Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan


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Meet Sunity Maharaj of Trinidad and Tobago

She is one the foremost critical thinkers of our time - always bringing a sober and honest voice to the conversation. An ardent supporter of Trinidad and Tobago arts and culture - Sunity Maharaj speaks on women, Pan, and the way forward in an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “You are a noted journalist, activist, intellectual and of course supporter of the arts. Which role do you cherish the most?”

Sunity M. - “What seems like roles to others are simply expressions of the person that one is. So for me, it is enough to be me, doing whatever I do.”

WST - “What are the most significant changes you’ve witnessed for women in the Caribbean over the last twenty years?”

Sunity M. - “Caribbean women have always been confident and strong, although like others, they have faced challenges in moving into non-traditional areas. Today, they seem to have less need to prove themselves- which makes them more relaxed in their own skin, more confident in their individuality and less inclined to please the crowd and run with the herd. Greater self-confidence has softened insecurities and brought  a resurgence of the old tradition of female solidarity in more modern fields.”

WST - “What were your earliest experiences with Pan?”

Sunity M. - “My direct experience with Pan is of quite recent vintage although, as a child, I had some distant awareness of my cousins’ steelband, known as the Maharaj Kids. I come to Pan through the work of my husband Lloyd Best and my own interest in the unique culture of the Caribbean that grew out of our history of resistance and survival.”

Sunity Maharaj
Sunity Maharaj  (photo by Carmel Best)

WST - “How has Pan changed over the years, in terms of your expectations for the culture and the instrument?”

Sunity M. - “It depends on geography. Outside of its birthplace of Trinidad, Pan is a musical instrument making its way like any other instrument and being adapted to the possibilities available wherever it lands. In Trinidad, however, it exists in a far more intriguing and complex situation because of the unresolved tension between Pan as culture and Pan as instrument. How this tension is resolved will determine the direction that Pan takes.”

WST - “WST (When Steel Talks) has been fortunate to have crossed paths with the likes of Pat Bishop, Geraldine Connor, Angela Cropper, Dawn Batson, to name a few; their wisdom, knowledge and influence are beyond words. In spite of their unshakable love for Trinidad & Tobago, its culture, art forms, and their country overall - these women were all frustrated at different points... Who can forget the now famous words of Pat Bishop, when, in a moment of reflection and frustration she said, “Trinidad doesn’t deserve Pan.” The late great Clive Bradley would tell WST, regrettably, “They won’t even ask me a question,” as he was unbelievably disappointed at not being taken advantage of. So - in terms of available human resources of the female persuasion - is Trinidad & Tobago letting its top talent and intellect go to waste?”

Sunity M. - “All these women have made important and unforgettable contributions to their country by giving everything they had in service to it. Our journey is far from complete, but they have done their part by taking us further along the way. Their talent wasn’t wasted; they made a difference.  Their contributions were all the more valuable because, so often, they had to fight against a tide of  inertia and general lack of appreciation and understanding.”

WST - “Throughout North America and the world, the steelpan instrument is taking off exponentially. In New York, at one of the world’s most respected music programs at NYU (New York University), the steelpan instrument is mandatory for their percussion graduates. With this type of reality, why does Trinidad and Tobago continue to have this schism with the Pan?”

Sunity M. - “As I’ve proposed, it has to do with the unresolved tension between Pan as instrument and Pan as culture. We, in Trinidad and Tobago, have much to settle before the culture will trust to release Pan into the future.”

WST - “Women have made tremendous progress in terms of their acceptance and participation in, almost all aspects of Pan. Is it safe to say that without women’s participation in Pan in Trinidad and Tobago, the art form would be in serious trouble?”

Sunity M. - “In any sphere, including Pan, the absence of women will be devastating. Just try imagining Pan without women.”

WST - “Carnival, Mas, Pan and Calypso are great Trinidad and Tobago exports. What would be your greatest concerns regarding their present states, respectively?”

Sunity M. - “Born out of resistance and the need for survival in an era of oppression, each now has to find a new mandate of relevance to an era of freedom and Independence. ”

WST - “In a previous interview with When Steel Talks, Dr. Dawn Batson shared one of her biggest disappointments in Pan. “My disappointment has been that still in the country of its birth, the Pan is used as a political tool. Governments start perhaps viable projects that rarely have the opportunity to succeed, as it seems unless successive governments can gain kudos for creation they tend to destroy, or by ignoring, achieve the same goal. Governments regardless of party need to look at the long-term benefits of each program to the steelband movement in particular and to Trinidad and Tobago in general. My disappointment has also been that the economic power of the instrument has not been harnessed to the benefit of the people of Trinidad and Tobago.” Your ideas as to getting around this conundrum as laid out by Dr. Batson?”

Sunity M. - “Government policy on Pan has been notoriously short-sighted and uninformed. Ultimately, however, the Steelband movement will have to find the leadership and organizational capabilities within itself to represent the interest of Pan on a viable, sustainable, independent basis. Hitching Pan’s wagon to the government’s star will always be risky business and leave Pan vulnerable to political agendas.”

WST - “There is the ongoing issue of “rights” and who owns what as it relates to many aspects of Carnival. Is this simply a matter of: ‘the child has grown up and taking care of business’ or is this simply suppression and monetization of the basic privileges of the average ‘man-in-the-street’”

Sunity M. - “The issues at stake have to do with intellectual property and the rights of those who create original work, as well as the value of artistic work. For now, the middle men of Carnival seem to be staking their claim as investors and reaping rewards,  but we should expect to see the creators of the Carnival arts beginning to flex more muscle.”

WST - “If you could change one thing as it relates to the affairs of women in culture what would that be?”

Sunity M. - “What we need is greater support for women in pursuit of their dreams- within the family, in the workplace, from financial institutions, management organisations and the general public. The challenges that stand between a woman and the fulfillment of her dream can be too daunting for many to surmount. And when that happens, it is likely to die on the vine and never bear fruit.”

WST - “With the new advances in technology and the immediacy of ‘now’ - everything is local and international. Are the stakeholders of Pan and carnival prepared to deal with this reality?”

Sunity M. - “If they are not prepared, it is not for lack of advice and warning.”

WST - “What advice would you give to young girls who are part of the present-day steel band community?”

Sunity M. - “Bring the best of yourself to the music that you make, to the community of which you’re a vital part and to the culture that is uniquely yours.”

WST - “Have you ever played pan?”

Sunity M. - “No. It’s one of the goals I’ve set myself for this year though—especially since I’ve been known to suggest that playing pan should be a qualification for getting a Trini passport. LOL.”


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