Global - Here, in an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview with When Steel Talks (WST), Soca Diva, songstress and steelband music songwriter Destra Garcia expounds on her special relationship and love affair with the steelpan instrument, the music and culture.
WST - “In addition to your popular music works - the name Destra has been associated with pan for some time now. When and how did you first connect with pan?”
Destra - “Actually, before I even became the popular Destra everybody knows of - while I sang calypso in primary school, secondary school - I actually did make about three pan songs (“We Pan” which talks about the invention of pan from Tamboo Bamboo drums, slavery and that sort of thing and the other song is “Soca Pan” talking about the melodies and the symphonies and how it makes you move. I grew up listening to pan. My uncles [Kelvin and Reginald “[Snagga)” Alexander - in Desperadoes.... Reginald has been playing since age ten] were involved in pan; they still are - they were affiliated to WITCO Desperadoes as I grew up in Laventille. Every Carnival Friday - it was routine for me - every year, to wear a Despers pan T-shirt and to go to school with it. I was always exited about the new T Shirt they came out with. You know, I was always around pan. I was even around when Rudolph Charles died and saw them take his chariot through the hills. I was always very inspired and touched by pan. The first person that actually made me record - a pan song - was André Tanker, with ‘Rollercoaster.’ And I think that was my first official recording that was ever played on the radio. I’m not sure what year that was... But I believe that two years or maybe a year after that, it caught the attention of Mark Loquan. And he really found that I was an inspired writer and he wanted us to work [together].
“It was quite different from doing party songs... or songs that are slower, or that make you gyrate or wine - but because of the emotions that is in pan - going to panorama in Trinidad and Tobago and remembering the nostalgia involved with it - it is quite easy to just be a part of it. So I think that was the first connection - one unofficial, and one official - with Mark.”
WST - “Have you ever played pan?”
Destra - “Actually my uncle (Snagga) - the same one I was talking about - he tried to make me learn when I was younger - he is actually one of the first people that taught me how to read music. I don’t play any instrument now. When I was in school I was having a lot difficulties in reading music and passing my music exams - and he showed me how to play pan. I learned one song but I don’t think instruments were my thing, my forte. I was gravitating toward singing and, you know, composing - that sort of thing. But I have played - I can’t say I haven’t.”
Destra - “For the past three years we have been working with Professor Philmore - this year when they brought the melodies to me - because that is what they do - they bring the melody and production to me and then I just do the lyrics; when I heard the first song which was “Surrender” - I tried to feed of their vibe - of where they wanted to go; you know - it’s a collective thing. The music make you feel like you just want to surrender, just release - everything, you know? Then we started to think about the music... The way how pan, the evolution of pan now, so much so that people gravitate more towards the party songs and the trucks, and taking music where it use to be. And then I started to remember that this year when “Boogsie” Sharpe got his award - he was most disenchanted with the pan and where it was going, and he said that “pan is dead.” So I mean, I echoed his sentiments, you know, especially as someone who is involved in the “other” [party] genre of music - that people, you know, would think is ‘killing pan’ - like “party songs.” People want to go party, people want to go on cruises. People not really gravitating towards the pan music, especially the younger generation.
“So - I thought that I could let the people know, that if we “surrender” - to music - and not just think about it just being pan - but the music in pan: “Surrender and give yourself to me”- would feel good. Just how the music making you ‘Ramajay,’ look how the music making you ‘Dingolay’ - don’t think about it as Pan music. Just surrender to the music. Feel it, you know? Live it, Enjoy it. Just as how you would feel to jump and wave - feel the elements of pan and make it move you.
“I tried to get back to the sentiments of old, when I use to go to panorama with my uncles and see Despers come down from the hills and everybody supporting them - not just the group that are your neighbors or your friends - but hearing the different compositions and arrangements of the songs... Young people need to experience that. And I don’t think they give themselves and give the music enough of a chance to do that. So ‘Surrender’ is all about letting go, and letting the music take control.”
WST - “And ‘Rewind’?”
Destra - “And ‘Rewind’ - you have to reflect back to what “Boogsie” Sharpe said - that “pan is dead.” I started to think: “You know what? Pan is a woman - I am a woman. I wanted to personify Pan as a woman, put it out as a woman because I wanted to relate to it, in a very vivid sense. I am thinking that if Pan and I are the same, and I am a woman, and all of a sudden my lover, or my husband, or the people that love me.... I turned the entire pan fraternity into one ‘being’ - you know, my husband - or my lover. And all of a sudden, there is no love for me. I feel dead. I feel sadness because, you know, it’s like a woman being replaced by something new - someone new. So - once you feel like something is wrong with you, you feel like: ‘what happened to the good times? Did I do something wrong? Can’t we just go back to that, can’t we just go back to the way things used to be?’
“‘There was a time when you loved me for me. We went through all these things together... before we shared our first passionate kiss; we shared our first passionate embrace; you were so fascinated with me, you know.’ And I tried to relate all that back to pan, to the creators, the tamboo bamboo evolution, the whole creation with Winston Spree - and these are some people where - they took pan from just being one instrument and turned it into a whole lot of different types - created the steelband.
“You know, I tried to do a song that could give you a history lesson, as well as a sentimental record, you understand? I got into it, I really got into it as a person! To make people understand that listen ‘I’m crying out to you - as a woman. Love me; let’s go back. Let’s go back to what we know. “Rewind.” Time to rewind; time to rewind; go back in time.’ So that was the whole concept. I was trying to take that statement that Boogsie Sharpe made, which is a really real one, and try to fix whatever is there - you know, in my own way. So one song - that’s why I could not do one song this year [there was so much to say!]”
WST - “Over the years, which development in the steelpan art form has pleased, or struck a chord within you, most?”
Destra - “Well by the time I was already of age to experience pan, you already had the developments [inventing & manufacturing] of the different types of pan.... A lot of the people who were involved in the arranging process - like [Clive] Bradley; a lot of different people - Robert Greenidge, “Boogsie” Sharpe; I mean - we could go on and on. Ken “Professor” Philmore, definitely. You know, a lot of these people - the way how they [the arrangers] interpret pan, and make it into something very creative - they take a song, and then they hear other melodies that would sound good on pan, not necessarily something that you would normally hear, unless you hear it being done. Creation of these different types of things - that impresses me. I mean, you have one creator - of lyrics. Yeah, you could create lyrics, or you can write a song, or you could perform it and interpret it your own way, add your ‘ad libs’ - whatever. But when somebody takes a song that’s already done. and still put parts to it that would sound good on pan and make it sound like - really angelic, that is amazing.
“Also - I like the fact that pan has gone worldwide. When I see Chinese people beating pan, for example, you know, it’s like ‘Wow, this is the pan that evolved in the Caribbean - from nothing. And people all over the world are embracing it. So much so that they use it; when we have these pan festivals, and all these different people come from all over the world - to play. And you see how much they embrace it, how much they love it, and they put their own interpretation to it - that is something to feel proud about. I’m impressed, at the same time.”
WST - “What in the steelpan artform do you find to be problematic or disappointing?”
Destra - “Well, I was actually first disappointed when they actually moved Pan from the Savannah, because that was something traditional. I am not going to knock anybody for it, like say - it’s this one’s fault, or it’s that one’s fault; because I don’t want to get into the personal aspect of it. But all I know is that as someone who actually supports pan - the whole idea of the Savannah is - what Pan is. And that was disappointing to me at first.
“It is also disappointing to me that not a lot of youngsters are exposed [to,] or love Pan the way they should. I know that they tried to introduce Pan in Schools, and they tried to do a lot of different things, but you know - maybe the radio stations? I think it is disappointing that they don’t play more pan as part of their daily rotation/play list, but they focus on the ‘party tunes.’ Which I could understand as a DJ, that’s the music you feel. But still - a lot more of the DJs and the people in charge should take time, to experience the national instrument for what it’s worth, and the music that is used to highlight the national instrument, and play pan songs on the radios.
“For me, it’s sad that, you know, you put all this work into a pan song - as you would say a “pan song”- you know, (which I really don’t think, it have any such thing as a “pan song,” you know) - it’s music. And you [DJs] would play any other Destra [song] on the radio. But you would not play ‘Rewind’ or you would not play “Surrender” or you wouldn’t play “Colours Again.” Unless it becomes a ‘big tune.’ And you know it. I think they should give “pan songs” a space - I think that pan songs should have a place on the radio, and to be heard for what it is, and to be loved for what it’s worth. Because we have a lot of fans out there - of pan music - just like we have a lot of fans out there of soca, or ragga soca, or the slow groove soca. I think that is disappointing - that we don’t have an equal forum for that [pan music and pan songs].”
WST - “You’ve answered above, in part, the next question that we have for you, which is: what would you like to see happen for the so-called “pan tune” in the future?”
Destra - “Well, yeah, I guess I answered part. The so-called pan tune, apart from the radio play - I think that people need to be very creative in what we write, you know. I’m not saying don’t mention pan in the songs. But let’s get away from the concept of - we’re writing a “pan” tune, and we need to talk about the steelband, and the “dis and the dat.” Now take music for pan. I’m trying to create music - alongside Mark [Loquan] and “Professor” [Philmore] - that doesn’t really say “pan.” It’s difficult; it’s work in progress, because when the arrangement say pan, it is really difficult not to mention pan. Let’s get more creative so that we can attract a different audience. Let’s get more creative so that the youngsters who are into other things, gravitate toward the lyrics, and feel it in a different way so that maybe, you know, they would be more interested.
“And I’m not saying to take away the melodies and the harmonies that make it a so-called ‘pan tune; but let’s revamp the whole thing. We do have a different generation. We have Michael Jackson, for example, who is somebody our parents and grandparents listened to. But he found a way to reinvent himself for this generation, you know. And if he could do it, and live, then live on as the King of Pop, and die, and have such a magnanimous impact on the world - in death, then we need to do something about this music that we call “Pan music.” We cannot expect the young people to gravitate towards it when there is so much more out there that interests them so. So we need to find that niche, that niche that makes pan interesting and lovable again. I would like to see pan go there.”
WST - “What is next for Destra Garcia?”
Destra - “You mean apart from having my baby? [Destra laughs - her baby is due in two weeks.] “Well, this year  I decided to stay out of Carnival - for the obvious reason. I think that I am probably going to still do my tours as usual when Carnival is over, but I am going to be planning a very intense ‘comeback,’ I think. I already miss Carnival, I haven’t really gotten into gear as yet, but I already miss not being able to go on stage, and I know that I am going to get a serious ‘tabanca’ [longing] when I see everybody else performing, and I can’t; I have been a part of Carnival ever since I was ten years old. You know - it is strange for me to just have one song on the radio playing, one up-tempo song. You know my pan songs are doing great as usual.
“I think I am going to plan, maybe, a great comeback - in the sense of, you know, reinvention; maybe, or just, you know - making it a big deal - that I am back. A lot of people are telling me that they are going to miss me for Carnival; I’m going to miss them too. So when I get back on that stage - I want to make it worth the while, not just for them, but for me as well - just be the best performer that I could be as well, again - I always try to do that. But to come back in a different way; as a Mother, I think I am probably going to have a different perspective on a lot of things. I don’t think it’s gonna change me as a performer per se. But getting this ‘down’ [pregnancy] time, I’m getting a lot of time to reflect on myself - as an artist - and as you know, we need to grow.”
More on Destra Garcia
Leave a comment in the WST forum