Meet Bowie Sonnie Bowei of Nigeria - Manufacturer, Pioneer, Panist, Arranger, Educator and Pan Ambassador - UpClose!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

On what keeps his passion for the instrument going - Bowie Sonnie Bowei says:

At first, it was the uniqueness of the instrument and the positive reactions on the faces of people who listen to pan for the first time. Now, it is the joy that it brings to families who have children that play the pan. Pan has created opportunities for children to travel out of Nigeria for the first time. It has given them the opportunity to travel by planes for the first time. It has given them the opportunity to meet with people from other countries for the first time. The joy and fulfillment this brings to the children and their families boosts my passion for pan.

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What started off with so much promise, quickly descended into a finger-pointing legal battle and global embarrassment.

In spite of having experienced his own version of “When Things Fall Apart” through an ill-fated and since aborted joint Pan Trinbago venture a few years ago  - Bowie Sonnie Bowei remains positive, undaunted, buoyant and confident. Confident that the future for the steelpan instrument, the Pan culture and art form remains bright in his homeland, Nigeria, and the African continent. His optimism is not based in wishful thinking but rooted in his decades of first-hand experience as a frontline educator, manufacturer and marketer of all things Pan in Africa.

Feeling vindicated by the rash of events that have come to light and sullied the name of Pan Trinbago - in an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Bowie Sonnie Bowei holds nothing back as he speaks to the state of Pan in Nigeria and what really happened on that ill-fated business venture with the Pan Trinbago organization of Trinidad and Tobago.

WST - “For those in the global WST Pan audience who may be unfamiliar with your vast accomplishments with Pan in Nigeria, tell us again about yourself. Who is Bowie Sonnie Bowei?”

Bowie Sonnie Bowei
Bowie Sonnie Bowei

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Bowie Sonnie Bowie is a Pan enthusiast and a businessman involved in promoting pan across Africa. I have tried my best to promote pan in Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Tanzania, Mali and Ghana. Though some of the countries I have mentioned are in their preliminary stages of introducing pan to schools and the arts community, progress is surely taking place and soon, will be developed if we get the support we require from their governments.”

WST - “It has been over 15 years since WST and you first spoke. What is the state of Pan in Nigeria currently?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Pan has obviously developed in Nigeria but at a rather slow speed. This can be attributed to the fact that there has been very little encouragement from the government of Trinidad and Tobago. The Nigerian government is far from understanding the benefits of pan development to its youth as well as to the nation at large. This could have been made possible through collaborations with pan enthusiasts rather than individuals who seek personal financial benefits over the social benefits that can be achieved. We have had High Commissioners from both countries who serve their terms without a single achievement. This is disappointing, knowing that there are lots of prospects behind the bilateral relationship between these two countries. It will take someone with focus, vision and sincerity to realize the dreams I have concerning the benefits these two countries can provide together.”

WST - “Your Pan manufacturing factory “Panland” - how is it doing?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Panland is doing fine and we still produce and retail pans to private and government establishments. Our most recent supply to an institution was to the Nigerian Armed Forces Resettlement Center in Lagos, while a few individuals have also acquired pans.”

Panland steelpan manufacturing facility, Nigeria
Bowie Sonnie Bowei in front of his Panland steelpan manufacturing facility, Nigeria

WST - “Your relationship with Pan Trinbago began with much fanfare and promise. It ended in a disaster. Have you recovered? The story has never really been heard from your perspective. What happened? What went wrong? What did you learn from the experience?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Unfortunately, the past administration of Pan Trinbago were not sincere with their plans for Africa. They visited Nigeria and believed they could milk Africa dry without providing substance. They were only prepared to make money for themselves and give back nothing. Such plans involved their constant participation at the Abuja carnival with bands from Trinidad where they are paid heavily, and ‘stipends’ from their pay are given to the unsuspecting Panmen. Another plan was to take men from Nigeria to Trinidad and provide half-baked pan courses, just like they did with the Nigerian Navy. These were the areas I had issues with them.

“What I wanted was for the bands to promote pan in Nigeria during their visits, rather than looking for paid gigs around Nigeria and return [to Trinidad] without leaving behind any positive impact. I also wanted a few Panmen from Trinidad to visit Nigeria, to train over one hundred pan builders, tuners, players and tutors rather than sending 10 politically-selected men from Nigeria, to Trinidad, to get half-baked training in less than one year.

“In addition, there were trust issues, as my “partners” kept going behind me to try to cut deals with Nigerians. Another problem was the fact that Pan Trinbago and the Trinidad High Commission to Nigeria at that time used a ‘front’ to acquire shares for themselves, from the company. This ‘front’ never had anything to do with pan his whole life and kept messing up deals because of his selfish interest. He never paid his portion of shares to the company which had already started investing with my own money. All this was too much for me, so I had to get them out of my company and recover it. I have fully recovered from the trauma of having people try to steal your investment and destroy what you spent years to labor for but in all, I have learned not to trust easily, and to follow my dreams carefully.”

WST - “There is currently a new administration in Pan Trinbago, is there any chance of developing a working relationship with them in the future? Have they reached out to you?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Unfortunately I was the one who tried to reach out to them when they first came in. They seem stiff, which is not a good sign for me to do business with them as I expected that since we presumably had the same reasoning about the last administration, we would open up to each other, correct the wrongs and forge ahead to develop pan in Africa. As it stands, I will wait for an invitation from them, as a proof that they are open to a working relationship with me.”

WST - “You are one of the biggest manufacturers of steelpan instruments on the continent of Africa. What is the demand for instruments like?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “The demand for instruments is not encouraging. The fact remains that if I was merely interested in making money from pan, I would have changed my line of business to a more viable one long ago. I have had very strong strategies for pan development in Africa that would benefit Trinidad as well, and also promote the art form but I cannot work alone on them. Nobody appears to share my visions and those who are meant to, have some other motive. As such, we are way behind where we are meant to be. I have worked towards having a national Panorama in Nigeria with all the 37 states participating. When a former Trinidad High Commissioner and I visited the Nigerian Minister for Culture to discuss this issue, I had no backing as the High Commissioner was more interested in bringing steelbands from Trinidad to perform for a fee he was going to share with Pan Trinbago executives. Nigeria has a population of over 170 million people. Imagine if pan is routed here and it becomes the hub in Africa...”

WST - “Has Pan taken root in other countries in Africa?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “South Africa is doing very well with pans while Tanzania, Botswana, Ghana and Mali are still laboring to make their appearances to the pan network. Uganda would have been involved in pan two years ago but the staff of the Trinidad High Commission in Uganda frustrated my efforts to introduce pan to Uganda; as such, I left the country without achieving my aim.”

WST - “It’s been 42 years since Pan first landed in Nigeria through Starlift Steel Orchestra’s performances at the 1977 FESTAC (Festival of Arts and Culture). That experience, you once said, made you want to see Pan not only in Nigeria, but all over Africa. In this regard, where does this dream stand today?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “It is still a BIG dream! I am still hopeful that one day, this dream will actualize.”

WST - “In 2011 you told WST about the Nigeria school Panorama you led and said -- “The Gymnasium Hall at the National Stadium in Abuja, Nigeria, will be ringing with the sound of steel from bands representing the following schools and states: - NOWA Secondary School - Karshi, Nassarawa State; Nigerian Navy Secondary School - Port Harcourt, Rivers State; Corona Secondary School - Agbara, Ogun State; Bells School - Ota, Ogun State; Loral International School - Igbesa, Ogun State; Queensland Academy - Lagos; Sanya Grammers School - Lagos; Federal Government College – Lagos; Greensprings School - Lagos; Nigerian Navy Secondary School - Lagos; Airforce Secondary School - Ikeja, Lagos and St. Jude’s Private school - Festac Town, Lagos.”  -- Are these schools’ steel orchestras still in operation?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Yes they all are still in operation and have been joined by a few more schools such as Nigerian Military School, Command Day Secondary School Oshodi, Tosvvi International school, Dowen College, Bayelsa Junior Steelpan Orchestra, ROS Teens Steelband and the NAFRC “Barrack Youth” Steelband. We are slow but steady in spreading pan across Nigeria.”

WST - “Has the government of Nigeria given you the support that is needed relative to the steelband art form?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Unfortunately, NO! I hope that one day, I will get into a position in government, where I will be able to promote pan, and recover all the losses we have had from ignoring this viable project.

WST - “There is an annual Steelband and Marimba competition in South Africa; have you participated in that event?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Every year, I prepare and take bands from Nigeria to participate in this event. In 2018, I was also invited as an adjudicator. I also donate a tenor pan to winners every year, and will attend the 2019 edition.”

St. Jude’s Private Steel Band at the 2014 International Marimba and Steelpan Festival
St. Jude’s Private Steel Band at the 2014 International Marimba and Steelpan Festival, South Africa

WST - “What changes, if any, have you noticed since you first started out in Pan years ago, and present day?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “The only change is that Trinidadians are more open to sharing their knowledge on pan. In the past, they were too protective and found it difficult to share knowledge. I believe their openness will help in the global promotion of the instrument and deliver more benefits to them, individually and collectively.”

WST - “Are there many women involved in pan in Nigeria?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Yes, there are women involved in all the steelbands in Nigeria. Those involved are really good players, and are also committed to the art form.”

WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument going?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “At first, it was the uniqueness of the instrument and the positive reactions on the faces of people who listen to pan for the first time. Now, it is the joy that it brings to families who have children that play the pan. Pan has created opportunities for children to travel out of Nigeria for the first time. It has given them the opportunity to travel by planes for the first time. It has given them the opportunity to meet with people from other countries for the first time. The joy and fulfillment this brings to the children and their families boosts my passion for pan.”

WST - “Do any of your family members play pan? If so, tell us about them.”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “My children played pan in High school but have since lost interest because of other interests and their careers which they now focus on.”

WST - “If you had the power to change something in pan immediately what would that be?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “That would definitely be involved with its construction, to ensure that notes can be moved and rearranged on any pan, so anyone can pick a pan, arrange to a pattern he/she is familiar with, and play the pan.”

WST - “What have you been most proud about as it relates to pan in Nigeria?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “The fact that I was able to wake pan up from its slumber after 24 years of redundancy, and the fact that from being the only band in Nigeria, I have been able to set up over 25 bands in 18 years (though we should do better).”

WST - “What disappoints you the most in the steelband movement?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Lack of cooperation between Panmen. If there was unity, and Panmen come together for one purpose - to develop pan globally, we can be a huge “Continent” of our own.”

WST - “What would be your advice given to others who wish to follow in your unique footsteps - as a steelband entrepreneur, pan builder, tuner, performer, educator, pan ambassador, event promoter?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “Patience, Focus, Patience, Focus, Patience and Focus. Without these, such a person will look for “greener pastures” elsewhere.”

WST - “Who, and what are your musical influences?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - Mighty Sparrow, Len Sharpe and a number of panmen and calypsonians have influenced me in music. In strategies, I will give credit to Nubia Williams and for solid support, Miranda Martin.”

WST - “What is Panorama in Nigeria to you, personally?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “It is the harnessing of young talents, and the window created to promote the steelpan art form in Africa.”

WST - “What is your vision for Pan in Nigeria a decade from now?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “My vision is to see that Nigeria becomes the Mecca for pan in Africa, and that Panorama in Nigeria will attract hundreds of thousands of tourists and pan lovers from across the world.”

WST - “What do you know now about Pan that you wished you had known years ago?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “I know that there are ways to address the trouble of transporting bulky pans through technological development. I wish I started looking into this possibility long ago, so that by now, the plans I have regarding addressing this issue, would have materialized.”

WST - “Are there any other steelband-related matters you would like to bring forward?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “There are none at this time”

WST - “What is next for Bowie Sonnie Bowei?”

Bowie Sonnie B. - “In 2016, I was appointed to head the International Percussion Federation for the International Arts/Games Committee. The IAc is an organization set up to organize global games just like the Olympics and has 33 Federations covering various fields in the arts. The first games comes up in 2022 and the IPF will field qualifiers from five percussion categories to compete for medals in Canada. Melodic percussion is a category which the steelpan falls under, so I would love to see panists embrace this games and be put on an international platform where they have to perform in Olympic games cities during the Olympic games. This is what is next for me so, in a way, I am still in the business of promoting pan globally.”

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