Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Yuko Asada of Illinois, USA

She is an old school triple threat like Anthony Williams, Ellie Mannette and Neville Jules who is unapologetically enchanted with the beauty, spirit and power of steelpan instrument and art form. She is tuner, performer, arranger, educator and director.  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Yuko Asada shares her life's journey with steelpan as her compass.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Yuko Asada, and also, what other instruments do you play?”

Yuko Asada - “I’m a pan player, teacher, builder/tuner, arranger and transcriber. I was born in Japan, moved to West Virginia (USA) when I was ten years old then moved to Illinois after finishing my bachelor’s degree in WVU. I enjoy music, art, nature, traveling and spending time with family and friends.

“I started playing the piano when I was four and percussion a little when I was in high school. I continued to play the piano through my undergraduate years.”

WST - “You began playing pan at college at West Virginia University (WVU)?  What was it about the steelpan that attracted you to the instrument?”

Yuko Asada - “I actually started playing pan at West Liberty University also in West Virginia before I transferred to WVU. I became instantly attracted to the sound of steelpan and the music of Trinidad and Tobago.”  

WST - “You were introduced to the tuning of steelpan under Ellie Mannette at WVU - and you subsequently acquired your Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University (NIU) specializing in steelpan building and tuning. Talk about your observations and experiences learning to tune under Ellie Mannette at WVU, and Cliff Alexis at NIU.”

Yuko Asada - “Ellie did initially introduce me to pan tuning, but I didn’t spend much time under Ellie. Therefore, I can’t speak as though I know Ellie’s tuning methods thoroughly. I do remember him showing me his approach on tuning and his technique. His tuning technique was gentle and precise and I constantly thought that he’s a steelpan magician that could fix pans like magic.

“When I moved to Illinois and started learning from Cliff, I became very confused because his approach and technique seemed very different. I excelled as a builder quickly but took some time to acquire tuning skills because I became so confused! Again, because I didn’t spend much time under Ellie, I’m not saying this in comparison with Cliff but I observed that Cliff spends time on how pans were built and tuned thoroughly before he’ll even touch a note.

“It took a while for me to develop my skills in tuning but I believe I’ve gotten to understand the tuning methods and getting better every day. It’s a skill that requires many years of hard work and patience. I’m ever so grateful to have gotten opportunities to spend time with such legends as Ellie and Cliff. I’ll always cherish the knowledge and skills that they kindly shared with me.”  

WST - “In addition to being an educator, steelpan builder and tuner (among other skills), you are also an arranger and performer. Not many today are steelpan musicians, arrangers, builders and tuners (and you’re even more). This combined skill set was more common in the “old days” with the likes of Clifford Alexis, Neville Jules, Ellie Mannette and Anthony Williams. When and why did you decide that you were not only going to be a performer, but also all of the above?”

Yuko Asada - “I simply did what I enjoyed doing. I wanted to become a teacher when I was in kindergarten and concert pianist when I was in first grade. I didn’t end up as a concert pianist but I perform with NIU Steelband and Pastiche Steel Ensemble which I enjoy very much. I became interested in becoming a pan tuner when I met Ellie and his apprentices while I was a student at WVU. Arranging was a necessity because I had a limited budget to buy sheet music when I started teaching. I didn’t necessarily try to become someone with many different skills but just ended up doing what I wanted and had to do.”  

WST - “What advice would give to young and upcoming females who would like to follow in your footsteps?”

Yuko Asada - “Although I’d be happy if someone would like to follow in my footsteps, I’d tell both females and males, young and old to find your own path. Live your life and don’t try to be someone else but yourself. Work hard, be true, be patient, do your best but most importantly, follow your heart. And it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and do better the next time.”

WST - “You played with several steel orchestras in Trinidad for respective Panorama seasons. How was the initial transition from a smaller steelpan environment, to a full-size, 120-player steel orchestra for you?”

Yuko Asada - “I played with Invaders in 2001, Skiffle (Bunch) in 2006 and Starlift in 2011. My first Panorama experience was purely breathtaking. I had never felt music the way I did before that time. So much energy, power and excitement! In addition to spending time in the panyard and panorama, the entire experience in Trinidad had a huge impact on my life. Trinidad is nothing like Japan or West Virginia where I had been before 2001! Playing in Invaders made me feel alive and inspired, which made me want to learn more about pan. The best feeling I’ve had in playing music is playing nine-bass on “the Drag” before going onto the stage for Panorama. Even to this day. I could still picture the entire band surrounded by tons of people with so much energy, listening and feeling the music and dancing.”  

Yuko Asada
Yuko Asada

WST - “What do you think about the overall Panorama experience - from Panyard to stage?”

Yuko Asada - “This is directed towards those who haven’t experienced it - if you love pan and panorama music, you should experience it at least once in your lifetime! It’s an experience like no other. I enjoyed arrangements being created on the spot because it was my first time experiencing it. Yes, many hours are spent on waiting for an arranger to create parts, but I see a beauty in music being created in the panyard. That was done during my first time in Invaders and the music along with the arranger and musicians felt so alive. However, I support music literacy as well.

“I also love performing with amazing musicians of Trinidad and Tobago. Their way of expressing music is mesmerizing. Not only they sound good but you can’t keep an eye off of them either. They’re some of the most entertaining groups of musicians that I’ve seen.”  

WST - “You are co-founder of Pastiche Steel Ensemble out of Chicago - talk about this initiative?”

Yuko Asada - “A group of NIU students came together to create a professional steelpan ensemble that showcases many different styles of music, educates audience members on its history, construction, instrumentation, and so on. All members are unique in our origins, where past and present members are from all over the world (Trinidad, Japan, USA, Antigua and Jamaica). The members have extensive experiences in teaching, building/tuning, arranging, recording, managing, etc. We have been an artist in residence with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra Musical Pathways Program where we provided master classes and performances for Chicago Public Schools. And we’re one of the touring artists for Urban Gateways in Chicago, an organization that delivers arts programs in the Chicagoland area. I’ve arranged pieces for the ensemble such as “Sakura” and “My Way” and you can check out our music. We have numerous plans for the future and hope to perform for many people all over the world!”

WST - “You are an educator and band director for several institutions; talk about your various responsibilities in these scenarios.”

Yuko Asada - “I currently teach a middle school steelband at Naperville District 203, four high school steelbands at Naperville District 203 and Neuqua Valley High School and a community steelband at NIU. I direct and arrange most of the music, and tune for some of the steelbands.

“I’m a steelband director for Riverwalk Percussion Camp in Illinois and an assistant steelpan director at Birch Creek Performance Center summer percussion and steelpan music program in Wisconsin where I direct and arrange music.”  

WST - “Who are your music inspirations and influences - not only relative to Pan, but also in wider music genres?”

Yuko Asada - “I’ve always liked the music of Frédéric Chopin, George Gershwin and Astor Piazzolla among many others. In pan, I’ve always enjoyed the music of Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Clive Bradley, Beverly Griffith, Robert Greenidge, Ray Holman, Andy Narell, Jit Samaroo and of course Liam Teague and Cliff Alexis. Living close from Chicago, I get to enjoy live performances by many wonderful performers. I particularly enjoyed and was inspired by performers such as Yo-Yo Ma, Chucho Valdés, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Hiromi.”  

WST - “You are already quite proficient regarding the steelpan instrument and you were working on your Performer’s Certificate; which aspects were you honing in your quest to be the ultimate professional performer?”

Yuko Asada - “I actually finished my Performer’s Certificate in 2008 or so. What I can say about myself as a performer is that I’m not a soloist but enjoy performing in ensembles! I try to be versatile in playing various steelpans. So far, I’ve played tenor, double seconds, quadrophonics, cellos and bass. I feel most comfortable playing double seconds and bass.”  

WST - “How did you get started in music transcription, and is there a special approach you use for transcribing for the family of pan instruments?”

Yuko Asada - “I’ve worked on many transcriptions whether it is an orchestral score, instrumental piece (mostly piano), panorama tune or someone singing or playing into my ears. Since I was little, I’ve always enjoyed playing the music I liked by ear on the piano. My older sister started playing the piano before I did and I would always copy what she was playing instead of taking time to read music. I believe that experience helped me to develop my hearing skills. I started transcribing music for pan when I first came to NIU. I realized that there was only so much music written for pan and it just had to be done.

“When I transcribe an orchestral or instrumental piece, I first listen to a recording along with a score multiple times to understand the work. Then, I try to imagine what the piece would sound like on pan in my head, instead of trying to figure out on the computer using notation programs such as Finale or Sibelius. I don’t like to rely too much on how computer plays back, though it definitely helps to check what’s written, edit and print.

“When it comes to transcribing a panorama tune, it’s always helpful to have individual parts recorded separately (or two at a time). Unfortunately, regular audio CDs were used on most of the Panorama transcriptions I’ve done, so they’re not completely accurate. It is impossible to acquire all details from an audio CD especially if pans are out of tune and the quality of recording is poor. Tenors, double tenors and bass parts are among the easiest parts for me to grasp but not the middle pans on audio CDs. I often use DVDs and/or YouTube videos to check out hand patterns to see if certain parts are strumming or playing a line and compare it to an audio CD.

“I have transcribed pieces for Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague for NIU Steelband, Starlift and Silver Stars. They’re among the easiest transcriptions I’ve done because they would either sing, play or have parts of music written.”  

WST - “Do you have any other observations/thoughts relative to the steelpan art form?”

Yuko Asada - “Oh yes. Many. I’ve made quite a few observations on pan in the US, Trinidad, Japan and other parts of the world. I’ve gotten to know the history of pan in Trinidad and Tobago from books, articles and websites such as When Steel Talks but more importantly, hearing firsthand stories from many Trinidadian panmen and panwomen especially Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague. I’ve also learned the history of pan in the US and Japan over the years. It’s been fascinating to find out how pan has reached all over the world, enriching people’s lives through its beautiful and powerful sound. Although we may possess many differences, one thing that we share is the love we have for pan. There’s so much love and passion for this instrument from us all over the world. I hope we can all focus on the positives to embrace one of the greatest inventions that was created.”  

WST - “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?”

Yuko Asada - “In 10 years, I hope to be doing what I do today but much better, on a larger scale. And I hope to be in a position to offer assistance to those who are in need, especially for children and the elderly.”  

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

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