Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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A Woman of Gold

Mrs. Franka Hills-Headley      

By Dr Jeannine ‘J9’ Remy, lecturer in music, CCFA, UWI

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

There are many educators in Trinidad who incorporate pan into their music schools. Some of these schools may teach many different musical instruments, and voice, while others solely concentrate on the pan. Furthermore, the amount of women running music schools in Trinidad is commendable (see list 1). There is however, one lady in particular, who was very successful this past year [2005] with her San Fernando based pan school Golden Hands. A power-house of gentle determination is Mrs. Franka Hills-Headley; known fondly by most, and called respectfully by her students, as simply “Miss Franka.” Home is 134 Independence Avenue, on the seaward side of San Fernando, and within hearing distance of Hatters panyard.

We would like to officially wish Miss Franka a happy 45th birthday on this March 17th!

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During the day, Miss Franka teaches ‘A Level’ biology at Corinth Sixth Form College; she is also a part-time pan teacher at the University of the West Indies (UWI) one night a week (she teaches university students while her daughter attends a Jazz arranging course). She runs the pan school in the evenings from about 6 pm; until whatever hour the neighbours start complaining! After that she has to grade papers, and see about the normal household chores.

How did it start?

About 10 years ago, the idea of creating a pan school came out of a mother’s concern for the direction pan was taking with the youths; where at that time, there was still that lingering negative stigma attached to the major panyards. When people began to see how she was teaching her daughter Vanessa how to play pan, other parents approached her for giving lessons ...hence the birth of Golden Hands. What began as a mother’s dream of teaching her five year old daughter, has now turned into a fully-fledged 65+ membered pan school.

This mother has a lot to be pleased about this year (see list 2). Not only with her Golden Hands venture, but it seems that the early start with her daughter bears golden apples as well. Vanessa, now 17, won the soloist category for the Junior Steelband Music Festival in November 2005; arranged (Destra’s Mark Loquan’s) Colours Again for Junior Panorama 2006, which took Golden Hands to 3rd place; and her music composition entitled Us, that she submitted for her Caribbean Examination Council (CXC) music course last year, this year brought the astonishing news that she had earned first place in the entire Caribbean.

Miss Franka and daughter Vanessa
Miss Franka and daughter Vanessa

Vanessa is a very talented performer, arranger and composer and should be recognized as a young musical prodigy of Trinidad and Tobago. Her compositions and arrangements are very mature for a person of her age; she is determined to make music her career. She is already taking one music course at University level (at the UWI Centre for Creative and Festival Arts) and continues to excel as a performer and arranger. Her mother would like a school from abroad to recognize her talents so she could gain the experience of studying abroad.

Golden Hands is supported by parents, Petrotrin, and by the Minister of Trade and Industry (the San Fernando West representative Dianne Seukeran). In particular, Petrotrin (a Trinidad oil company) has made it their corporate goal to assist Golden Hands (which is run in the backyard of Franka’s home) in any way possible, because they see this as a worthwhile investment in the future of young musicians pursuing a cultural ideal. Recently Petrotrin has financially supported this youth band with their recording project (a double CD entitled Pure Gold) and assisted them with their transportation costs to the Queen’s Park Savannah for Junior Panorama. The Minister of Trade and Industry has also taken a personal interest in the group, and is helping Golden Hands by directing the supply of materials and labour, sufficient to renovate the bands practice area and around their backyard rehearsal space.

But the financial responsibilities of running a pan school never end. Preparing for a competition involves all sorts of added expenses; uniforms, pan tuning, transporting costs, meals, etc. The CD project was implemented to archive the groups repertoire, provide experience at a recording studio, and to financially assist with the costs towards running a pan school. Tracks for Pure Gold are often aired by the local San Fernando Culture Crazy radio station 90.1 FM; which takes its Trini music to the rest of the world via the internet on wack901fm.com.

Golden Hands, San Fernando, Trinidad
The Backyard - Golden Hands under the trees in their Panyard

The first away tour Golden Hands made was to Washington DC, in 2003. This was through the invitation and sponsorship of the Trinidad and Tobago Embassy. Their second trip to the United States was in the summer of 2005. This time they were invited by a youth steel orchestra Steel the Show at Southern Delaware School, run by John Syphard. As the story goes, John Syphard and a teacher from Sixth Form College (Wendell Chase) were old college roommates. The two friends kept in touch over the years and John Syphard decided to bring his pan students from Delaware to visit Golden Hands during the 2005 Carnival season. The two youth steelbands got along so well that they came back to Trinidad for the 2006 Carnival season. The two youth orchestras (Golden Hands and Steel the Show) performed together this Carnival season with Mount Moriah Pan Movement on J’Ouvert in San Fernando. This sister band is just the kind of cross cultural exchange the Ministry of Education wants to see!

Golden Hands is truly a pan school where students learn the proper techniques in playing the instrument. In a recent conversation with Miss Franka she stated that: “Golden Hands is a unique pan school in that the students learn the proper playing techniques which were honed in the panyard.” Many people have commented on the excellent sound (golden touch) quality Golden Hands has acquired. She stated that “there are many pianists for example teaching pan but they can not teach the proper way of playing the pan. Piano teachers who also teach pan do not have the same panyard experience and technical skills as a person who has grown up playing the pan.”

Golden Hands, Trophy Winners
Golden Hands, Trophy Winners

Currently the youngest member is 5 years old; the oldest is 18. Golden Hands main mission is to teach music literacy. Students learn to read and write all types of musical styles, from calypso to classical. Like many pan schools in Trinidad, students from Golden Hands participate in the Graded Pan Exams (a brainchild of Dr. Anne M. Osborne at the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts, CCFA, at UWI) where they earn certificates upon examination from UWI. One of Miss Franka’s goals is to get the students involved in all types of competitions from an early age. Golden Hands participate in numerous competitions from festivals to Panorama. To achieve a balance of note reading and rote learning, Miss Franka encourages her students to go into the panyard and participate with the social and cultural aspects of other established panyards (e.g. Hatters, Kalomo Kings, La Romain Super Vibes Pan Movement, Mount Moriah Pan Movement & Skiffle Bunch). The parents are more comfortable with their children going into the panyard as a group. On many occasions, Franka herself assists some of the arrangers in drilling their panyard music.

This March the band is currently getting ready for Music Festival (not to be confused with the World Steelband Music Festival). This biennual Music Festival (for instrumental and voice), with a Colonial pedigree dating from 1948, exhibits it twenty-seventh event in this year; and has only recently opened its doors of acceptance for more instrumental sections that contain the steelpan specifically. In a recent discussion Miss Franka said: “After all, it is a music Festival and pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. The inclusion of pan in the music festival was the turning point in Trinidad’s social psyche.” Here she was referring to the first appearance of pan in that festival of 1952. The Music Festival is managed by Mrs. Joslynne L. Sealey, who also acts as secretary. Two years ago Golden Hands walked away with eight trophies; this year the band is planning on doing even better.

Supporters, parents and students of Golden Hands, view with knowing trepidation on one hand, and yet with a sense of pride of association on the other; that “Miss Franka” stands for, and represents, a guide on the road to excellence. She does not tolerate egos, nor does she put up with any nonsense from her students. She has total command of her school, and leads with purpose and authority; and in return, gains the respect of her students. She constantly inspires; and advocates that success comes from hard work and perseverance.

We would like to wish Mrs. Franka Hills-Headley and Golden Hands the best of luck in all of their future endeavors!

Further information on the Pure Gold CD can be received from Golden Hands at frankelgolden@hotmail.com

List 1 - Women teaching privately or professionally at music schools or with pan groups in Trinidad (apologies...not a complete list)
  1. Esther Batson “Celeste School of Music”
  2. Dr Pat Bishop
  3. Odessa Vincent-Brown
  4. Mrs. Judith Clement “Clement’s Music School”
  5. Maureen Clement Moe “Entertainers”
  6. Mrs. Merle Albino-DeCoteau “Music Makers”
  7. Priscilla Stafford-Duncan, “Duncan School”
  8. Franka Hills-Headley “Golden Hands”
  9. Ms Lydia Ledgerwood: “Necessary Arts School”
  10.  Niasha and Anushka Layne
  11. Mrs. Matthews and daughter Tricia “Gabrielites”
  12.  Louis McIntosh “Pan Pipers”
  13.  Joyann Moseley “Community School of the Arts”
  14.  Rojelle Granger-Moton
  15. Dr. Phaedra Pierre “Trinity All Generation Steel”
  16.  Bernadette Roberts
  17.  Mrs. Sylvia Robin “Celeste School of Music” [died 8 Mar 2006]

List 2 - Golden Hands - Results from the Junior Steelband Music Festival 2005
  • 1st place Under-21 solo category - Vanessa Headley
  • 1st place Under-16 solo category - Richardé Bereaux
  • 3rd place Under-16 solo category - Kevin Richards
  • 1st place Under-21 duet category - Vanessa Headley and Keon Marcano
  • 2nd place Under-21 quartet category - Vanessa Headley, Keon Marcano, Richardé Bereaux and Chisara Bailey
  • 1st place Under-21 ensemble categor
  • 2nd place Under-21 orchestra category
  • 1st place up to grade 5 sight reading - Shivonne Squires
  • 2nd place up to grade 8 sight reading - Vanessa Headley

  • de Barry, Jeremy. Final Results - Junior Steelband Music Festival 2005 in Trinidad and Tobago. 21 Nov. 2005.
  • Headley, Vanessa. Personal interview. 12-14 Mar. 2006.
  • Hills-Headley, Franka. Personal interview. 14 Mar. 2006.
  • Yearwood, Sheldon J. Golden Hands launches first double CD. The TRINIDAD GUARDIAN; Online Edition Ver 2.0. 9 July 2005.
  • Images: © Golden Hands

Golden Hands - Five Alive - Moods of Pan 2008

photos provided by, and ©, Golden Hands

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