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Tobago Steelpan Women - Binta and Zwena Carrington

Women and the Steelpan Art Form

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Binta and Zwena
Binta and Zwena

Global - Meet Binta and Zwena Carrington two of Tobago’s top female steelpan musicians - one an educator and the other - soon to be a medical doctor.  They are part of the growing number of steelpan  women musicians that are making major contributions to the art form.

Although often placed in the shadow of its well-known sister isle, Trinidad, 2010 was the year that Tobago showed the world that its players can compete with anyone.   Seven out of nine Tobago steel orchestras made to this year’s semi finals for Panorama.  And six continued on to the finals.

This year Tobago made steelpan music history and the women of Tobago played a very large and visible role.

When Steel Talks continues our celebration of women with an exclusive interview with Zwena and Binta Carrington.

 An Exclusive Interview

  • WST - The names Binta AND Zwena are well known in Tobago's steelpan circles. Tell us and the global steelpan community about Binta AND Zwena Carrington?

    We are two of Tobago’s young musical geniuses. We hail from the beautiful serene village of Cinnamon Hill, Tobago and we are the third (3rd) and fourth (4th) of five children. Indeed, we are two of the lovely daughters of Lorris Carrington (father) and Glen Carrington (mom, deceased) and the sisters of Kalifa, Ato and Shani Carrington (all musicians). In fact, we make up the pan duet “The Carrington Sisters.”

    Binta and Zwena

    Binta - I have been playing the steel pan for the last fourteen (14) years. During these years, I have performed as a soloist, one half of a duo, and band member. Additionally, I have composed and arranged music. In 2004, my arrangement of Winston “Shadow” Bailey’s “Whap! Cocoyea” copped sixth place in the National Junior Panorama finals for “Katzenjammers’ Kids.”  In 2005, I arranged on the road for ‘Our Boys Steel Orchestra’ both Carnival Monday and Tuesday.  In the same year, the band performed creditably well, as we captured first place in all five competitions that we entered.  I placed first - in the Caribbean - for the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) Music Exam with the steelpan as my instrument of choice in 2002.  Furthermore, I have been a tutor for the Pan in the Class room summer program (Tobago) in 2004 & 2005. Currently, I am a Medical student at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Campus, Jamaica.

    Zwena - I have been playing the steel pan for the last thirteen (13) years. During these thirteen incredible years, I have played the double second pan, guitar pan, six set bass and tenor pans. As part of the Katzenjammers Steel Orchestra stage side, I represented Tobago on a road show in 2004. Thus, I was privileged to tour England and some Scandinavian countries including: Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Norway and Austria. In 2009, I arranged for the Carnival competitions on the road for ‘Steel Xplosion Steel Orchestra.’  I have served as the secretary for Steel Xplosion from 2007 to 2009.  As part of my drive to contribute to the musical development of youth on the island, I have been conducting music classes in both theory and practical (steelpan) for young people between the ages of five (5) and twenty (20). I am currently a teacher of English Language and Literature at a prominent high school in Tobago.

    As the Carrington duet, we have performed for many prestigious functions on the island.  We are the proud sponsors of the “The Binta and Zwena Carrington Challenge trophy’, one thousand dollars ($1,000) and a personal trophy for the “Best Panist Award” of the ‘Tobago’s Children Showcase Competition.’ We are the third place winners of the Tobago’s Bakers Scouting for Talent Competition 2004. Finally, as ace pianists on the island, we have performed with numerous bands including: Our Boys Steel Orchestra, Buccooneers, Katzenjammers, Dem Boys and Steel Xplosion Steel Orchestra to name a few.  We have also performed under the musical guidance of many renowned arrangers including: Vernon ‘Sel’ Dennis, Ken “Professor” Philmore, Emanuel Ector, Duvone Stewart, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Auburn Wiltshire, Clive Alexis, Brian ‘Bean’ Griffith, Sydney Joseph and Carlton ‘Zanda’ Alexander.

  • WST - How did you first become introduced to the steel pan instrument?

    Zwena - It was customary for us to visit our brother, Ato and our grandmother in Trinidad during our August vacation.  My brother, being the only male in the family, was exposed to the steel pan at a very early age and was a member of a small pan side in Mt. Lambert, Trinidad. One Saturday evening, the girls in the family decided to accompany him to one of his practice sessions.  It was the first time in our lives that we were in such close proximity to a steel pan. That experience was surreal!  Everything that night seemed magical.  Binta was ten (10) and I was nine (9). Seeing that we were accustomed to the piano, we understood the concept of notes, timing and scales. However, the way the men in the band played and the harmony between the different voices of the instruments totally mesmerized us. We could not imagine that those sticks and drums made such melodious sounds. At the end of the practice session that night, we bothered our brother to borrow the tenor pan that he was practicing on, and we stayed up the entire night playing and singing to our favorite songs.  That night would be etched in our minds forever.

    When our mom saw what had overwhelmed us, she granted us permission to attend the practice session the following night. For the entire Sunday afternoon, we hummed the songs that we heard the previous evening. As it was six o’clock that Sunday evening, we rushed out to the practice session before our brother; with the aim that we would ask the captain to teach us a song.  We knew that it would be special because there were no other females in the band and we would be the only ones practicing.

    My sister, Binta played the guitar pan and I played the cello pan. What fun, we thought!  That fateful night, we strummed the chords to five of the songs that the stage side had on their repertoire.

    When the August vacation concluded, we returned to Tobago and our mom decided that Binta along with our eldest sister, Kalifa, would become members of a steelband. Seeing that Our Boys Steel Orchestra was in close proximity to our house, that was the only option they had. Both Kalifa and Binta commenced practice in November of 1996 and learnt the Panorama song for the panorama competition the following January.  When my mom saw what they were able to accomplish in such a short space of time, she decided that I would start to play the following year.  I began to play the guitar pan with Our Boys Steel Orchestra in 1997, under the guidance of Mr. Vernon ‘Sel’ Dennis (deceased).

  • WST - The steelpan instrument has a long history in Tobago. What is the reason for its continued popularity?

    Zwena - Undoubtedly, the steelpan is the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. In Tobago, our aim is to assist in the preservation of the instrument, and transfer the skills to future generations. During the year, bands in Tobago engage in training programs for young children and enter competitions both locally and nationally. This continued participation in numerous activities, builds the clientele within the bands. Therefore, there are numerous bands on the island with a youthful population of approximately sixty-five percent (65%) of each band. Additionally, it has been integrated into the curriculum of many schools. This would ensure the continuity, growth, preservation and popularity of the instrument on the island.

  • WST - Pan has exploded globally among women. This is also the situation in Tobago. What is your explanation for the phenomenon?

    Binta - In our quest to make use of all our potentials as females and to break the ‘glass ceiling’ that for too long has separated us from our male counterparts, we, the female species have become very competitive. Thus, women are no longer sitting and endorsing the statement “It’s a man’s world,” we have now carved a new motto, “It’s a world for ALL those who make use of the countless opportunities that present themselves.”  With the dawn of the twenty-first century, women have been increasing their popularity in different spheres. We have been breaking barriers in sports, academics and music. Indisputably, in the steelpan industry, this is no different. Women, though we were not the inventors of the instrument, have used our creativity, discipline, dedication and diligence to dominate the steel pan realm in Tobago.

  • WST - As female panists, did you meet with resistance because you wanted to play pan?

    Zwena and Binta - No!  Even though we started to play with Our Boys Steel Orchestra, where sixty five percent (65%) of the players were females, there was no resistance at all.  Fortunately, we were born in an era, where people were no longer ostracized for their involvement in the steelpan fraternity.

  • WST - Both you and your sister dreamed of careers in music. What changed that?

    Zwena and Binta  - Growing up, our parents exposed us to every activity possible. We played piano, steel pan, golf, football, story-telling, we sang, were involved with drama - any activity you could think of - we did it. However, our parents always instilled in us that Education was of paramount importance to our survival. So even though we excelled in music at early ages, we also excelled in our academics.  For our parents, our ‘BOOKS’ were second to God.  We always excelled in our academics and we were at the top of our classes in both primary and high schools.  Sad to say, though our dreams of having careers in the Music Industry were like diamonds to us - to our parents, they were illusions.  My mom sat us down one day and told us that we have the potential to become anything we want to in this life.  However, seeing that we were good at music, it was better to get into a field that would challenge us.  She said to us, that if for some strange reason we became tired of our career paths, then it was possible for us to fall back on Music.  Coming up from the system where my parents were taught the importance of an Education, we totally agreed with their stance.

    Binta - (Laughingly) So I decided that I would become a ‘Musical Doctor.’  This meant that after becoming a medical doctor, I would use music as therapy in the healing process of my patients.

    Zwena - I never really dreamt of a career in Music.  However, I must say I enjoy the ‘adrenaline rush’ that goes with the preparations for a competition and performances on stage.  For me, I always dreamt of a career that would allow me to speak and lecture audiences.  Thus, at an early age I dreamt of being a lawyer and/or a politician.

  • WST - Which steelpan instruments do you each play?

    Binta - I play the tenor pan.

    Zwena - I play the double second pans.

  • WST - Do you play any other instruments?

    Binta - I play the piano and drums.

    Zwena - I also play the piano.

  • WST - Who were your musical influences?

    Binta and Zwena - Early in our musical journey, we admired Mrs. Winifred Joseph and Mrs. Gwyneth Armstrong , our Music teachers in both piano and theory.  However, when we became a part of the steel pan fraternity, we have always endeavored to emulate the styles of Mr. Vernon ‘Sel’ Dennis, Emanuel Ector and Auburn Wiltshire in arranging; Duvone Stewart and Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe in their pan showmanship and dexterity.

  • WST - When you are not playing pan, what are your interests?

    b and k
    Binta and Zwena

    Binta - I am seriously involved in patient care and management. Hence, I occupy most of my time in the continued pursuits of my medical career in various hospitals and health care facilities in Jamaica (where I am currently a final year Medical student at UWI Mona).  In addition, I am an avid footballer and golfer, and I serve as a defender on the UWI Mona female football team.  Additionally, I am the captain of my hall’s (Mary Seacole Hall, UWI, Jamaica) football team.

    Zwena - I love to travel; as a result, I make it my duty to travel to a Caribbean island every year. I am actively involved in many youth groups on the island.  One of these includes the ‘P.N.M. Tobago East Youth League’ where I served as the youth speaker.  I do a lot of public speaking and drama. I also play football and golf.  As a teacher, I am heavily engaged in youth-related activities and a lot of community work.  I partner with the St. Vincent De Paul Home for the Aged, Mason Hall, Tobago by providing financial assistance, cooking and caring for the elderly; I have done projects with Happy Haven (school for disabled children), Tobago; I also find joy in cooking for and interacting with the homeless people on the streets of Scarborough every four months.  Lastly, as a form teacher and third form year coordinator at my school, I am overwhelmed every time I am able to give financial assistance to needy students or plan and host activities for the students of my year group including our annual Christmas dinner.

  • WST - Are there many opportunities for the female panist in Tobago?

    Zwena - There are opportunities for female panists in Tobago. However, these opportunities may not be as vast as those of our female counterparts in Trinidad. Unfortunately, though there are opportunities for panists on the island, these opportunities aren’t sufficient. Throughout the course of the year, Tobago’s panists cannot boast of participating in many competitions that originated in Tobago. The implementation of year-round competitions and activities for pan would auger well in growth and preservation of the instrument on the island.

  • WST - Tobago has always had great bands in the annual Trinidad & Tobago Panorama, but this year it all came together. Tobago had a great showing in the 2010 competition.  What do you attribute that to?

    Zwena - For many years Tobago has been short-changed in many competitions nationally. As a result, the ‘Tobagonian’ whether in music, sports or education had to push himself/herself harder than his or her Trinidad counterpart in that arena. Undoubtedly, this has been the case for Pan in Tobago. I endorse the adage ‘hard work has its rewards.’  Fortunately, we have been working very hard, and this year it paid off.

    Additionally, I must applaud the managers of Tobago’s bands especially Iran ‘Duce’ Anthony (the manager of the winner in the 2010 medium band finals) for handling their little resources very well.  Our managers do a great job in placing emphasis on maintaining instruments and keeping players motivated. Most assuredly, Tobago’s bands focus on an overall package. This year, we combined the ingredients of discipline, cooperation, good sounding instruments, great arrangers, diligence and dedication to ensure our success.  With this mix, success is guaranteed.  It was evident this year.

    Binta - In addition to what Zwena said, I believe that the greatest contributor came from the fact that in the past, there was one category for conventional bands, consequently, Tobago’s bands suffered because the bands did not have enough players/power to successfully compete with their Trinidad counterparts.  However, with the dawn of the different categories for the conventional bands namely: Small, Medium and Large, Tobago’s bands were able to find their niche.  This has indeed been a very progressive step for all of Tobago’s orchestras.  The climb to success began gradually.  First, we had one band in the Finals, then two and three and this year we had five bands [in the Medium category], the most ever.

  • WST - Is this theme expected to continue - where some of the best bands will come from Tobago?

    Binta and Zwena - Indeed!  Now that we have undoubtedly leveled the playing field, and ensured that 2010 Panorama was indeed a national one (five bands from Trinidad and five bands from Tobago [in the Medium category)], we would work diligently to ensure that it remains this way and that all Tobago’s bands perform creditably well. However, to maintain this costs money. It is costly to maintain the instruments, but more costly to maintain the players.  We hope that with the assured intervention from the Tobago House of Assembly (T.H.A.) and the business community, ALL Tobago’s bands would be armed with the necessary ammunition to battle our opponents.

  • WST - This year you played and won a championship with Steel Xplosion in the medium band panorama competition. How was that experience?

    Zwena - That experience was euphoric for many reasons.

    1. It was my second time performing for panorama finals. In 2008 we placed second and we kept on knocking. In 2009, we did not advance to the finals and as a result, we did some introspection, the necessary reshuffling and gathered our ammunition for 2010. Undoubtedly, this year, we had a mix that captivated the judges.

    2. I shared this victory not only with the band members, but, also with my little sister, Shani who has also been playing for quite awhile.

    3. Creating history is a great feeling. Being  a member of the first band from Tobago to win a National Panorama competition in Trinidad, ‘Que alegria!’

    4. We also created history and bridged the gap in terms of the accepted genres of calypso and/or soca that can enter the competition.  Yes! We won with Radica, a chutney soca.   Lastly, I felt avenged. I started my panorama season mid-January and began practicing with two bands on the island. I knew that learning two songs would not have been a problem for us (my little sister and me) and that we would be accepted in any band on the island because of our acclaimed reputation in the industry. After practicing with two bands, I was told on the day of the preliminaries, from the management of one of the bands that I would not be allowed to play because of my affiliation with another band and because I wore another band’s jersey from a previous panorama season, in that band’s pan tent.  Indeed, a very retrogressive step in the movement in Tobago. As a result, this victory spoke for me and it silenced many persons.

  • WST - If there was one thing either you or your sister could change about the steelband art form, what would that be?

    Zwena - Firstly, I would change the mindset of ‘Trinbagonians’ to the instrument.  It should no longer be viewed as that “little ole oil drum” but as a creation, a musical instrument, a symbol of Trinidad and Tobago and a mark that we should be proud of. Additionally, there should be a synergy amongst all ‘pan manufacturers’ in ensuring that there is a ‘standardized steelpan product.’

    Binta - I agree, in addition, there must be an improvement in the attitude (scant courtesy) with which amateur panists (who make up the majority of the steel pan fraternity) are treated. Additionally, I hope that ‘the powers that be’ increase their snail’s pace in creating a stamp on the instrument that it would be globally recognized as an instrument created in Trinidad and Tobago.

  • WST - What is next for Binta AND Zwena?

    Binta - I would graduate this year with my Medical degree (MBBS) from UWI, Mona and subsequently return to serve my country.  In addition, I would rekindle my flame as a panist in T&T and assist in the furtherance of the steel pan product and fraternity.

    Zwena - Through teaching at school and in my private classes, I would continue to assist in the development of the most important resource- the human resource on the island.  Furthermore, I would continue to work assiduously in creating a brand name that all of Tobago, and Trinidad and Tobago, could boast of and be proud of.

A Celebration of Women And The Steelpan Artform

Their Story, Their Voice, Their Life, Their Dreams - click for more stories

Contact Binta and Zwena Carrington: whensteeltalks.ning.com/profile/Strawberrykisses 

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