Meet Salmon Cupid - Panist, Organizer, Arranger, Director, and Innovator  - UpClose!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

On “What has changed for you touring in 2019 with Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra - compared to when you yourself toured years ago?” Salmon Cupid says:

Frankly, very little has changed over the years. The world is indeed a village and it is very hungry for Steelpan music in my experiences touring as a student musician in the early ‘90s and now as a Musical Director...

When Steel Talks Exclusive icon

Recently steelband music history was created on a global scale when the Salmon Cupid-led Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra participated in the 2019 NBA Champion Toronto Raptors live broadcast celebration parade, as hundreds of thousands watched the group perform directly behind the team’s float.

Salmon Cupid (inventor of the E-Pan) is straightforward, thorough, experienced  and completely committed to the success of the steelband artform globally. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks,  Cupid shares his understanding of the road to success as he sees it and lives it through his experiences, and much more.

WST - “Who/What is Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra?”

Salmon C. -Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra, also known by our short-name acronym, TASSO, was established in the year 2000, in Toronto. I migrated from T&T (Trinidad & Tobago) as an invited ambassador of the steelpan cultural artform to teach music to school kids in Metro TO, using the steelpan as the instrument of choice. This was organized by Pan Trinbago in the early ‘90s in conjunction with the TDSB.  As the students became “hooked on pan”, a group of the parents (very pleased with what learning steelpan as a musical artform was doing to improve the students) approached me to evolve the “growing attachment to pan” with some extra-curricular focus for the students to grow beyond the classroom, especially for those who wished to develop post-elementary into middle and high school.  The parents wanted them to learn and practice under my tutelage to take things to another level. TASSO was born, with me as their Musical Director and is comprised of students between the ages of 11 through 23 as they enter post-secondary education.  Their fierce love of Pan is what bonds the band and they all come from many different backgrounds and walks of life reflecting Toronto’s multicultural and multiethnic diversity, to share the commonality with what they love and enjoy, Pan.  It naturally lends itself to expanding cohesive connections.”

Salmon Cupid directing Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra at the Raptors parade in 2019
Salmon Cupid directing Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra at the Raptors parade in 2019

WST - “It’s been a whirlwind moment in Pan these last few weeks for Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra and you. Describe your personal feelings about the Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra’s participation in the Raptors victory parade?”

Salmon C. - “Where do I start?  The entire city of Toronto, along with fans from all across Canada and the globe were caught up with Raptors Fever in the season’s qualifying games, then leading up to celebrating the NBA victorious win after the Final Game.  TASSO was just as enthusiastic and happy to accept the opportunity to perform for the 2019 Raptors Championship Parade.  Participating was a dream come true; it combined my twin passions of basketball and steelpan in an exhilarating and once-in-a-lifetime event. The entire TASSO organization was thrilled to be part of it.  Words almost cannot totally describe what it was like being there, surrounded on all sides by millions of people, all of them already so hyped by the day itself.  Once our network connections were invoked, they extended the invitation to participate in this historic world championship celebration.  It was the only float, strategically positioned just behind the buses carrying the Raptors themselves. The team visibly grooved to our music; the Raptors loved us, Serge Ibaka, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol with Drake of The 6IX in tow, along for the ride... we could see them dancing to our steelpan beat, and filming us on their smartphones; the Raptors posted videos of us performing on their social media home feed. So that was a huge validation. However, so were the crowds who cheered and clapped and danced as we played non-stop for more than six hours under a hot sun. This was Steelpan on the world stage and it was a triumphant moment.  The band played to perfection. I was doubly and undoubtedly proud.”

Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra at the Raptors parade
Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra at the Raptors parade

WST - “What is the moment in that experience that you will cherish forever?”

Salmon C. - “There are so many, but this video captured some of the energy.  I think for me personally, what I will most remember was the sheer volume and enthusiasm of the million-plus strong crowd. People were literally pressed up against us and reminded me of years gone by when the entertainers pressed the flesh with their audience. They had broken the barriers and wanted to walk with our float which was pulled by a truck that moved at a snail’s pace because of the unprecedented number of people clogging the roads. We were told at the start that the parade would be two hours in length but it ended up going six, because of the crowds. We weren’t quite prepared for that. We didn’t have enough water for the band members for instance and the heat that day was intense. But what was amazing was that not one band member wilted from the pressure. On the contrary, everyone in TASSO seemed to feed off the energy rising up from the streets that day. The more they played the better they sounded. The crowd went wild for the steelpan music. It ended up being an enormous party. The vibe was fantastic. Just fantastic. This was another one of those high-profile performances TASSO and Steelbands have been a part of for history.”

Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra at Raptors Parade

WST - “From your perspective how was the band’s performance in the parade received both nationally and internationally?”

Salmon C. - “Frankly, one is hard-pressed to buy this level of exposure.  TASSO was seen and experienced by millions, not just on the streets of Toronto but nationally and internationally as well through televised broadcasts of the NBA Championship Parade. Social media (where we already have established and maintain a strong presence) lit up with enthusiastic mentions of steelpan in the parade.  Trinis took to social media by storm, proudly claiming in our parlance, “Look ting, Trinis like salt, dey everywhere.”  Participating in this one event boosted TASSO’s as well as Steelpan’s reputation, immeasurably.”

WST - “What was the most valuable thing Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra learned from that experience?”

Salmon C. - “The immediate impact of being “close-up” to that large of an audience, estimated to be well-over 1M+ participants.  We approached the opportunity with a “Carpe Diem” drive to organize in a very short space and time, the logistics involved to make it happen.  That in itself teaches valuable take-away lessons.  What I also learned from this experience is that the Pan community must increase efforts to unite.  If this unity is ever to occur it will make life easy for all of the Steelpan movement.  In the event an enlistment of this magnitude ever is to happen again, with unity, resources can be pooled within the Steelpan circles making a higher level of success attainable. Having said that, in spite of not being able to access pooled resources, we managed to play at this parade and we conquered.  We discovered that we are tenacious as was evident by our ability to secure resources to put a float together in such a short period of time. We discovered that we are resolute and possess a high degree of professionalism. The conditions were unique, to say the least, and we more than handled them.”

The Raptors parade
 The Raptors parade

WST - “What did your group learn from that experience as panists and as performing musicians?”

Salmon C. - “Most noteworthy is how to embrace such a large crowd in attendance and use that energy to perform at our top level and set the stage, so to speak, for the upcoming tour of Spain, as well as the future.”

WST - “Without much of a break Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra found itself set to perform in Spain. What was the biggest challenge in bringing this tour together?”

Salmon C. - “Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra going on an international tour, this time to Spain, is not foreign to our administration, it’s not our first rodeo so to speak. With respect to challenges, fund-raising has been the principal one and common denominator on all the trips we have participated in dating back to 2004 when we toured Scotland.  In 2007 we toured Sydney, Australia. In 2009 we were invited back and returned to Aberdeen, Scotland.  In 2011 we toured Italy, 2013 Central Europe; Prague, Salzburg, Austria,  Munich.  In 2015 we were again invited back to Aberdeen, Scotland, same for 2017 we were invited back to Sydney, Australia and most recently our 2019 tour to Spain. Fundraising as a challenge is not exclusive to TASSO. All Steelbands face the same challenge.  We support charitable organizations all across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). So when our turn comes around, we shift focus to our own needs and the support we need is returned in kind.  We do not sit on our proverbial laurels and wait for them to come to us.  We actively and periodically hold all types of events to raise funds for the next venture, so that we can up-the-ante once an international tour is on our radar.  (Watch TASSO overseas performances below)

“I’d like to take the time to thank AIR CANADA for their sponsorship. Our precious cargo (Steelpans) made it to and from Spain safely.”

Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra tour performances

WST - “What has been the biggest surprise for you in performing in Spain?”

Salmon C. - “Musically, the passion of the audience. Spanish people have their own storied musical history; we learned that flamenco is a hundred-years-old tradition. But they are clearly open to new sounds and rhythms like those of Steelpan.   Where food and culture are concerned, I could clearly see similarities and influences between Spain and Trinidad & Tobago; it’s no wonder many a cultural and social anthropologist has identified the Latin Disposition in Trini Culture.  Their national dish is paella which, in my opinion, definitely has great similarities to our [Trini] Pelau. It seems to me to be more than just sheer coincidence, ent?  Also, the relaxed mentality of Spaniards for “time“ was another similarity. When a concert was supposed to start at 10:00 pm, don’t be surprised if it actually starts at 10:15’ish.”

WST - “How has the group been received in Spain?”

Salmon C. - “The group was very well received. At the beginning of each performance the audiences, especially in the small towns like Buñol and Alicante, were initially a bit subdued. They seemed curious but cautious, waiting to see what we were all about.  But once we started to play, we appeared to surpass their expectations as they seemed to almost go berserk, clapping and cheering with shouts of bravo and calling for repeated encores, which we were only too happy to oblige. You just love an audience that loves you. It’s a great source of inspiration.”

WST - “What has been your proudest moment through the tour?”

Salmon C. - “I am proud of the way in which the TASSO musicians handled themselves. We usually have band meetings, but never once have I coached them about how to handle or act in a scenario when the audience treats them like celebrities. In the beginning, I was a little bit concerned as I could see in their faces and body language that they did not know how to react. However, their natural human instinct, upbringing, and personalities took over and they were very friendly and willing to interact with concert-goers.”

Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra in Spain
Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra in Spain

WST - “What has changed for you touring in 2019 with Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra - compared to when you yourself toured years ago?”

Salmon C. - “Frankly, very little has changed over the years. The world is indeed a village and it is very hungry for Steelpan music in my experiences touring as a student musician in the early ‘90s and now as a Musical Director. We as a people, Trinbagonians, are keeping Steelpan back. The horse wants to bolt and because we’re wearing blinders and using tunnel-vision restraints and opinions we’re holding this art-form back.

“Something else that I find the same about touring then and now is that it’s still mainly about planning the logistics involved and keeping track of the arrangements to make sure the wheel stays oiled.”

WST - “What song(s) in your repertoire connected the most with the audiences in Spain?”

Salmon C. - “The Spanish songs we included in our repertoire connected well with the audiences.  Songs like; Bamboléo, La Paloma and Guantanamera were a few of the ones they really liked well. It is important to show versatility, especially to a new audience, by playing songs that they can relate to. If we play only Calypso, to them it would sound like the same song being played over and over. The reason for that is that Calypso is not yet making the top 40.”

WST - “Were there any ‘lessons learned’ from this tour, and if so, what was the most difficult one?”

Salmon C. - “Yes, the lesson I continue to learn is that Trinidad & Tobago has a way to go when it comes to the business of steelpan. While performing at the Castle of Moraira in Alicante for example, there were calls and job offers for me to stay and nurture a Steelband there. In the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, when Steelbands toured I’m sure they received similar offers and often came back with 1/2 their instruments and players as they left them behind to start to fill the void making that country, city or town their home while creating new Steelpan roots in those places. The most difficult thing of all for me is leaving a city or town without leaving any bread crumbs. I could not leave any steelpans or personnel. What hurts the most is that I could not even give them the phone number for the Minister of Tourism in Trinidad and Tobago with the confidence of knowing that their needs would be met.  Janelle Penny Commissiong-Chow, the 1977 Miss Universe, officiated in the Ministry of Tourism. She was succeeded by Howard Chin Lee, with a background in public and private ventures.  The Honorable Randall Mitchell holds the position of Minister of Tourism today. Is The Honourable Minster Steelpan-oriented/minded?  Were any of them FROM and/or FOR Steelpan?  Having said this, when we had a Calypsonian as the Minister of Multiculturalism, he was bogged down with so much other politics, the Steelpan industry did not persevere. It leaves me to conclude that the only way forward seems to be for there to be a Ministry of Steelpan.”

WST - “What advice would you give to other orchestras looking to follow in your footsteps?”

Salmon C. - “Steelbands need to be aware that if you do the same thing repeatedly without progressing, you will repeatedly get the same results. As a Trinbagonian, one skill that I observe we have naturally is the skill of organizing. We can organize a good party. Every Carnival around the world, if you investigate, their origins come from a Trinbagonian. So, we’re good at organizing. We are also good at organizing a Steelband but taking it to the next level, in most cases, is our Achilles’ heel. The Carnival activity in Toronto, for the most part, is no longer run by Trinbagonians/Caribe. Why? They couldn’t take it to the next level. Somebody else had to take it for them. Go down the list of all the Carnivals around the world and dissect who’s running them. In many cases, it’s out of the hands of Trinbagonians. We may be included as voices on the different boards of directors, but the ownership and power are no longer exclusively Trinbagonians.   

“Why does Trinidad & Tobago not take this seriously and run it like, say, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association)? Every single football match’s coffers get back to FIFA. It does not matter the level of the league. I am here shouting from the mountain tops because in most cases Steelbands are still owned by Trinbagonians. If we don’t take heed, ownership of bands will no longer be in the hands of Trinbagonians. We need to learn and discover how to take it to the next level.  

“Every Steelband around the world takes their guidance from Trinidad & Tobago and “Panorama.” As an individual, I do not. I LOVE Panorama! It’s our great Steelpan show. However, modeling this as the be-all and end-all of steelpan is flawed. Learning an eight- to ten-minute piece of music and trying to win Panorama in whatever part of the world you go should not be what you teach the young or new Steelpan goers. This cookie-cutter model is what I think is killing local and Trinbagonian-run Steelbands in foreign lands.  

“There are bands that are run independently of Trinbagonians all around the world. Those schools and bands that are not using the Panorama model are poised to benefit tremendously once they get a taste for international travel. International travel gives you exposure second-to-none. People often ask me how I get this performance or that performance for TASSO. It’s all about exposure. Steelpan brings the element of instant excitement that promoters, producers and artistic directors want to be a part of. Need I say more? I did a quick search of some very basic fundamentals. I could not find a website for the most prominent and well-known Steelbands. This is not just common sense or logic, for me, I take it personally and think it’s embarrassing. When a professional organizer/producer is looking for a Steelband the first thing they do is a Google search. If you have no online presence you’re not even in the game.

“There are a couple of models out there that I admire. Shareen Gray’s Steelpan Trust based in the UK is one of them. The other is The Petoskey Steel Drum Band based in the US. These bands are quietly going about reaching the masses. What they are doing, is it in any way form or fashion tied back to the Mother Land?”

WST - “After these last few weeks, as an accomplished music director, panist and educator, what do know now that you didn’t know before, if anything?”

Salmon C. - “In summation, in view of all these events, it would be remiss if I did not use this opportunity to draw attention to the context of my relationship with Pan. All my life I have prayed and strived to learn and use knowledge and wisdom to seek and find a better way of doing and accomplishing the things I undertake. I try to look around and observe to embrace the positive and shy away from the negative elements. That has exposed me to all types of criticism, good, bad and indifferent. 

Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra in Spain
Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra in Spain

“The E-Pan I invented with a modernized way to innovate and evolve Pan, faced heavy negativity when it was first introduced. But it is gradually gaining ground with strong support, which I am pleased about.  

“When I was invited to migrate to Canada to teach music with the Steelpan and faced jealousy, envy, down-right lambasting, I decided to carry-on, forward-ever, to do my own thing and developed an innovative methodology to teach and expand Pan, which found acceptance and led me to where I am.  

“Panorama as a competition/festival is a ritualistic tradition that we all love when it comes around. But Après Carnival Là and Party Done, what’s next?    

“I have travelled extensively to observe “Panorama” styled events across the globe, notably in Toronto, New York,  London - which have mirrored the way it’s done in the Pan Mecca in T&T, also inspired by “Trini” styled Carnival festivities. I say the former T&T Government Minister and current NCC (National Carnival Commission) Chairman had a point which provoked a lot of debate and a firestorm, but should not be ignored. Even the legendary “Boogsie” faced a backlash when he pronounced that: Steelpan is dead in T&T. There should be efforts to take away and keep the good and shy away from the bad, as difficult as that may be for some addicted to the old ways, to grow Pan. That is why many of the other “Panorama-styled” events undergo some of the same problems we keep repeating, which is madness. We need to be smarter and more willful about moving to higher heights.  

“Pan Trinbago’s new executive team was elected to make and take Pan in a new and hopefully better direction, which we must give them the time and support to deliver on, as they’re making strides to correct many mistakes of the past while [making] headway with incremental improvementsDuvone Stewart and bp Renegades have set a new standard which will challenge the rest, I’m sure, and that bodes well for the future. I welcome and applaud all these efforts, chief among them the need to grow Pan in the Schools of T&T, which I am a product of. This is what I will continue as I make my own way forward in my lifelong occupation, to emulate the best and Do Something For Pan.”

Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra in Spain
Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra in Spain

WST - “Any disappointments?”

Salmon C. - “Steelpan as an ensemble needs to be more portable. It is still too cumbersome and costly to transport. This is especially the case with Double Guitars and other instruments in the low range all the way down to Basses. What is disappointing is that we have been slow to react to positive change that will take care of some of these cost-prohibitive obstacles to moving a band around the world.”

WST - “What’s next for Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra?”

Salmon C. - “To take Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra to the Heavenly Stars and beyond, so please, stay tuned.”

Respect & Blessings
Salmon Cupid

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