. Phillips, Basement Press Corp.
2006 When Steel Talks - All Rights Reserved

Copyright 2006 -  Basement Recordings, Inc.   All Rights Reserved.


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