Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Dr. Dawn K. Batson - Chairperson for the Visual and Performing Arts, Professor of Music, Intellectual, Artist and Mentor - speaks on Pan & Panorama

“I have also tried to share my belief that music should never be stagnant. Moments of beauty are often created by those willing to stretch (and sometimes burst) the boundaries. That is not to say that complexity is the answer for often the simplest response is the best. The essences I have found and have tried to pass along are respect and truth – to the music and to self.”   Dr. Dawn Batson

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - panist, Director of Florida Memorial University Steelband - Dr. Dawn Batson - shares her overall views on Pan, Panorama and more...

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

WST - “You are an educator, a performer and an artist. Which role do you relish most?”

Dr. Batson - “I think that the role of educator allows me to utilize many facets of my being. Inside and outside the classroom you assume multiple personas to reach your students. You perform; you compose; you mentor; you do what is needed to open the floodgates of your students’ intellectual and artistic power. You also, perhaps most difficult of all, step out of the limelight at times to give them the room and opportunity to shine. This is what I relish – those moments when my students show that they have the courage to tackle the seemingly impossible and the spirit to enjoy the challenge.”

WST - “Some of the most talented young panists have emerged from under your tutelage - Leon Foster Thomas, Kendall Williams, Freddy Harris III, Khuent Rose, Iman Pascall, Kenneth Headley, Kareem Thompson, Le’Roi Simmonds and Shenelle Abraham among others to name a few. What is it about your approach that has so inspired, nurtured and produced such great steelpan music talent?”

Dr. Batson - “That is a question best answered by my students past and present. All the panists mentioned and others whose journey I have shared, have been mentored and taught by many others beside myself who played integral roles in their development. I was fortunate enough to perhaps assist them at different points in their lives. I have tried to expose them to the past, present and future of the movement in practical ways – in the yards, in the music, and through the voices of those with experience. I have also tried to give them room to experiment and grow. Those who have been most successful have two things in common; the passion to pursue their art and the humility to learn from those whose experience might shed some light on their pursuit.

Dr. Ellie Mannette, Dr. Dawn Batson and the late Ralph MacDonald
Dr. Dawn Batson, Ellie Mannette, Ralph MacDonald

“Many years ago I decided that the future of the steelband movement lay in the hands of panists who had an all-round education. Not only musical expertise, but experience of the world’s panyards and knowledge of the history of the movement. To me there is no movement forward without knowledge and acknowledgement of the past. I hope I have been able to share the respect that I have for those who forged and continue to forge the steelband and the steelband movement. I have also tried to share my belief that music should never be stagnant. Moments of beauty are often created by those willing to stretch (and sometimes burst) the boundaries. That is not to say that complexity is the answer for often the simplest response is the best. The essences I have found and have tried to pass along are respect and truth – to the music and to self.”

WST - “There have been some significant accomplishments by women in Pan this past year. Is this what you expected at this time? Or is this too little, too late? Meaning the great talents and potentials that were passed on or underdeveloped will never be reclaimed?”

Dr. Batson - “Women have always played an integral role in the steelband movement though that role has not always been acknowledged. I am not surprised by the gains that have been made or that will be made in the near and far future. The genie is out of the box. Women now have equal access to education; opportunities to perform, compose and arrange; support from family; and they have always had the ability. Those who were not afforded the opportunity in the past channeled their creativity in other areas to the movement’s loss but to perhaps unrelated gains.

“Many, both male and female, ensured that their daughters would be able to take advantage of everything that the movement has now to offer and today we see the strides that these daughters have made. In rejoicing over the achievements of our young women however, we must not now neglect our young men. We must now strive to ensure that every child has the opportunity to realize his or her full potential.”

WST - “Is Pan where it should be after 50 years? Or is this journey so improbable that it can’t really be measured or quantified?”

Dr. Batson - “The journey of the pan is indeed an amazing one by an amazing people. Fifty or sixty years in the life of a family of new instruments are not that long. Relative to the development of other instrumental families in the world, the journey of the Pan has been quite spectacular. Even before the advent of the Internet and the ensuing ease of globalism, the Pan, carried far and wide by its proponents, had made its mark. Proponents such as Hugh Borde, Michael Kernahan, Othello Mollineaux and countless others ensured that today the instrument has touched almost every corner of the world. Those of us who share nationhood with the Pan and indeed many others, sometimes feel that we lag far behind in terms of what has been done for the instrument and its proponents and what can be done. In many instances we may be correct but it is always easier to coach from the sidelines than to play the actual game. To ensure the future of the movement we must each in our own way do the best that we can to ensure the growth of the instrument and music. One of the first ways is to support the work of others, look for and celebrate the good and work to eliminate the bad. We must remember though that what we view as the road’s end may be from another’s perspective, the light at the tunnel’s end and a new beginning.”

WST - “What has been your great disappointment, and great joy - in Pan?”

Dr. Batson - “My disappointment has been that still in the country of its birth the Pan is used as a political tool. Governments start perhaps viable projects that rarely have the opportunity to succeed as it seems unless successive governments can gain kudos for creation they tend to destroy, or by ignoring, achieve the same goal. Governments regardless of party need to look at the long-term benefits of each program to the steelband movement in particular and to Trinidad and Tobago in general. My disappointment has also been that the economic power of the instrument has not been harnessed to the benefit of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.

“My joy in Pan has been to see the continued work in research and development of the instrument and its music by those across the world. Often this work has been done at great sacrifice to self and family. The dedication to and love of the art that has been shown by persons worldwide has also brought me great joy and confidence in the future.”

WST - “Pan is much more than an instrument - it is a culture. Will the cultural aspects of Pan eventually fade as it moves globally?”

Tropical Angel Harps Steel Orchestra orchestra on stage
Tropical Angel Harps Steel Orchestra

Dr. Batson - “To me, pan has a soul. There is a spiritual element that has come down through the years. I have seen the reaction to the Pan in many different cultural settings. In all circumstances it has been the same – the joy, the connection, the search to learn about this instrument. Even though the instrument can move effortlessly through many musical genres the drive to understand its roots remain. Regardless of where it travels the Pan will always be the child of Trinidad and Tobago. The essence of Pan will be retained.”

WST - “Is Panorama a curse or a blessing? Has the competitive aspect of the event curtailed creativity, or has it inspired (and does it continue to) - musical pieces that last a lifetime?”

Dr. Batson - “Panorama has been perhaps a curse to some and a blessing to others. The competition on the streets has moved to the stage inspiring many works of enduring value. It has brought people of different creeds, races and classes together to pursue a similar goal and it has elevated whole communities. On the other hand the search for the right formula has pushed some bands to hire “winning” arrangers rather than develop arrangers from within the band or give young and vibrant arrangers an opportunity. Some bands have focused on playing for the judges rather than supporting arrangers and performers in their quest for musical excellence.

“As a whole though when one looks back at the music of Panorama over the years, there are many works that stand out and will stand the test of time. Our arrangers of yesterday and today are our future Bachs and Coltranes. The drive to win has forced some to “play it safe” but it has inspired others to break rules and soar.”

WST - “What’s the cultural significance of Panorama music? Should the music attempt to reflect, rebuke or reshape the society?”

Exodus Steel Orchestra
Exodus Steel Orchestra

Dr. Batson - Panorama music has long walked hand in hand with calypso. Calypso has been our magic mirror – reflecting our past and giving us a glimpse of our future. The music of Panorama has allowed us to tell our stories not only through verse and band choruses but through images conjured by the musical riffs. Masterpieces such as Clive Bradley’s arrangement of “Sailing,” Boogsie’s “I Music,” Jit’s arrangement of “Pan in “A” Minor,” Holman’s “Pan on the Move” to name just a few, are joined by many other works by talented arrangers and composers that will stand the test of time. That is the cultural significance of the best Panorama music - the story of a people in song and music; by the people through lightning hands, creative arrangements and long, disciplined nights; and for the people shown in all the communities of support and big men who cry when results are announced. The music speaks for the society and for those who sometimes may feel they have no voice.

WST - “As the “old guard” step to the rear, are the up-and-coming talents prepared to maintain and further develop this great gift called Pan - that the elders bestowed on them?”

Dr. Batson - “You only have to look at what is happening even this year in the Panorama arena for the answer to this question. So many young arrangers taking on the Big Stage and doing so not only with the tools necessary to achieve their goals but the courage to fight for their musical vision. That is the key to the development of the music and the instrument.”

WST - “What are your expectations and vision for the future of Pan?”

Dr. Batson - “I expect the instrument will expand upon and continue to hold its own in the music classrooms of the world. The fourths and fifths tenor is an excellent teaching tool and the instruments themselves globally evoke a strong and positive response. I think that greater research and development will take place. Not only on the instruments, but in terms of playing techniques and experimentation on achieving a wider range of musical textures. The digital revolution will continue but at least for the foreseeable future, the Pan, the near original, will continue to spread its message to the world.”

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