Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Delphina James of the United Kingdom

“I went to Trinidad for 5 weeks so I could play for prelims with Desperadoes. After our prelims performance in the panyard, Clive Bradley told the captain that I’m to play grand stand because my performance was excellent and I was jamming. That was a dream come true – playing the finest music, in a band that I loved and being noticed by the great Clive Bradley.”

Fascinated with the steelpan instrument from an early age - the musically-gifted Delphina taught herself to read music. In an exclusive with When Steel Talks Delphina gives us a look into what drives her passion for the Pan - from the UK to Trinidad.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

WST - “When and how did you first become involved in Pan?”

Delphina J. - “I learnt to play Pan when I was 8 at school.  My teacher was Dennis Joseph.  My love for Pan started there.  I started on Tenor with the F# in the middle of the pan (Is that an ‘Invaders’ pan?).

“When I told my mum I’m learning Pan she said ‘those are at Carnival.’ My grandma had a stall at Notting Hill Carnival and I saw all the floats going through the crowds.  My mum said ‘You can’t go Carnival till you’re 18’....I found a way at 15 - joined a band. 

“From middle school at around 10 I got moved from that school to a another school that didn’t have Pan, so I taught myself how to read music on a small Yamaha keyboard from about the age of 10.  In high school where I put my new skills to good use, I learnt Saxophone and Bassoon.  I found the school steel band.  Again, Dennis was my teacher; then he introduced me to Harrow School for Young Musicians (HSYM) Steel Band where Dexter Joseph was the arranger – HE PUT ME ON DOUBLE SECONDS.  I was VEX until I realised it’s the best PAN ever….love the timbre, range, and where it fits in the band (and the space I have to jam).  Dexter was a big influence in my taste of music.  He put music down that I didn’t think was even possible on Pan – Latin, Soul, Jazz….opened up my whole world of music and made me realise PAN IS FOR EVERY GENRE. 

“In 1995 Dexter took a few of us from HSYM Steel to Notting Hill Panorama – I played with Glissandos Steel Orchestra….talk done.  Already fascinated with the instrument – the number of players, this new style of music: fast, loud, ferocious, 10 minutes of sheer sweetness changed my life.  We didn’t play in 1996/97 so I went to watch.  Which band took my soul - EBONY……yep. I became a Pan Jumbie.  

I studied ‘A Level’ music and [have] my BA Music degree on Pan and everything I do now will have to have something to do with Pan.  Even though I play other instruments, my first instrument is Steel Pan.”

Delphina James
Delphina James

WST - “What is it that keeps you so passionate about Pan?”

Delphina J. - “What keeps me so passionate about Pan, for me, I think that Pan still has a lot to offer the world and I want to be a part of that.  Having accomplished grade 6 practical Bassoon and grade 8 theory, I want to achieve grade 8 on Pan.  I know they are working on that now. 

“I want to be an influence to young Pan Performers, I want to assist in Pan in BAS (British Association of Steelbands) where needed.  I’m extremely passionate about composing and arranging for Pan and love listening to innovative arrangers with their own sound – young or old. I love practice, I love PANORAMA!   I love arranging and listening to classical music on Pan and have begun my own catalogue of Classical arrangements.”

WST - “What is your fondest memory in Pan?”

Delphina J. - “I have quite a few fond memories - including my first solo performance in the Royal Albert Hall at 15, performing at World festival 2000, playing in Trinidad for Panorama - but one that really stands out for me is - Trinidad Panorama 2005 I went to Trinidad for 5 weeks so I could play for prelims with Desperadoes. After our prelims performance in the panyard, Clive Bradley told the captain that I’m to play Grand Stand because my performance was excellent and I was jamming.  That was a dream come true – playing the finest music, in a band that I loved and being noticed by the great Clive Bradley.”

WST - “What has been your most disappointing moment in Pan?”

Delphina J. - “Well apart from not winning in some competitions, I don’t really have a ‘most disappointing moment’ in Pan.”

WST - “What makes Pan in the UK special?”

Delphina J. - “I would have said a few years ago that what makes Pan in the UK special (during Panorama) is our “sound”.  Having arrangers such as Paul Dowie, Samuel DuBois, Kyron Akal brought a more British influence…what I’m trying to say - you can hear, for example, ‘House’ music and British ‘Pop’ music in their arrangements but bands are now bringing Trinidad arrangers which naturally sound just as T&T Panorama… just my opinion but it seems that everyone wants to sound like a Trinidadian band.”

WST - “You’re a member of one of UK’s most successful steelpan music organizations -  Ebony. What makes the group so special?”

Delphina J. - “I’ve been a member of Ebony since 1998 and I’m still in awe of some of the players in the band.  They’re the best players I’ve ever come across.  We are humble, always striving for more and excel in whatever we decide to do out of Pan.  From when I joined till now, I still do some of the exercises I’ve learnt from senior players.  We don’t settle for anything apart from excellence and trust me when I say, WE WORK HARD! And we have a manager that works equally hard, whose life is Pan.  We work with all levels and partake in projects that are sometimes out of our comfort zone.  It’s real hard to find and keep a standard above the rest but we do.”

WST - “What is it you believe the global steelpan community needs work on?”

Delphina J. - “I think that there isn’t enough support from our very own pan players for pan players/bands.  So for instance, I LOVE PAN so if there’s a Pan event – you’ll see me there.  I’ve heard people say ‘I play for band A, why do I want to listen to Band B?’ A lot of people claim to Love Pan but ask them to pay at an event or even if it was free, you’ll see the regular handful of jumbies and the perfect example of this is Single bands panorama. If we as Pan Players won’t attend our own event then who else will?

“But on the other hand, I think that some solo Pan players have gone round the Jazz way; choosing a Jazz standard, soloing as fast as one can, then every member of the band has a solo.  Jazz already is a challenge to listen to.  You’re either into Jazz or not and there aren’t many soloists who don’t improvise. Not many people like Jazz.”

WST - “Who is your favorite arranger?”

Delphina J. - “Favourite arranger has to be Clive Bradley RIP, or Boogsie/Robbie Greenidge/Anise Hadeed – they have their own sound that appeals to ME.”

Delphina James on Sax
Delphina James on Sax

WST - “What is your favorite Panorama piece?”

Delphina J. - “Desperadoes – Picture on My Wall – Clive Bradley.

“Parts that stick-out: The Intro - The first arrangement – the climax to the Jam – THE JAM - re-harmonization  - the orchestration – harmonies – The minor – The last chorus; but most of all - The Cowbell Player Sweetness from start to finish.  The Perfect Panorama Piece.”

WST - “What other genres of music do you enjoy playing on steel pan, if any?”

Delphina J. - “I enjoy playing any genre…. especially Latin Jazz.  I’m working on piano montunos for Double Seconds as it seems to fit the Pan; I play anything, man!”

WST - “Has all the negative schism about the pan instrument and its players disappeared?”

Delphina J. - “No, that’s why Pan hasn’t gotten further.  The place of Pan in the world is disappointing.  I think that there isn’t respect for Pan as with other instruments.  It’s nice that people associate Pan with the Sun and fun times, but the silly things people do come out with, i.e. “dustbin lids,” “Hawaii tops,” “So are you all from Jamaica?”  It’s ignorance but it is up to us to change the perception of the instrument…. Yeah, I know “Yellow Bird” - but I also know Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’.  I know those songs help bring in a wage but it’s annoying. Pan deserves more respect.

“There are a few topics where the Pan community is divided – Patenting – Standardisation – Learning by rote/sight-reading.”

WST  “What is your vision for the future of the steelpan instrument?”

Delphina J. - “Only for Pan to be considered as a conventional instrument.  I do think standardisation would be beneficial and assist in the instrument and players being taken more seriously and with more respect.”

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

Delphina J. - “Pan in the UK is going through a long battle at the moment.  There’s no funding or sponsorship and bands have to constantly fight the neighbours just to practice. 

“However, the amount of schools that have Pan has increased tremendously.  There are more and more people making a living from Pan through tutoring and solo gigs, and the love for the instrument is still strong.  For now all over the UK; Plymouth, Newcastle, Reading, Leicester and London to name a few places, bands are struggling but Pan is still safe and sound.”


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

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