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Meet Soluna Garnes - Panist, Musician, Educator & Trinidad and Tobago’s Cultural Attaché to Brazil

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

by When Steel Talks

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Pioneer, Musician, Arranger and Conductor - Soluna Garnes shares her experiences, visions and overall thoughts as she takes on the challenge of introducing the Steelpan to the country of Brazil

Brazil, South America:

“Figuratively “FOGO and Steel” represents the fusion of Brazilian fire (Brazilian enthusiasm) and Trinidad and Tobago technology, which is the steelpan. But it is to be referred to as a twenty-first century concept as it represents a strong and revolutionary alliance between Trinidad & Tobago and Brazil through Culture, and specifically the steelpan instrument...”  Soluna Garnes

WST - “Tell us all about yourself.”

Soluna Garnes
Soluna Garnes

Soluna - “I am Soluna Garnes of Trinidadian origin and born of parents Lennox and Rosalind Sylvia Garnes, both musicians. I come from a musical generation – both sides of the family are music-based – so music inevitably forms part of my D.N.A.

Although I have a strong interest in sports - netball, swimming, athletics and football - my main focus in life has always been Music and Culture, as I have been indirectly involved in music practically since a baby, and directly involved since the age of three, starting with piano lessons at home with my mother.

“I play various instruments, including the piano, steelpan, various Brazilian percussion instruments such as the pandeiro, and I also sing. I participated successfully in various Music Festivals in Trinidad and Tobago and played the tenor pan with the Exodus Steel Orchestra for four years, after which I did Panorama judging.

“All in all, I am of the outgoing type, although at times, I prefer to remain reserved and reflective according to the type of situation. I also grew up to be a God-fearing person, and that has disciplined me till today in terms of decision-making, especially in the type of challenging “dog-eat-dog” world we live in today.”

WST - “We read where one of your goals is to have the ‘Steelpan’ instrument be a major player in the opening ceremonies of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. Is the interest in the steelpan instrument growing strong enough for that to become a working reality?  How is the pursuit of this particular goal going?”

Soluna - “To have the steelpan instrument be a major player in the opening ceremonies of both the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games has been one of my priority goals ever since I received the news that Brazil was selected to host these two prestigious World Games. I have always had a mission to showcase Trinidad and Tobago and its only real pride of the twentieth century - the steelpan - on an international level, ever since I came out to Brazil in 2003. I therefore thought that these two occasions would be wonderful opportunities to achieve my goal, whether or not the country would have made it to the Games.

“The reality of the fact, however, is that, although the Brazilians love the steelpan dearly and have always been highly receptive to, not only the steelpan and Caribbean culture, but also to other musical instruments and cultures all over the globe; and also, in spite of much advertisement and promotion (fervent, though still quite minimal for Brazil's population of almost 200 million), the interest in the steelpan instrument still has not reached a level sufficient enough to forfeit its purpose in the international arena at two such prestigious world-renowned games, even in the third world country that Brazil is.

“The possibilities are still high though for the steelpan to be a major part of the Games, as it is something new, exciting and ground breaking in terms of World Entertainment, and Brazilians LOVE that sort of thing, even though it comes from another country. However, in order to propel the Pan to this height and convince authorities, all peoples - the old and the young - Trinidad and Tobago and Brazil would need to forge a strong and immediate alliance in the area of CULTURE, through which Trinidad and Tobago would be able to triple its forces and literally exploit the almost 10-year advantage which it has had in Brazil through the fact of my being here investing my time, effort, belief and personal minimal funding in a land where steelpan hasn’t gone before.”

Steelpan in Brazil
Soluna Garnes & Steelpan in Brazil

WST - “You won a scholarship to study Music at the State University of *Campinas* in Sao *Paulo*, Brazil in 2004. You started with Classical Piano as your instrument of choice, and then changed your studies to Classical Percussion. Why?”

Soluna - “My having come from a musical family and played the piano from since a young age made my decision to take up Classical Piano studies at university level the easiest and perhaps the most obvious thing to do. It took me a year after the start of the course though to realise that, having already done my A.T.C.L. (Associate Trinity College London) - a very challenging British Piano Recital examination - two years before beginning the university piano course, I was already way ahead of my year group, I could have chosen to make better use of the scholarship I had won.

“The decision then was to do a double major - Piano and Percussion; percussion because of my direct involvement in the steelpan already at the university. I was the only one there at the time from Trinidad and Tobago (and still am) and the only one to present steelpan culture to the university community and Brazil as a whole. Doing a double major, however, along with the huge responsibility of representing Trinidad and Tobago as cultural ambassador made things difficult, time consuming and therefore challenging.

“I then resolved to focus specifically on Classical Percussion, something which allowed me to concentrate all my energies on just percussion-related instruments - both classical and popular - in such a way as to include the steelpan as a natural part of my music course. The idea was to gradually introduce the steelpan into the university arena: I thought that once the steelpan could be accepted at Brazilian university level, it would have been much easier for it to be accepted, respected and integrated into the wider Brazilian community.”

WST - “You started the first steelband at the State University of *Campinas.* How did that come about?”

Soluna - “My having started the first ever university steel band in Brazil; and at such a prestigious Latin American university as is the State University of Campinas, was certainly a great accomplishment for me after three years of constant steelpan promotion at the university through popular music shows, classical concerts and university music workshops.

“Although my mother was at the time still living in Trinidad and Tobago while myself in Brazil, she always continued to support me in my efforts to promote the steelpan in Brazil. One day, she resolved to show her appreciation and her willingness to see me move forward and achieve my purpose by investing in the donation of a few pans to the university. When I got the news, I decided to negotiate with the Head of the Music Department at the university, who accepted the proposal, and further arranged for my mother to travel over to Brazil to even give a steelpan workshop at the Music Department of the Arts Institute. The students showed great enthusiasm and awe towards the unique opportunity they had received, and after the workshop, TV interviews and presentations, they resolved to continue the band with myself as music arranger and conductor.”

Steelpan in Brazil
Soluna Garnes and Steel Orchestra in Brazil

WST - “How did you get around the language challenge?”

Soluna - “Well (laugh), as the saying goes "Practice makes perfect", and that has been the key to my getting around the challenging language that Portuguese is. Although I had already had a good language background based on the one-year Spanish and French courses I had done at university level back at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, Portuguese still proved to be a steep mountain climb, as actually, it is not quite like Spanish, and also not quite like French; it is more complex. I am accustomed saying that Portuguese is like advanced level Spanish at post-graduate level (laugh).

I do admit that I 'have a knack' for languages, but really and truly, what helps anyone to pick up a new language quickly is by 'jumping directly into the fire'. That means going out there and experiencing live what that new language is all about through actually living in the country where the language is spoken. Learning Portuguese for me was quite a challenge. I must confess though that it was also exciting - an experience which I would not mind having all over again (laugh). All in all, challenge is good. It helps us to discover what good we sometimes don't even know about ourselves…”

WST - What exactly is "FOGO (Fire) and Steel" and what are its goals?

Soluna -  ‘FOGO (Fire) and Steel’ is more than just a name. It is a concept; a twenty-first century concept which speaks both literally and figuratively.

“Literally, ‘FOGO and Steel’ is the fusion of the two elements fire and steel – essential components without which the steelpan instrument would not exist. One compliments the other, and that is the basis of the steelpan; the ground work upon which musical harmony will be later emanated. “FOGO & Steel” contemplates the steelpan as the prevailing global thrust of the twenty-first century in terms of music technology, and therefore, that is its gold-mine activity.

Figuratively, "FOGO and Steel" represents the fusion of Brazilian fire (Brazilian enthusiasm) and Trinidad and Tobago technology, which is the steelpan. But it is to be referred to as a twenty-first century concept as it represents a strong and revolutionary alliance between Trinidad & Tobago and Brazil through Culture, and specifically the steelpan instrument – something which neither of the two countries have had in the history of its existence. This is definitely a historical achievement as it serves as the unique doorway through which open negotiations and fortified business connections between the two countries will be able to exist in various business segments such as trade, industry, commerce, culture, sport, tourism and government.

With this in mind, "FOGO & Steel's" goals are vivid and specifically aligned to the aims and objectives of the Trinidad & Tobago Government in relation to Brazil, established by Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, prior to Trinidad & Tobago’s participation in the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in April, 2011:

  1.  To raise the Trinidad and Tobago profile.

  2. To attract investments.

  3. To contribute towards economic diversification.

  4. To establish ties between Brazil and Trinidad and Tobago, creating more market     access for Trinidad and Tobago entrepreneurs within Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean. And a fifth reason contemplated by FOGO & Steel:

  5. To serve as a medium for the merging of Brazilian and Trinidad and Tobago cultures, principally through the steelpan.”

WST - “What have been some of the major challenges you have faced in Brazil?

Soluna - Without a doubt, the challenges I that have faced during the almost ten-year period I have been in Brazil have been countless. First of all, we are speaking about a third world country - BRAZIL - where football is really the main attraction, as compared to music-related activities (not meaning that Brazilians also do not manifest a strong interest in music; after all, samba and bossa nova also do come from Brazil). But we are speaking about diverting the attention of a population of almost 200 million people from a prevailing national sport, which is FOOTBALL, to a new (and foreign) attraction in the area of MUSIC, which is the steelpan. As we say in Trinidad, in order for something like that to happen successfully, "yuh hadda come good"! For you to have an idea, imagine a Brazilian trying to convince the whole of Trinidad and Tobago that "steelpan is not the real thing" as compared to SAMBA DANCING. …And that is still a mild example, as dance is still related to music and vice versa, and therefore that Brazilian could always choose to wisely incorporate samba dancing into Trinbagonian culture through the use of steelpan music accompaniment, for instance... Here though, we are talking about SPORT and MUSIC. The difference is a lot more distinct.

With that in mind, I have gone through major challenges, such as the language barrier (at a business negotiation level, and with the added weight of insufficient Trinidad funding in order to propel my mission here); cultural differences, rigid (and sometimes laid-back) Brazilian protocol, such as their extremely bureaucratic procedure for clearance of foreign material (such as the steelpans, which are still therefore not known) at Customs; and prejudice, since, putting all joke aside, we are speaking about a young, black, middle-class, female foreigner battling against the devious rift between rich and poor in Brazil and attempting, without any sufficient source of financial funding to convince a foreign nation – Brazil – on a business level that the steelpan is an excellent investment.

I am neither rich nor poor, so neither side (rich nor poor) quite understands my mission here. That is the reality of the fact. The poor think that I am aiming for way higher than my social status and financial conditions can reach in terms of propelling the pan here to a national level; and to the rich (i.e. the business dealers) I also am aiming way higher than my social status and financial conditions can reach in terms of convincing Brazil to accept pan at such a high level as Trinidad and Tobago expects.”

WST - “Mr. Melville Woodrow Robin is your *grandfather* and he has played some significant roles in the history of Trinidad and Tobago music. How, if in any way, has he influenced you?”

Soluna - Mr. Melville Woodrow Robin was appointed Director of Culture of the Ministry of Education of Trinidad & Tobago during the reign of Dr. Eric Williams. He was also appointed Cultural Ambassador to various countries, with the mission of spreading Trinidad & Tobago’s culture nationally and internationally. Yes, he also did play an important role in the Music History of Trinidad and Tobago.

Mr. Robin, father of my mother, passed away one year before I was born, so I did not have the opportunity to meet him, unfortunately. I feel like I would have liked to have met him perhaps to better (and quicker) understand my life purpose. Nevertheless, I grew up with a mission in mind to do big things for Trinidad and Tobago, whether in the home country or abroad. It is as if my mission was something that was already running in the blood before I even knew who I wanted to be in life.

Today, I feel happy, fulfilled and excited to be able to carry out this cultural mission in the Latin American region of Brazil.”

WST - “How were you introduced to the steelpan instrument?”

Soluna - I was first introduced to the steelpan instrument when I was four (4) years old. I remember my parents had had a home steel band by the name of ‘Culture Circle’ in which I and all four brothers were obligated to participate. Actually, my mother also headed another band – the St. Xavier’s Private School’s stageside band – called ‘Culture Kids’.

When the ‘Culture Kids’ were invited on tour by the University of Miami in 1988, my mother felt I was too young to tour with the band in a foreign country as I was just five years old at the time going on six. I remember I felt that I should have been picked to go because I knew I didn’t play that badly at all. But “because of my size”, bigger children were chosen before me and just my two older brothers went along with my parents, the children and Mr. Desmond Waithe who accompanied as one of the band conductors.

To myself, I said “No problem. I was not picked but I shall prepare a surprise for my mother though when she comes back”. The idea came to mind when I was watching ‘Sesame Street’ one day and absolutely fell in love with a tune that ‘Ernie’ was singing! Soon enough, I was up on my box and trying to pick out the tune on the tenor pan to show mommy when she came back. I remember that I couldn’t understand why my father was so wowed about the arrangement when first he heard it, and when my mother heard the arrangement, I don’t remember any words coming out of her mouth.”

WST - “Who are your main musical influences?”

SolunaAs unbelievable as it might seem, I do not quite have any main musical influences. Really and truly, I like a touch of everything from classical music to blues to rock, hip hop, R&B, bossa nova, garage, you name it. I just appreciate good music and admire (not the artistes, surprisingly, but) tunes which manage to stimulate my musical appetite in terms of an innovative melody (or melodic interpretation), a mellow and creative harmony (I love 2nds, major 7ths, 9ths and 13ths, especially found in Brazilian music); and a captivating rhythmic line, even if it be slow. If you will understand, for me, what truly inspires is the right music at the right time, and not specifically the artiste. That’s why I find it a little difficult for me to pin point any main musical influences.”

WST - “You are Trinidad and Tobago’s Cultural Attaché to Brazil. In terms of furthering the popularization of Pan in Brazil, what are your biggest challenges? And what do you most need in terms of support of this agenda?”

Soluna - As a continuation to question number 7’s response, the prestige of representing Trinidad & Tobago as Cultural Attaché is something honorable and does carry a certain amount of weight in terms of diplomacy/social status. However, to the Brazilian business negotiators that form the ‘cream of the crop’ economically speaking – or ‘Upper Class Brazil’ – (these, who are the real figure heads whom we have to convince), “Cultural Attaché” is just a name or title. As the saying goes, “Money speaks”, so this is how they see it: if it is that I have something authentic to present, which is the steelpan, and am approaching them as Cultural Attaché of Trinidad and Tobago (the land of pan) to Brazil, then at least minimal cultural, financial and political conditions should accompany me. This I do not have as, as one can clearly see, the steelpan still is not known in large-scale Brazil. If it were, the whole world would have known already, and would most certainly be proud, including of course, Trinidad and Tobago. If I had had these minimal conditions to back my status here as Cultural Ambassador to Brazil, the steelpan would have already been way ahead in terms of its popularization in Brazil, as Brazilian businesses would have been a lot less hesitant to join in with the Trinidad companies in the investment in the steelpan through ‘FOGO & Steel’. Brazil would be happy to invest, but it is as if they are waiting to see what our people can do for us first. This is the reality of the situation I am going through in Brazil. I am just explaining the truth of what I am going through with FOGO & Steel.

The main barrier that impedes me from soaring high with the pan in Brazil representing Trinidad and Tobago here is lack of corporate sponsorship from Trinidad & Tobago businesses and also recognition from Trinidad & Tobago’s political representatives. With a mission as big as this, due especially to Brazil being the fifth largest country in the world in terms of population, advertisement is crucial. So we need funding especially for advertisement (internet, TV, radio) both nationally and internationally. But before that, we need to have more authentic material to advertise (i.e. new, well-tuned steelpans), and so the first thing would be for us to get funding in order to build a decent headquarters where we can have local (Brazilian) steelpan fabrication, as importation is not an option. What also would call attention to Brazil on a wider scale would be for us to have displays hosting Trinidad and Tobago culture and cultural activities (tassa, limbo, calypso, general cuisine, cricket, etc.), national and international steelpan events and steelpan courses (including tuning and fabrication). If Trinidad and Tobago expects big things for the country in Brazil, then we have to be prepared to invest big in order to get big returns, which is what Trinidad and Tobago is expecting for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games, and time is running out. The reality is this.

Our most urgent need, therefore, in order for the steelpan to become a reality in Brazil in time for the 2014 World Cup is for FOGO & Steel to get into contact and aggregate with corporate Trinidad & Tobago businesses that are willing to invest in the promotion of Trinidad and Tobago culture (especially the steelpan) in Brazil through the Brazilian company FOGO & Steel. ‘FOGO & Steel’ needs to get in contact urgently with the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar, in order to reveal the names of the Trinidad companies who came on the contingent with herself with the mission of making ties with Brazil during the World Economic Forum on Latin America, held in Rio de Janeiro in April, 2011. Once we can find these companies, then the real negotiations would be able to begin.”

WST - “Brazil has the largest population of people of African descent outside of Africa in the world. Has this been useful in your work with the steelpan in Brazil?”

Soluna - To a certain extent, I must say. The greater population of Afro-descendants in Brazil is located in the north-eastern region of Brazil. Bahia is said to have the second largest population of Afro-descendants in the world after Africa. However, after holding interviews with the Brazilians, many of whom have lived and experienced the real life in Bahia, I noted that, in spite of the already large population of Afro-descendants in Bahia, the “whites” or descendants of the European countries still dominate, in such a way as to leave Bahia and many other parts of Brazil with an incredibly mixed population.

“Inter-racial marriages and relationships are the most common thing in Brazil. Here, it is not at all a horror, as it is in other countries which we know. So, although you can have, for instance, a dark-skinned child with blond hair and green eyes, or an almost transparent-looking, light-skinned child with kinky hair and light grey eyes, you can witness the Afro-descendant traits in the Brazilian blood through their tendency to be creative in maintaining a rhythmically-challenging drum beat for instance. It is widely known that music and dance in terms of polyrhythms, counterpoint (or off-beat music phrases), creativity in the invention of musical instruments of various types, which preceded the modern European instruments (such as the piano and the violin) all originated in Africa, in addition to the poise and vibrancy which also accompanies its many tribes.

“So in relation to Brazil, “yes”, there are a lot of blacks. But that does not compare to the much higher population of mixed-race Brazilians, many of whom “look white”.

“Based on these facts, I cannot conclude that: “Because the Afro-descendants dominate or do not dominate in Brazil, my work with the steelpan in Brazil has been a success or a failure.” What I can say though is, the fact that the majority of Brazilians, old and young, find minimal difficulty in mentally capturing and skillfully executing polyrhythmic and counterpoint music phrases highly found in original, old-time Trinidad calypso music (such as Kitchener’s music), and old-time Brazilian “Choro” music (such as “Tico Tico no Fubá”), it makes it evident that there is some underlying rhythmic base that holds the two peoples together in terms of natural rhythmic understanding. Being that rhythm forms an essential part of steelpan music, I can conclude that “yes”, in this sense, my work with the steelpan in Brazil has been a lot less difficult as it perhaps could have been, if it were not for the Brazilians’ familiarity with polyrhythms and counterpoint-based tunes.”

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