Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Debi Gardner of the United Kingdom

She is simply ready and can-do! Bringing the full package to the table - administrator, organizer and musician Debi Gardner talks about her fantastic journey with the Steelpan in an exclusive on When Steel Talks

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “How did you first become introduced to the ‘steel pan instrument? Take us through your steel pan music journey?

Debi G. - “The first time I heard Pan was at the Notting Hill Carnival. I can’t remember how young I was but I remember being near Portobello Green with my father. I tried to go to see what it was but he wasn’t having any of it. The sound stayed with me although it was many years before I knew what I’d heard.

“When I did start playing it was by accident. I’ve always been involved with music and was fortunate my school encouraged students to pursue their interests. It was a hockey (a game I hated) and it was raining, so I had a perfect excuse to go to the music department. The steel pan tutor, Zack Herbert, was there setting up the band, Paddington Youth. He said “Play this” and I did. That was it. I was hooked.

“I had only been playing with Paddington Youth for a short when a friend invited me to listen to Groovers Steel Orchestra. I was amazed by the skills of the players and the extent of their repertoire. When I told my dad I was joining the band he was less than pleased. Playing pan in school was one thing but playing in a semi-professional band was another story. Although he’d probably deny it now, he made it a real challenge for me to get to practice.  The band, led by Terry Noel, was sponsored by British Airways. Playing and travelling … we real had ah time! It was during this time I first went to Trinidad and met Dr. Pat Bishop.

“I was still with Groovers when I played by first Panorama with Ebony. Playing Annise ‘Halfers’ Hadeed’s music was very different to anything I had done before and I went back every year until, sadly, Groovers folded when I joined Ebony full time.

“During the time I played with Ebony I also worked as the band’s Administrator dealing with bookings and fund raising. Being in the pan yard 16 hours a day, 50 weeks a year became too intense so I left. I still have extremely close links with the band and work closely with Pepe Francis, the Band’s Director and Chairman of the British Association of Steelbands (BAS).

“After Ebony I thought I’d stop playing but was asked by Dexter Joseph to lend a hand with Glissando Steel Orchestra for Panorama. When Rudy ‘Two Lef’ Smith took over as Arranger a couple years late I stayed as I’d always liked his music.

“In 1998 I was asked by Robert Clarke to help out with Mangrove Steel Band. Matthew Phillip had taken over as Manager and they were working to rebuild the band. I played two Panoramas with both Glissando and Mangrove but felt I wasn’t doing either band any justice. I really admired what Matthew was (and is) doing with Mangrove so decided to stay. I joined the stage side in 1999 and have been there since.

“My first Panorama in Trinidad was with Phase II in 2001. Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe had arranged for Mangrove the August prior and invited me to play. With the exception of 2011 when work commitments meant I couldn’t make it, I’ve played with them every year since. Needless to say I also supported Andre White, Mangrove’s Panorama Arranger, when he made his debut on the 'big stage’ with Sforzata in 2010.”

WST - “What is it about Pan that has so captivated you, made you passionate overall?”

Debi G. - “Playing pan and making music has been incredibly rewarding and has afforded me some amazing experiences but it’s the people that have kept me involved. I’ve played music by some of the world’s greatest arrangers, alongside some wildly talented musicians and incredible individuals. What else could I could do in this life that would allow me to meet the Sultan of Brunei, have friends in Japan and make arrangements with a two year old to go practice? My life is crazy but I really wouldn’t have it any other way.”

WST - “You are generally seen on the four pan; did you begin in steel pan on this voice of instrument, or have you played others within the steel orchestra?”

Debi G. - “I’ve always played middle section. I’ve played treble guitar with Groovers and double second on Mangrove’s stage side but my heart is with the 4 pan cello. There’s something about the tone and richness of the pan that touches me.”

Debi Gardner with Phase II Pan Groove
Debi Gardner with Phase II Pan Groove
photo by Robbie Joseph

WST - “Are you involved in the steel band art form on a full-time basis, or do you have a parallel career?”

Debi G. - “My day job is in social housing but I have had the opportunity to work full time in Pan and the wider carnival arts and creative industries.  

Prior to working with Ebony, I gave up a promising City career to become Coordinator of the National Steelband Music Company, a three year project funded by Arts Council England to plan and stage a steel band music festival. I was a Trustee/Director of the Notting Hill Carnival for over ten years and between 2007 and 2009, as well as running my own events company, I worked for the UK Centre for Carnival Arts in Luton supporting those involved in carnival arts and the creative industries into work, education or training. Although my involvement in Pan and carnival arts is voluntary capacity I find it highly rewarding.”

WST - “You are an organizer, a player and an administrator within the steel pan world; which “hat” do you find most challenging?”

Debi G. - “Because my involvement in Pan has always been multi-faceted I find it relatively easy to move between my different roles. The challenge is balancing my regular job with Pan. Very often, there are not enough hours in the day to get everything done - and it’s always difficult explaining to colleagues why travelling to Trinidad every year is so important, or why I only get four hours sleep a night in August, but everyone gets used to me eventually.”

WST -“What is your most memorable moment in Pan?”

Debi G . - “I really can’t pick one! Watching Pat Bishop drill; the first time I saw Phase II unloading pans for Panorama; being up on ‘the hill’ listening to Despers; winning my first Panorama with Ebony/Mangrove/Phase; spending time with Geraldine Connor at her home in Tobago; sharing a rack this year with Preggy; standing next to the pyramids. The list really is endless!!”

WST - “And what is your least favorite moment as it relates to Pan?”

Debi G. - “I really don’t have one. There are things all panists can do without, for example lifting pan, playing in the cold, playing that tune again – but there are 100 good things to every bad one so I just get on with it.”

WST - “If you had the ability to change one thing in Pan, what would that be?”

Debi G. - “Respect. Local and national governments need to respect steel bands and what they contribute to their communities. Bands need security of tenure and proper funding so they can continue to engage and nurture young people. I find it impossible to understand how those who control the purse strings don’t see the real value in the work bands do.”

WST - “What has slowed down or hindered the development of the steel pan movement overall, in your opinion?”

Debi G. - “Hindsight is a great thing. It would be easy to point out where we, as a sector, have failed to take advantage of opportunities but what would be the value in that? We need to look forward. Obviously there are things we could not and cannot control - the global economy, the lack of gigs and government funding, and clearly inequality exists. But gone are the days when complaining and simply putting out our hands for assistance was sufficient.  

I believe we need to take charge of our own future. We need to look at the things we can influence and put our house in order. We need to collect the evidence we need in order to demonstrate our value to local, national and international communities and economies and then fight for our fair share of what support and growth opportunities are available. I also believe the Trinidad and Tobago government, Pan Trinbago, the Trinidad and Tobago National Carnival Commission and Missions and High Commission around the world have a duty and responsibility to support us in our efforts by making funding available where it’s needed and lobbying governments on our behalf.”

WST - “As a key administrator and organizer in the UK Pan world, what is your vision for the steel pan in the UK?”

Debi G. - “People involved in Pan are some of the hardest working, dedicated, creative, entrepreneurial and disciplined people you will ever encounter and I want their commitment to be recognised so they can progress not only in Pan but also in their day-to-day lives.  

BAS is working with Simeon Sandiford of Sanch (Trinidad) to develop a suite of training materials which will allow panists and those involved in steel bands to attain recognised qualifications. Accreditation will not be limited to music and performance but will allow those doing other things such as PR/Marketing, finance, recording/production, administration, Human Resources, etc., to get a qualification/a better job/start their own business. This initiative is really close to my heart as the time people spend in pan yards should be seen for what it is - an investment in their future.”

WST - “In your administrative and organizer roles within the steel band community, do you ever experience any challenges or "pushback" because you are a woman?”

Debi G. - “Interesting question. My initial reaction was “No”. However, thinking about it a bit more I do think people’s perception of me is different depending on our interaction.

My role within BAS is definitely defined. The organisation really isn’t ready for a female President. However, my relationship is different with individuals and bands across the regions where I think people see me as someone who is influential in the sector. I am also more active internationally. As well as working with Simeon on accreditation, I'm also working with Nestor Sullivan (Trinidad) to develop an international network for steel band organisations. We had our first meeting on 14 February 2013 in Trinidad. Both of these initiatives are showing great promise so watch this space!

As far as Pan today is concerned, it may be a struggle for women to progress but we need to recognise and celebrate those who are paving the way. Michelle Huggins-Watts has been blazing a trail for women arrangers for years. This year, Emily Lemmerman made Panorama history when she tuned for Skiffle Bunch. And then we have Natasha Joseph’s success with Phase II. And let’s not forget the achievement of Brigitte Fischer and Vernetta Paul, the first female Presidents of the Swiss and St Lucia steelband associations respectively. All these women have demonstrated that the only barriers are those we put up for ourselves.”

WST - “In your opinion, have the sometime negative connotations been removed – with respect to women in Pan - as far as the UK and Trinidad and Tobago steel pan scenes are concerned?”

Debi G. - “I was never aware of any negativity surrounding women in Pan. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Pat Bishop and Dr. Geraldine Conner, two exceptionally strong, knowledgeable and independent women very soon after getting involved in Pan. They were my role models and I drew on their strength, confidence and passion for the art form to guide me. I have a lot of love and respect for them both and am truly grateful for the life skills they taught me. I miss them both dearly.”

WST - “You returned once more to Trinidad & Tobago to perform with Phase II Pan Groove this year. It is the celebration of fifty years of Panorama in 2013, and with reference to your own years of involvement with the steel pan art form, what did you notice, if anything, that was different?”

Debi G. - “Sadly, I didn’t notice anything different with Trinidad & Tobago’s Panorama this year. There seemed to be little marketing or promotion around the anniversary and as far as Phase II was concerned, we were focused on the job in hand. I do think Pan Trinbago, the National Carnival Commission and the Trinidad government missed an opportunity to market the occasion and to encourage tourists not only to the Panorama competition but also to pan yards which would have generated money locally and where it’s most needed. Hopefully, things will improve over the next decade and the 60th anniversary will be more of a ‘thing’.”

WST - “In your opinion and as observed in your years in administration and organizing around the steel band community and art form - do you think that steel band leaders have become, perhaps a bit complacent, maybe jaded, or lacking in innovation?”

Debi G. - “I’m not sure I would use any of those words to describe steel band leaders. It takes a wide range of management skills to run a steel band, so, good or bad, we need to appreciate every band leader has something to offer. However, I acknowledge some band leaders are, perhaps, not as dynamic as others and that can sometimes stifle growth and innovation.  Good or bad, dynamic or relaxed, those leading the sector should not be slow to share responsibilities and let those who have energy, enthusiasm and interest take a lead. Band Leaders and others in influential positions won’t be doing things for ever so it’s important to find ways in which to encourage and nurture people into roles, and to take ownership for development art and future growth of the art form.”

WST - “How would you describe the state of Pan in the UK, and locally in and around London in particular?”

Debi G. - “Like everywhere, things are difficult. Few bands have dedicated rehearsal spaces. Developing players and maintaining their interest is challenging. There’s little or no funding available for the work bands do in communities, sponsorship is unheard of in the UK and performances are few and far between. However, in the face of all of this, bands continue to survive and to raise the bar of excellence. What’s also interesting is excellence is no longer centered on London or in communities with heavy Caribbean influences. Real Steel proved that at Panorama last year. Times are changing and, good or bad, we need to change with it. At leadership level, BAS is in the process of reviewing its structure to see how we can better be represented in the regions so that when things do improve we’re well positioned to make our voices – and our music - heard.”

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

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