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The Earl of Pan wears his crown gracefully

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - “In 2004 Hurricane Ivan destroyed The Cayman Islands and evidently shattered my personal possessions including steelpans and household articles.  The Canadian government hurriedly sent passenger planes to evacuate all Canadians which included me and my family” - the La Pierre Family Steelband.

Earl La Pierre
Earl La Pierre

These were the words of Trinidad-born Earl La Pierre recently on “Pan Diaspora” during an interview on Trinidad & Tobago’s WACK Radio 90.1 FM with Hollis Clifton and Steve Sealy.

Earl, speaking via telephone (from the Caymans), revealed that prior to that natural disaster he had spent 18 prolific years in the islands.  It was in 1986, when he was invited for the Pirates Week Festival, that an opportunity to teach pan arose.

While there he opened a school called Cayman School for Pan, had a carnival steelband named Panoramers, and taught pan at the primary, middle and high schools, as well as Catholic Schools - in Grand Cayman. As a result of Earl’s efforts all the schools offer steelband as part of their educational program.  Earl won every School Music Festival and every Carnival Pan Competition in Cayman Islands from 1988–2004.  His three–year old college band (PANDEMIX) is getting stronger and seems to be giving his own Panoramers, some serious competition.  From 2008 to present, Earl has been the arranger for Pandemix Steelband which has been running second to Panoramers.

As a steelband teacher and a performer, La Pierre performs at all the major hotels in the Cayman Islands, but mainly at Treasure Island Resort. He is credited with introducing Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument to this island grouping, to the extent where it has become an indelible part of that country’s culture.

Afropan Steelband
Afropan Steelband

La Pierre took up residence in Toronto from 2004-2006 but returned to the Cayman in 2006 where he is now domiciled. The pan aficionado however, takes time out every summer to fulfill contractual arrangements with Afropan Steelband in Toronto for Caribana.

Formerly of St. Clair, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, La Pierre is one of many Trinidadians who have made their mark in the pan diaspora. While living in Canada he taught steel pan music at the University of Toronto, North York Board of Education and the Toronto Board of Education. Earl was instrumental in getting the Steel Pan offered as a credit course in the North Schools. Earl has won all Kiwanis Music Festivals in the Steelband category in Secondary, Junior and Primary School from 1979–1986.  During that time the bands under Earl’s tutelage (most notably those from West View) received 29 wins at Secondary level (with 1 second place in 1983) and 6 wins at the Primary level. In the Jazz and Pan category the West View Steel band received 3 wins from 1984 through 1986. At West View Earl was instrumental in getting no less than 8 steelbands started; at the Secondary level there was Pangroove, Pantario, the Senior Band, the Junior Band and the Open Band, and at the Primary Level there was Topcliffe, Day Strome, and Firgrove.

When asked by Clifton about where he honed his skills, La Pierre revealed that he was a former member of Metronomes where he place 3rd as a soloist in the Trinidad Music Festival. He arranged for Invaders Steel Orchestra where he placed 2nd in the ‘Bomb’ competition and 5th in Panorama Final.  He was also a member of Starlift Steel Orchestra and for the past 26 years has played as a member of Phase II Pan Groove.

In 1999, he arranged the panorama tune for Southern Marines Steelband Foundation from Marabella, south Trinidad, and for the past several years he has been arranging for Harmonites Steel Orchestra garnering several accolades. In 2002 he placed 1st in the East and 4th in the finals of the Pan in the 21st Century competition.  In the Panorama competition with Earl as their arranger, Harmonites were the People’s Choice in 2006, and received 7th place in 2007 and 10th place in 2008.

The La Pierre family
The La Pierre Family

In the ‘Bomb’ competition, Earl and Harmonites have also garnered several notable awards. In 2006 they achieved the following results in competition: 2 firsts, 3 seconds, and 1 third.  In 2009, they tied for 10th position in Panorama.  At Pan in the 21st Century in 2007, Harmonites came 3rd; in 2008 - 5th and in 2009, 6th.

Back in North America Earl has distinguished himself as Canada’s top arranger, by being adjudged the Best Playing Steelband at Toronto’s annual Caribana celebrations for an unprecedented 30th time. Earl La Pierre, Sr. has garnered 31 wins out of 40 competition entries, placing second 8 times, and third once.

In 2002 in recognition of his contribution to the steelband movement at the annual Snowflakes of Steel show, the Pan Arts Network made Earl La Pierre their first ambassador of the Pioneer In Pan Award. This was followed by the Counsel General Diaspora Award for excellence in 2008 and then the 2010 Caribana Tribute Award.

Currently the La Pierre Family Steelband consists of three boys and one girl. Earl La Pierre, Jr. is a pan tutor in Toronto while Olujimi teaches in Grand Cayman and Noel teaches in Trinidad.

During the discourse, Clifton questioned the purpose of a set of PHIs (Percussive Harmonic Instruments) on location at Afropan’s Pan Theatre near Lamport Stadium in Toronto, during the band’s rehearsal prior to the 2010 Pan Alive competition. In response Earl quipped that they were simply for display purposes. Again Clifton asked La Pierre if, in his view, the PHI could ever be incorporated into the traditional steelband.  La Pierre appeared to have eluded the question and threw it back at Clifton.

Clifton then drew reference to the PanJazz fest held the previous evening atop the San Fernando Hill in Trinidad. He cited the use of the PHI by two of the pan bards – Darren Sheppard and Earl Brooks of the Kenny Phillips–led 90.1 Degrees Band.  Sheppard played three instruments – the traditional ping–pong (1940s), the modern tenor/soprano and the PHI, which he referred to as the ‘futuristic’ pan, but said he would rather stick to his “Betsy” – the conventional tenor.

In elaboration Clifton referred to a chat he had with Professor Brian Copeland of UWI (University of the West Indies) the same evening with respect to Sheppard’s reference to the PHI as part of the pan family. The Professor lamented the assertion positing that the PHI – Percussive Harmonic Instrument - in the strictest sense is not a pan.  It is the marriage of pan and modern technology. Its DNA link to pan is its shape and note layout. The goodly Doctor reckons that one can call it a PHI Pan if one thinks of Pan as its surname. For those who are still working hard to get it to a level of product of which the nation could be proud, it is just a ‘PHI’.  The inventors, apart from Copeland, include Keith Maynard, Marcel Byron and Earl Phillips.

Pan Diaspora brings to bear individuals who promote the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago in the Pan Diaspora.


by Hollis Clifton

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