Meet Wilfred “Junior” Kieal - Panist, Percussionist & Administrator - Up-Close!

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks Exclusive icon

He is one of the most well-known and well-liked people in that ‘next generation’ of performing artists involved in the New York pan scene.  Thoughtful, multi-talented and a natural-born percussionist with world-class abilities, he’s the one of the few percussionists who have totally mastered the art of silence - such that when he stops, the listener is left wanting more.  And within the steel orchestra, from tenor to four-pan and more - it’s a non-issue because he’s accomplished in several voices in the family of steelpan instruments.

But with it all, Wilfred Kieal, Jr. is centered by his passion for the steelband art form and remains humble as its music courses through his blood, and life.  In this exclusive When Steel Talks interview, performing artist, former band captain and administrator Wilfred “Junior” Kieal lays out his love for his Dad, himself an elder in the art form - and talks about his own path through pan to date.


WST - “Tell us about yourself; how did you first become involved in pan?”

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal - as a baby with Dad, Wilfred Kieal, Sr.
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal - as a baby with Dad, Wilfred Kieal, Sr.

Wilfred K. - “Oh, I didn’t have a choice! I have memories of my father playing in the house from about 3 years old, and it was hypnotizing. Next thing I know, there was a small pan on a stand and he said, “That’s yours.” I still have it to this day.”

WST - “Is there anything else that is, comparable - like pan, for you?”

Wilfred K. - “Nope. Not a thing. Pan is a social construct. Even just in a panyard setting, the people you meet, memories made, and connections created because you play this sweet piece of music will keep people in your heart forever. You can talk about a song you played 2 decades ago and remember the people who were there.” 

WST - “Every year you and many other young people sacrifice and invest a good portion of the summer towards Panorama. You’ve been there, done that. What keeps you going?”

Wilfred K. - “Honestly, it’s a love for this “thing” that allowed me to grow as a person. I’ve met people and been to places I’d never go otherwise.”

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal - ‘in the moment’ with Despers USA Steel Orchestra
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal - ‘in the moment’ with Despers USA Steel Orchestra

WST - “What, if anything, do you dislike about Pan, and why?”

Wilfred K. - “The lack of acknowledgement. It’s played worldwide, yet people have no idea what it is or its origin. Pan has been featured on hundreds of songs, TV shows, movies, and it’s treated as a novelty. Sad to say, even some people who play don’t take it serious.”

WST - “You have grown up in and around Pan; what do you find most different now as an adult, as compared to when you were very much younger, in the art form?”

Wilfred K. - “Balancing “Pan life” and “Normal life.” As adults, you don’t have the freedom to spend all day and night in a panyard.  Jobs, school, children, and things of the like take precedence, and time is restricted. Even so, you still find ways to make it work! (Rubs baggy eyes).”

WST - “If you had the chance, what would you as a veteran musician, counsel/tell his much younger self being steelband movement?”

Wilfred K. - “Practice. Practice. Practice. Eat, sleep, and practice more. Listen to different genres more often. Don’t be scared; the worst you can do is play a wrong note... the world won’t end. The list is endless - but more importantly, get involved in the advertising aspect. Thinking back now, the amount of knowledge spread over the years could have had an astronomical effect on Pan today.”

Wilfred Kieal, Sr. as arranger for Despers USA, New York Panorama 2008
Wilfred Kieal, Sr. as arranger for Despers USA, New York Panorama 2008

WST - “What was it like, growing up with your Dad, Wilfred Kieal, Sr., as part of the band you play in, and also having had him as an arranger?”

Wilfred K. - “Oddly hysterical. Kids love him, so he naturally “adopts” them. I would have kids running up to me like “Hey bro!” - meanwhile I’m now confused and looking around to see whose child this is!  He’s so humble about his dealings so people don’t ask him about it, but his history is amazing. It’s funny, you grow up thinking “Ah that’s just my dad.”  But then you enter his world and you think:  “Holy crap, my dad’s a boss!””

WST - “What would you say you have learned best overall, from your Dad, relative to Pan?”

Wilfred K. - “I can say he taught me several lessons at the same time. He never hounded me about learning specifics, he gave me the basics and let me explore.

“I guess he saw my passion before I did, and just guided me in the right directions. I was probably 13 or 14 and I asked him about chords, he simply said “What feels right?”...and it just clicked. All he did was smile and walked off.”

Wilfred Kieal, Sr. (left) is presented with lifetime award by son Wilfred “Junior” Kieal at Pan Is Sweet 2018
Wilfred Kieal, Sr. (left) is presented with BSO’s ‘Hu’Pan-itarian Award’ by son Wilfred “Junior” Kieal at Pan Is Sweet 2018

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal, with Dad, Wilfred Kieal, Sr.
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal, with Dad, Wilfred Kieal, Sr.

WST - “What are your thoughts when you observe, as in your case, the multiple instances of parents in the band(s) performing alongside their own children in the steel orchestras? Especially having seen them “grow up” in the band over the years.

Wilfred K. - “I think it was a lesson in energy vs. ability. As the youths, we had energy and style! Playing till we sweat bullets and get tired. Then the parents had knowledge and ability, allowing them to play all night without missing a note or breaking a sweat.  And we used to laugh! “You guys not practicing hard!”  Ha... if we only knew.  At one point, Despers had about 5 father/son pairs at the same time.”

WST - “The steelband community is a close-knit one, with relationships ongoing throughout the year, outside of the regular “Panorama” season. Talk about this.”

Wilfred K. - “This goes back to the connections I mentioned earlier. You meet people. You ‘click.’ Friendships are sealed when you share great experiences together... Next ting yuh limin’. ‘Dats yuh padnah.’  Now that’s your family. 

“I remember when the bands were territorial. Panorama night was war.  I’ve seen you play, but I don’t know you. Or if I did, I don’t know you until we both get off the stage!  But it was always respect. Now, the bands and players are so interconnected, it’s become one big family. Nothing wrong with a few new siblings!”

WST - “Years ago, Despers USA and other steel orchestras would participate in the Labor Day parade on Eastern Parkway. Do you remember those times, as a youngster? Do you miss them? Share some recollections.”

Wilfred K. - “Remember? I could never forget! 

“We had a “cursed” tenor bass rack that Tiffany used to play on.  No matter how many times we fixed it, welded something, new baseboard, new wheels, everything... that rack would always flip or break!  Thankfully she never got hurt, but it never failed. We’d actually make bets on when it would happen. 

Despers USA on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY - Labor Day, September 2007
Despers USA on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY - Labor Day, September 2007

“But what I remember most is seeing the people when we passed by. Knowing you caused raw emotional joy is a feeling you can never forget, and I’m happy I got to experience that... not to mention it was great cardio!”

WST - “What was it like to “play on de road” - in this case, Eastern Parkway? Oh, and for the record, talk about where the parade “route” started from on the Parkway, given that it has been so shortened over the years!!”

Wilfred K. - “The band would set up on the parkway somewhere between Rochester and Buffalo Avenues. And we would walk, chip and sometimes run all the way to the museum. Most times we would turn right on Classon to go directly to the panyard. Playing on de road was amazing. We would come right out of J’Ouvert, tired and dirty. We’d grab some food and BOOM...  Second wave of energy hit!  Back on de road! After that, talk about SLEEP! I’d sleep till Wednesday... but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!”

Despers USA on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY - Labor Day, September 2007
Despers USA on Eastern Parkway - Labor Day, September 2007

WST - “Why did Despers USA stop performing on the Parkway?

Wilfred K. - “Honestly, it became too expensive for an event that we weren’t getting paid for. Rising insurance costs, extended truck rentals, and no kickback?  Bad recipe.”

WST - “You’ve take part in J’Ouvert, celebrations (seen mainly along Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn) over the years. Talk about that? How are the feelings experienced different from those felt on stage for Panorama?”

Wilfred K. - “Both were phenomenal experiences, but completely different. Panorama was a whole summer’s worth of late practices, heavy drilling, sleepless nights.. to get all that frustration out in 10 minutes on stage. J’Ouvert was the free-up process... no restrictions, get dutty, play a different pan, take a drink (legally of course.. haha)... all while still making the people happy. Two sides of the same coin.”

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal with Despers USA for J'Ouvert in New York
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal with Despers USA for J’Ouvert in New York

WST - “You have been a valued member of and performed with, the most respected steel orchestra music franchises in New York history. Pantonic, D’Radoes and Despers USA steel orchestras; any special memories?”

Wilfred K. - “Countless... those 3 bands I consider one big family.

“Despers USA is where I started and honed my musical abilities. The knowledge gained from the elders like my father, Clement Franklin, Sterling “Sugars” Sample, the late Rudy King and Mikey Enoch, and many more. The sense of freedom is unmatched.

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal with Despers USA on stage for New York Panorama
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal with Despers USA on stage for New York Panorama

Pantonic was just a powerhouse in its time. Everyone wanted to play. I remember one year they had about 160 players and had to cut, talk about headache!

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal rehearses with Pantonic Steel Orchestra
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal rehearses with Pantonic Steel Orchestra

D’Radoes is just that band where you can be whatever you want. The sense of freedom is unmatched.”

WST - “On occasion, you also step in to play drums in the orchestras when called upon; do you enjoy this as a separate creative force within you?”

Wilfred K. - “Definitely; as far as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by drums and percussion. Even before I started playing pan, I used to run to the drum set in Silhouettes and the fellas used to run me! But then coordination set in, and when I started making sense of it.  Aaah - it’s a wrap!”

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal on drums in J'Ouvert with Despers USA
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal on drums in J’Ouvert with Despers USA

WST - “You were tasked with the responsibility of Captain of Despers USA Steel Orchestra for a period. What was expected of you? And talk about some of the challenges, and rewards of the position. And what is it like now that the baton has been passed on?”

Wilfred K. - “Being Captain of Despers USA was an amazing experience. There was an age gap between the elders and “de youths” as they called it. I tried my best to serve as the in-between, as there were ideas that were foreign to the older crew.  It also allowed me to operate on the business side as well as handle player-management issues.  As far as expectations, there were none but to keep the fire burning. I left due to personal reasons, but I’ll always be thankful for the experience.”

WST - “You are usually part of the band during the annual panyard recording sessions by Basement Recordings pre-Panorama. How does this specific night differ from other nights in the panyard, for you? And what is it like overall?”

Wilfred K. - “In case you didn’t realize, this is our version of prelims! The yard is cleaned up, the bar is stocked, the players are all wearing one color, prepared to show off what we’ve been practicing for the last month-plus. This night, you’ll see energy in the players. 

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal at Basement Recordings' 2019  panyard recording session
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal at Basement Recordings’ 2019 panyard recording session

“People wait for this night to come, to flock to the panyard to listen and “hold a vibes.” By the end of the recordings, the grapevine is already buzzing about who’s gonna win.”  (experience the ‘tempo’ audio recording of Despers USA’s 2019 Panorama arrangement of “Iron Man”)

  Kieal performs with Despers USA during the band’s 2019  Panyard recording session - ‘Cool Down’ version

WST - “What would be your advice to young people who would like to become involved with the steelband art form?”

Wilfred K. - “You mean other than practice?

“I’d say respect ALL levels of pan. We need tuners, builders, welders, etc. The art form is not just playing.

“Also... Learn your history! Someone asked me who Ray Holman was... I almost had a heart attack! Give respect to the legends that paved the way for us.”

WST - “In 2018, your brainchild, Vybez Steel Orchestra, thrilled pan lovers who attended a band launch that year. What was the impetus behind your ‘bringing out’ this band - and what is the band’s status at this time?”

Wilfred K. - “Vybez Steel Orchestra honestly came about by accident. A gentleman by the name of David Rodriguez had a pan program in his establishment and I was introduced by “BJ” Marcelle, who asked me to continue teaching when he went back to Trinidad. Things progressed, and next thing I know, David asked if I wanted to make a full band out of it. Sure, why not?

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal’s Vybez Steel Orchestra at New York Pan Stars' 2018 band launching
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal’s Vybez Steel Orchestra at New York Pan Stars’ 2018 band launch

“Unfortunately, due to certain circumstances, he had to get rid of the building and, well...  We’ll see what happens, what post-COVID-19 Vybez brings.”

  Vybez Steel Orchestra performance at 2018 band launch

WST - “If you had the chance to go into music full time, only playing pan, for a very lucrative, extremely profitable career, would you?”

Wilfred K. - “Absolutely!  No question. Everyone dreams about doing what they love for a career.”

WST - “There is clearly a generational shift in progress in New York Pan.  What does the future look like going forward?”

Wilfred K. - “This generational shift will only be as productive as the participants. Currently we notice that we cannot survive in the 2000s using 1960s methods. At the very most we can try to keep Pan as interesting and inviting as possible, and try to develop a better foundation for the next generation.”

WST - “Some people are still vague about the steelpan instrument, what it is, and even more so, the concept of a full-size Panorama orchestra. Over the years, did you encounter co-workers or friends, people in general - to whom you have to explain the steel band art form?”

Wilfred K. - “All the time. It’s a process... “You play that can thing?” “How can you deal with all that noise?” Then I’ll play a solo piece of a top-forty hit. Then I’ll find a stage side playing something similar - gotta break them in gradually so they understand the concept. This is why knowledge of the instrument is fundamental.”

WST - “What is your favorite Panorama piece, and why?”

Wilfred K. - “For me, I don’t think there’s a way to pick a favorite? There are too many that mean too much to me to pick. But everyone knows I’m a “Boogsie”/Bradley fan!”

WST - “Is Panorama a blessing or a curse?”

Wilfred K. - “For New York, it’s both. You spend so much time honing a skill, creating memories, and playing music - all for it to end so suddenly right after Labor Day. It’s seasonal, so you have to wait another 9 months before the yard is open and start all over again. But the time spent is so awesome!”

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal

WST - “If you had the power to change things in Pan in New York immediately - what would they be?”

Wilfred K. - “Acknowledgement. Pan has taken so many children off the streets, created safe havens and fostered professions. At this point, it needs to be federally funded once the bands and organizations get their affairs in order.”

WST - “What is your vision for Pan in New York?”

Wilfred K. - “I’ve always wanted to create a Pan Museum/learning center. A place where one can learn history, hold seminars on arranging, tuning, building, etc. You never know, it might happen!”

WST - “You have played Panorama both in Trinidad, and New York. Compare your experiences - talk about the similarities, and differences, from your perspective, regarding practice, especially? And then, about the competition phases themselves.”

Wilfred K. - “For me, the only real difference is prelims and semifinals. Changing whole parts of a song for each is not only challenging, but fun. Then the anticipation of waiting to see if you make finals. It’s a huge adrenaline rush. The practice depends on the band, some are strict, some are lax... and then you see it in the results.”

WST - “After playing Pan for some time, several young adults eventually cease playing. Do you have any plans in this regard?”

Wilfred K. - “Nope. I firmly believe this art cannot die and will do everything in my power to keep it alive. Besides, somebody’s gotta be the old head in the yard talking about “these blasted kids.””

WST - “As a player, do you think there is a conflict of interest where a single organization represents both the bands [overall management], and players, in New York Pan?”

Wilfred K. - “I often wondered why we have the same people in multiple roles and expect everything to run smoothly. Every other business has separate entities to manage them. But that also comes with a product that produces regular income to pay these managers.. it’s a catch 22.”

WST - “With the recent changes and unexpected loss of people in the ‘elder’ leadership in the New York pan community, are you confident that the next generation of Pan players are ready to meet the task of leadership?”

Wilfred K. - “With the knowledge of the past and information of the present, I believe this generation can navigate the waters properly. It’s a new era and the old ways may not work the same, but the ideas are still sound. We just have to find a way to make it work in today’s society.”

WST - “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented and unforeseen challenges and changes to the New York steelband performance arena. Can you see the bands successfully navigating this unforeseen ‘roadblock’ (obstacle)?”

Wilfred K. - “Being that steelbands are a physical art, we are in extreme danger unless things go back to normal. Sure we can have pan virtually, but how many people have room for a bass in the house? Even then, how do you perform as a band? Soloists are in the limelight now and all we can do is help and support. As of today they are the leading faces of pan.”

Wilfred “Junior” Kieal
Wilfred “Junior” Kieal

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

Wilfred K. - “In light of current events, there’s not much to say. However, if there is normalcy, we need more events! Not just for us, but for the pan community to spread out and showcase our talents worldwide.”

WST - “What is next for Wilfred “Junior” Kieal?”

Wilfred K. - “Well, I would like to continue spreading the culture as much as possible. I’m also working on building the WizSticks brand. So far it’s [in] New York, LA, Philly, Trinidad, London, Canada.  Trying to see how far it can reach!”

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