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Meet Jennifer Williams of Barbados

She is a ‘can-do’ person and the steelpan art form has become a major part of her career path. Meet Jennifer Williams the owner and manager of SKF Steelsounds and Pan Institute in Barbados. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Jennifer shares her unique journey with the steelpan instrument.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


WST - “How were you first introduced to the steelpan?”

Jennifer W. - “When I was a little girl I remember my aunt who was visiting from London, had bought a brand new tenor pan for her son and I would go mess around with it from time to time for the time that it was there.  At the time it seemed a really strange instrument to me.  Later in my teenage years I hated steel pan music.   To me it just sounded like noise.  However, in 1999 four guys from Trinidad and Tobago Tony “Pan Jumbie” Williams, Marcus Steele, Solomon Thomas and Jason Williams, (who I’m now married to) came to Barbados for a short while and they came to the restaurant where I worked at the time, Boomer’s Restaurant, to give us some steel pan entertainment.

“What I heard that night was a shocker for me. These guys made the music seem like something totally out of this world. I couldn’t believe this was the same instrument that I just could not stand.  I remembered they played all different genres of music, where all I was used to hearing at the time was calypso or soca. The various arrangements, and solo pieces had me completely blown away. Marcus was even singing—and let me say he can really sing—and not to mention the live show that “Pan Jumbie” gave us where he was spinning and flipping the pan but somehow still managed to accurately get the melodies out while doing all that stuff. I never knew that evening would change the way I saw this unique and magical instrument as well as the course of my life. It was then I developed a new interest in the steelpan and started learning the instrument. My previous musical training in piano while at school along with my deep love for music made it very easy for me. The more I heard and learned the more I fell in love with the instrument.

“I had my first Panorama exposure in 2002 while on a very extended stay in Trinidad and my love for the steel pan and its music grew even more.  I was very impressed with the wide variety of arrangements around the various pan yards that I visited as I moved around with Jason to what seemed like countless Panorama rehearsals. What captivated me was the dedication of the players around the country.  A few of those rehearsals caught me falling asleep in the Courts Laventille Sound Specialists pan yard while waiting for him to finish - which most times turned out to be somewhere around 2:00 a.m. or even later.  Since then on returning home I have been playing.  Now here I am, still playing from time to time and owner and manager of SKF Steelsounds and Pan Institute.  I very much enjoying it all and I am feeling quite contented and fulfilled with this as my chosen career path.”

WST - “From your perspective, tell us about the growth of the steelpan in Barbados?”

Jennifer W. - “I would say that the development has been gradual. There are a few schools and community groups around the island with bands.  However there is scope for a lot more to be done and we are going to ensure that we continue to lead the way to the pan explosion in Barbados.”

WST - “Describe the pan scene, year round, in Barbados?”

Jennifer W. - “We do not have very many events that are centered around steel pan here on our island.  What you will find most are some solo artistes and a few small bands who perform in the hotels and private and national events held around the island. During our Crop Over season between July and August you will get a few days of pan events like “Pan Fusion,” “Pan In De City” and the biggest and probably most anticipated “Pan Pun De Sand” where then persons are able to see most of the bands on the island performing, along with a couple bands from Trinidad & Tobago, and maybe a couple of other islands within the region.”

WST - “What made you decide to open a school dedicated to teaching pan? It is indeed an ambitious project.”

Jennifer W. - “My husband has been teaching the art form in public schools as well as arranging for a few corporate-owned and community bands for quite some time. His charge repeatedly was that something was missing.  The passion and drive that comes with what he knew and felt from back home in Trinidad wasn’t coming out and that was probably because for most persons playing pan it was/is just a hobby along with a lack of understanding of the steel pan and its history. With the exception of a few panists/arrangers/pan teachers here whose livelihood depends on their talent, playing pan is just a thing they do to pass time.  That is why SKF Steelsounds and Pan Institute was birthed.  To teach and deliver the history around the instrument and the knowledge and skills needed for the successful development of the art form.”

Jennifer Williams

WST - “Share your experiences as someone whose career path revolves around the steel pan art form.”

Jennifer W. - “Wow! What can I say? It has been very exciting for me with all the challenges that come at the point where I stand.  I have had the opportunity to meet and work with some awesome and well respected persons in the art form. We’ve had Tony “Pan Jumbie” Williams come into Barbados last year to work with us and he has taken us up another level.

“I mostly enjoy working and performing with the children that have passed through our school and are now members of our band.  Together we have gained some achievements in a few competitions winning Best Overall Talent for the Parish of St. Michael 2011, Best Overall Parish Talent 2011 in The Spirit of the Nation Show - and as the first steel band to ever enter that competition, Silver Award and Most Promising Performance by a Community Band at NIFCA (National Independence Festival of Creative Arts) 2012.  We perform at lots of events around the island and I keep saying ‘we’ because none of this is possible on my own.  We are a family and a great team and that is the foundation of our successes.”

WST - “Have you played pan outside of Barbados?  If so, talk about it.”

Jennifer W. - “If this interview had been a few months later I would have been able to answer “yes” to that question as we are currently getting ourselves and our band prepared for an upcoming musical cultural exchange with one of the Spanish-speaking countries between July and August. While SKF Steelsounds have provided entertainment outside of Barbados, and in some of the most amazing places, I personally haven’t, but will be doing so this time around.”

WST - “Have the public, government and private sector support in Barbados been what you expect for the arts and other creative professions - especially Pan?”

Jennifer W. - “Barbados has been known for pushing academics so much more than creative arts, and that’s where most of the support has been going, but I think that in recent times these entities are being sensitized to the arts. I think that support needs to go beyond the sponsorship of a few events here and there and that support needs to start within our schools.      

“Speaking on the Pan side of things, there are lots of schools that would love to have Pan on their list of activities but the complaint of not being able to do so is always the expense.  In some cases there are no funds to purchase the instruments and on the other hand, where there are instruments, these instruments are either badly damaged beyond repair (Why? Lack of knowledge of how to properly care and store the instrument), or no funds to pay someone to teach.  What I will ask of both sectors is that they sponsor a school or community group. It is time to assist the youth across our island who are not academically versed but within them is a wealth of talent that has the ability to take us places.”

WST - “What is your goal in terms of the type of musicians you produce?”

Jennifer W. - “The goal is to produce musicians who love what they do.  Professionals who can be on any stage anywhere in the world.  Those who stand at a world-class competitive level.  Who respect the Pan and all that it is about.  Those who can in turn teach, arrange and produce good music and all this can only come from having the full knowledge of all that Pan really is.  And again, that’s why we are here. To transfer that knowledge to get the said results.”

WST - “What is the most serious challenge facing Pan in Barbados?”

Jennifer W. - “For me I would say the most serious challenge Pan is facing in Barbados right now is a lack of unity in the pan arena.  Unity is strength and only great things can be accomplished where there is togetherness and collaboration.”

WST - “Is there a Panorama in Barbados? If not, do you think one would raise the visibility of the art form in the country?”

Jennifer W. - “No, we don’t have a Panorama in Barbados and with no competition, why not let it just continue to be a hobby thing? I mean I have heard of some kind of a steel band competition here not so very long ago but I can’t say much on it so yes, of course one would definitely elevate the profile of steel pan here. A Panorama would also contribute to the development of Pan here in a big way as well because it would give band members something to go after and work towards. It would mean then that bands would have to practice a lot more which would in turn call for some dedication and hard work, and that can only bring good results. Bring a Panorama; good wholesome competition is always a good thing.”

WST - “What are sizes of the steel orchestras in Barbados?”

Jennifer W. - “Our steel orchestras are not very big to compare with what I have seen in Trinidad.  There is only one very big steel band here, and that is the Mosaic Steel Band, but outside of that a Bajan steel band can range anywhere from four, to twelve to maybe twenty persons at a time.”

WST  “With regard to your instruments, where do you source them from, and who are the tuners?”

Jennifer W. - “All our instruments are out of Trinidad.  We have a very good tuner here in Bim [Barbados], Kently Gill, who we work with for the tuning of our band’s instruments. There are some plans presently being put in place however that would see us working with a tuner from Trinidad (while I will not disclose his name at this time) to take SKF Steelsounds to its next stage of development as a pan entity.

WST  “If you could change anything as it relates to Pan in Barbados what would that be?”

Jennifer W. - “Simple. The powers that be. We need a unified governing body whose primary focus is the successful development of steel pan in Barbados.

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

Jennifer W. - “Just a bit of encouragement. To Corporate and Governmental Barbados - Pay more attention to the Arts. You’ll be surprised to see the wealth of raw talent that’s out there and it is not in singing. And to the steel bands, band leaders, soloist - We can go places when we work as one. Share, learn from each other. J.K. Rowling said, “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.” Need I say more?”

contact Jennifer Williams

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