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Pan Visionary Hollis Clifton in the Spotlight

A SteelpanVibes interview by Barbara Sealy Rhoden

Hollis J. Clifton - Pan Diaspora Visionary
Hollis J. Clifton
Pan Diaspora Visionary

Florida, USA
Spotlight Guest:  Hollis John Clifton, Teacher/Guidance Counselor/ Motivational Speaker/Videographer
Spotlight Theme: “Growing appreciation for the steelpan internationally”

Barbara - Greetings and welcome to the SteelpanVibes Spotlight, Mr. Clifton.  I’ve been giving our listeners some highlights of your career and the many hats you’ve worn over the years, especially your involvement in the steelpan art form. During this interview I’d like you to talk about how you see Pan growing internationally.

Tell us briefly how you first became involved in the steelpan art form?  What motivated you and what was the social environment like then?

Clifton - Thank you Barbara, for the invitation to share my experience with you and your listeners.
It was during my student tenure in England in the early 1970s, as fate would have it I became a member of the Ebony Steelband. But, with the social stigma attached to the steelband that feat could not have occurred with the type of parents I had in Trinidad. I eventually became Ebony’s PRO where I was responsible for introducing “pan on wheels” with canopy … the first of its kind in the UK and by extension Europe. I also instigated the concept of (so called) steelband sponsorship. (St Clair’s Hair Stylists, Marble Arch, London).

Barbara - You spent 18 years teaching Social Studies at Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive School in Trinidad (equivalent to high school for 12 to 17 year olds) and you managed the school’s steel orchestra.  What were some of the highlights of that experience?

Clifton - This was an historic period for me and for the Pleasantville Pan fraternity as we had the privilege of working with the likes of Ken “Professor” Philmore.  “Pro” inspired a whole lot of panists some of whom have become top players and/or arrangers on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. These include Liam Teague, Darren Sheppard, Leon “Foster” Thomas, Dwight & Darryl Belgrove, Curtis “Sleepy” Marcelle, Roger Charles, Sean Ramsey, Wentworth & Brent Richardson, Ancel Webb, Darrel Edwards, Aldon Moore, Richard Ian Gittens, Ian “Cokie” Beckles, Wade “Blobber” Austin, Sherwin Cooper and Rawle Mootilal among others.

Pleasantville was the feeder school for most of the community Pan sides in and around San Fernando, especially around Panorama time. The group was the backbone of the school’s then-roving “Performing Arts Society (PAS).” In that respect Pleasantville was the envy of most schools in T&T (Trinidad & Tobago)… and by extension the Caribbean.  We were the first school steelband to acquire our own set of instruments  - and thus never had to go to any outside Pan theatre to practice.  For a while we were the only steelband representing South Trinidad for schools Panorama and Music Festival…  
PS: we almost got into trouble with the law for playing Pan on the road without a police permit for San Fernando Kiddies Carnival Street Parade.

Barbara - From 1999 to 2007 you taught in schools in Africa.   How did that come about and what role did the steelpan play there?  Did your students see a connection between the African drum and the steelpan?

Clifton - I taught, firstly, in Nigeria (1978-79) and more recently in Botswana. I left a teaching career in the UK in favour of another in Nigeria. There I acquired a tenor pan from the Trinidad and Tobago High Commission in Lagos. This I used to accompany sing-a-longs at the weekend retreats at the Children’s House School, Abeokuta, Ogun State - the boarding school to which I was the House Master. However, a few months prior to my arrival on that continent’s most populous state, the steelpan had already made its mark when Starlift Steel Orchestra represented Trinidad & Tobago at Nigeria’s FESTAC (Festival of Arts and Culture, 1977).  

Many years later, in 1999, in response to an invitation by the Government of Botswana to assist in the development of the country’s human potential, I picked up a teaching assignment for Moral Education in the “landlocked diamond rich” State. I was the first to introduce the steelpan to a number of state schools – Lobsec, Marang CJSS, Tloga Tloga CJSS, and Rainbow High School.

My students readily saw the link between the steel drums (Pan) and the African drums as they were both percussive/acoustic instruments. The marimbas, however, were more significant as a “twinning factor” as they both required a pair of sticks (mallets) to play and were national instruments of their respective states with the Pan emerging from the African Diaspora – Trinidad & Tobago.

Barbara - Why did you introduce the instrument and how did the students respond?

Clifton - It was by pure accident that in 1999 I was “knocking pan” in the Grand Palm Hotel in Gaborone, Botswana awaiting my posting to Lobsec (Lobatse Secondary School) in Southern Botswana when my services were solicited to assist the organisers of Miss Botswana Universe competition. I obliged … emerging as the dance choreographer cum panist for the pageant. I evidently ended up teaching the winner, Ms. Mpule Kwalagobe, to play the steelpan and generally preparing her for the Miss Universe finals, which coincidentally, was hosted by Trinidad & Tobago. She eventually emerged the winner following on the heels of Wendy Fitzwilliam of Trinidad & Tobago who won the title in 1998.

Barbara - Tell us about the steelpan ensemble you led in Botswana?

Clifton - Being in Botswana was either make or break and I surely didn’t break. The opportunity saw me founding my own family steelband – Kaisoka (with Mokojumbies). We traversed most of the countries in Southern Africa. (Unlike my sojourn in West Africa where I was a one-man band).

We received special invitations to provide the rhythm section in support of the touring West Indies Cricket Team at various stadia throughout Zimbabwe and South Africa. The steelpan was the drawing card for people of Caribbean origin who were sojourned in various states in Africa as well as Europe. Some supporters even came all the way from the West Indies  I seized the opportunity to merge the traditional marimbas with the steelpans for “World Teachers Day” with fellow teachers from Marang Community Junior Secondary School. This was a special feature at the Botswana National Stadium.

Barbara - Part of your international Pan experience took place in London where you performed and worked with Ebony Steelband.  When did this take place and what did you learn from that experience?

Clifton - “Nuff Respect” to the Ebony experience as, believe it or not, that encounter together with my Caribbean background landed me my first job as a teacher, without me having to apply for same.

I had not even completed my final exams in college (Digby Stewart) when I was made the offer. Normally foreign students were expected to return home at the expiration of the visa. But, one needs to appreciate that in the 1970s London was experiencing the development of the second generation Caribbean youth who found it difficult to identify with the schools’ ethos. (Mind you … there were little or no professionals that looked like them) Ipso facto, the ILEA (Inner London Education Authority) must have been taking affirmative action to address a situation in which children of colour in the school system were simply being referred to as ESN (Educationally Subnormal). That had a lot to do with cultural differences. That was a massive learning curve for me.

Again, with annual trips to Huddersfield, Ebony helped to establish that carnival which for a while was second to Notting Hill’s. We were also doing the club circuits – upstairs Ronnie Scotts (Jazz) to concert halls – Royal Albert Hall to Wembley Stadium to open for Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones Concert Tour. That was an exceptional learning curve.       

Barbara - Over the years, you’ve played Pan on three continents.  What is most outstanding about the growth of the steelpan art form in each continent?

Clifton - The UK almost certainly was the first PAN DIASPORA simply because of the arrival of TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra) to participate in the Festival of Britain in 1951. TASPO presented the newly-invented Steelpan to an international audience for the first time ever.  Following the demise of TASPO, Nostalgia emerged as the first steelband outside the Caribbean.

The teaching of Pan in schools, however, began in 1969 in London under the tutelage of Gerald Forsyth at Islington Green School and before long a department for steelpan tuition was set up.

I recalled by sheer accident a school in Croydon (south of London) had sent a group of students outside as a form of punishment where they began a rhythmic clapping in the school yard. This immediately drew the attention of the rest of the school’s populace. That event served as a fillip for the introduction of the steelpan to that group who were largely of Caribbean extract. Back in the Caribbean in 1949 the Antigua Steelband Association was formed.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic it was as early as 1951 Winston Spree Simon got a contract to teach Pan music at University of Nigeria & Ghana. I am not sure how that panned out.

Barbara - What do you see as the value of the steelpan art form in the teaching of children?

Clifton - Pan, like other forms of music education, not only enhances a child’s academic performance in Math and Science, it also encourages teamwork, communication and other social skills that are critical to the success as an adult.  Intercultural education also has a marked effect on the social and personal development of students.

Pluralism in practice means that different cultural and ethnic groups in the society do not merely exist side by side but understand sympathetically each other's folkways, lifestyles, customs, literature and aspirations.  This is now a challenge in education, as the diversity of the school population has resulted in the need for an appropriate response.  Hence schools have a crucial role to play in attaining the aims of multicultural society.

Barbara - As a performing artist and trainer, what were some of the challenges you overcame to reach your goals?  Give us one or two examples.

Clifton - Well, well … At many a gig I often had to explain to people that Trinidad & Tobago is not a part of Jamaica, but an independent state, at a distance of some 1852 kilometers away from each other.

Another challenge was that of proving to beholders that there were no electronic gadgets attached to the underside of the instrument while playing.

A few years ago I was driving my car in Gaborone (the capital of Botswana) when a Motswana pulled alongside, looked at a dangling CD with Trinidad &Tobago - inclusive of T&T national colours. His statement was “Hey, brother; Trinidad & Tobago - what part of Jamaica is that?”

Barbara - You are now based in Trinidad & Tobago, the home of the Steelpan.  What, in your view, needs to be done to promote Pan at home and internationally?

Clifton - In the first instance many people in T&T have not accepted the Steelpan as “our” national instrument. That in itself is, indeed, a challenge.

  • Secondly, Pan tuning together with music literacy should be taught as a subject in school… so there won’t be a problem replacing the current aging tuners – Lloyd Gay, Bertram “Birch” Kelman, Zuzie, Bertie Marshall et al.
  • Again - all instruments made in Trinidad & Tobago should include the stamp “Trinidad & Tobago the Home of the Steelpan” so that all Pans being exported will be able to market the country as “The Land of the Steelpan”
  • More Pan music should be played more often on the Radio and on TV
  • There needs to be training on an ongoing basis, say, like the OTJ (On the Job) program
  • A lot of schools do not have instruments and some of those with instruments have no tutors.
  • The tutors are employed on contract… suddenly as the contracts expire they are not being renewed
  • Pan Trinbago needs to stake its claim as the World Governing Body for Steel Pan; ongoing contact needs to be made with the other steel pan organizations overseas e.g. New York, BAS (British Association for Steelbands), Holland, etc. Pan Trinbago should be like what FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is to football.  No organization should be having a festival/competition without the input of Pan Trinbago.

Barbara - Hollis, our studio engineer—Dennis King—would like to ask you a couple of questions.

Dennis - What part does your national government play in fostering the ongoing development of the instrument?

Clifton - The previous administration introduced the “Pan in School Project” which has been going well for a number of years. However, there is cause for concern now as some schools have been awaiting promised instruments for over a year now without  explanation. 

The Ministry of Science and Technology has a program at UTT (University of Trinidad & Tobago) where young Pan tuners are being trained and the older ones are being graded from, for example, Grade 1 to Master Tuners etc.  That UTT program is headed by Bertie Marshall.

Dennis - What is the attitude of the government towards making it (Pan) more a national entity of Trinidad & Tobago?

Clifton - The answer here borders on “politricks” and if you don’t mind, I would rather stick to  Culture.  I just don’t want to open a can of worms.

In closing:  condolences to a former colleague of mine Selwyn Baptiste who passed away January 5 in the UK… he was a former drummer/panist who was at the forefront of the development of Caribbean Culture in the UK.

Thanks again, Barbara, for allowing me to make a contribution to your programme.

Barbara Sealey Rhoden
Barbara Sealey Rhoden
Producer & Host, SteelpanVibes


“Pan is our passport”

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