Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan


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Meet Attillah Springer - Trinidad and Tobago

In regards to Pan: "We don’t know the value of what we have. Imagine how awesome we would be if we did.”  Never on the sidelines, always in the mix, cultural and social activist Attillah Springer of Trinidad and Tobago - in an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - shares her wisdom and insight on the steelpan art form and much, much more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


WST - “Tell us about Attillah Springer?”

Attillah S. - “I’m a writer when I make the time. I’m really interested in culture and memory. My research over the past two years has been looking at the ways that Yoruba spirituality has impacted on diaspora culture: not just the overt retentions of songs and spiritual practice, but also how these beliefs have transformed themselves and found common ground with Indigenous and Hindu philosophies. I’m also interested in how these spiritual systems can create a different dialogue around environmental sustainability, gender based violence community justice and contemporary masking. I’m a Director of IDAKEDA a family company that uses cultural forms to look and social issues. I’m a member of Foil Vedanta a global network of activists looking at how mining affects communities from India to Brazil to Iceland to Zambia. ”

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

Attillah S. “The family folklore is that I took a long time to walk but when I eventually did, the first place I got lost was at Panorama. Holly Betaudier found me wandering on the stage in the middle of a band. I also have vivid memories of jouvay morning seeing my father coming down Frederick Street with Desperadoes. ”

WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument, the music and culture going? ”

Attillah S. - “Pan is a spiritual experience, I hear so much pain and beauty in the music, it is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking. I see pan as the ultimate symbol of the survival of the Orisas in the Caribbean. Pan belongs to Ogun - the Orisa of metal, technology, creativity, justice. I love the fact that you see the music as much as you hear it. I’ve seen pan being played in different parts of the world and I enjoy seeing those same emotional responses in people who’ve never seen or heard pan before and have no idea about the tiny island that created it. ”

WST - “You are a journalist, activist, intellectual, historian, poet, broadcaster, artist, even stick-fighter. Which of your key roles do you cherish the most? How does it feel to wear such a number of hats? ”

Attillah S. - “Flag woman! I’ve waved flag for Phase II on a couple of occasions and also on jouvay morning in 3 Canal. A flag waver is a warrior of sorts, a leader, a pointer in that Spiritual sense. It’s amazing. I don’t really see any difference in any of the roles that I play. One of my elders/mentors is Raviji of the Hindu Prachar Kendra and one of the things that he always stresses is the role of the artist as a community/cultural worker. I feel like I am part of an ecosystem that needs my positive contribution to survive and progress. ”

Atillah Springer
Attillah Springer

WST - “Is "Pan In Danger" in Trinidad? Or worse - 'Dead Man Walking’? ”

Attillah S. - “Yes and yes.”

WST - “Sunity Maharaj said in a WST interview that "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.” In regards to this tension... Do you feel it? And if so, how do you believe it might be resolved? ”

Attillah S. - “Pannists in other parts of the world are treated like pop stars. Meanwhile in Trinidad I know pannists who have to constantly defend their decision to be who they are without apologising for wanting to be properly paid.

The structure of how pan is funded needs to be looked at, and pan needs to be seen as a legitimate and valid artistic expression for which pannists and the other artists and artisans involved should be properly paid. Others recognise the power of this instrument. What exactly are we afraid of? Additionally pan yards can and should be the centre of all communities, ‘the yard’ should act as a space for conflict resolution, knowledge transfer, community building, healthy creative rivalry etc etc. The Laventille SteelPan Festival needs to be used as a case study for how to do street festivals in communities around the country. ”

WST - “If you had the power to change something in Pan immediately what would that be?”

Attillah S. - “Pan would be in schools. The Greens would be outlawed! All pan yards around the country would be properly equipped as community centres and the members given training in restorative justice, art as healing. ”

WST - “What have you been most proud about as it relates to Pan?”

Attillah S. - “Pat Bishop

WST - “What disappoints you the most in the steelpan movement?”

Attillah S. - “I’m not sure what Pan Trinbago is for, whose agenda they are forwarding, whose interests they are seeking.”

WST - “Who, and what are your musical influences?”

Attillah S. - “Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Orisa drumming in Trinidad and Cuba, David Rudder, Drum & Bass. ”

WST - “ “Firstly, sometimes describing oneself as a Panist can be met with disgust and even discrimination. The question which follows is “What else do you do?” Secondly, the area from which you have come also sometimes brings discrimination.” - Merle Albino-de Coteau -- What will it take to move beyond this schism? ”

Attillah S. - “Maybe pan is not seen as a legitimate art because it was created by ‘poor’ ‘black’ people. I think we need to investigate not just the history but the science and engineering of this instrument. We need to encourage academic excellence and research on the steel pan. The term ‘ethno’ gets me vex. It needs to be dropped and we just need to look at the ‘musicology’.

But I think we’re slowly getting there. There are degree programmes now for the study of pan and certainly initiatives like the National Steel Symphony Orchestra are trying to change the understanding of how we see a professional pannist. Jamal Glynn is using pan as mental health therapy at St. Ann’s Hospital. These are strides that need to be supported, spoken about. Our young people need to be exposed to the full range of possibilities that can come out of an engagement of our national instrument and our other indigenous creative industries. ”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Attillah S. - “A spiritual experience. I totally get why Jesus went into the temple and cast out the money changers. ”

WST - “Is Panorama a curse or blessing from your perspective?”

Attillah S. - “It is both. It has the potential to be so much, I’m not convinced that we really have an idea of the magnitude of what pan means and we are in danger of making it as much of a side show as the ‘traditional’ mas. ”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge the steelpan music art form faces in the Trinidad and Tobago today?”

Attillah S. - “Self-doubt.”

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

Attillah S. - “Inclusion. Recognition. Education. Celebration.”

WST - “Rubadiri Victor in his photo essay called MEDITATION ON THE TRADITIONS- CARNIVAL 2015, paints a very dismal present and uncertain future for Trinidad Carnival overall. What do you feel is the future of Carnival? ”

Attillah S. - “We started off having two carnivals, the ‘Governor’s Ball’ and the jammette carnival. The jammette carnival was the space of resistance and confrontation and innovation. I’m really really uninterested in the Governor’s Ball - the allinclusives, the mas behind the rope, the ultra mega VIP.

They’re doing what they have to do. As a jammette I have to mind my business and do what I have to do, instead of sitting on the sidelines complaining about what isn’t being done. Nobody told those young fellars behind the bridge to create a new instrument. Nobody asked George Bailey to change the face of Carnival. Nobody handed Beryl Mc Burnie money to build the Little Carib Theatre. They did what they had to do! We need to mind our business and do the work we have to do if we don’t like the way the Carnival is going. The ancestors on whose heads we jump up on the Savannah stage will see to it that we remember them or this wonderful thing that they sacrificed to give us will die. ”

WST - “The late Prime Minster of Grenada, Maurice Bishop, played an important role in your life. This is a very difficult question, but what would be different had he been able to complete his vision for the Caribbean? ”

Attillah S. - “Hindsight is always 20/20. Perhaps he might have been able to usher in a time when cultural workers were as central to building a viable society as the technocrats and the economists. Perhaps he might have failed. From what I understand of his vision he was trying to build an alternative system, but I don’t think it’s possible to achieve in one generation or one lifetime. We judge ourselves harshly, comparing ourselves to civilisations that have engaged in centuries of bloodshed, conquest, civil war etc to achieve ‘development’. We are the first experiment in globalisation and we have given the world some significant visionaries of Pan Africanism, art, mas, music, literature.

What the Caribbean has given the world is art in spite of the tremendous ugliness of our history. We need to find a way to harness that creative capacity to do the healing that is necessary for us to be truly ‘developed’ not by destroying nature or exploiting our citizens but by giving everyone an equal opportunity to contribute. ”

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

Attillah S. - “Last year I was DJing at a party in London. It was the end of the night and the venue was ready to shut down. I played that classic Trini last song in the fete - the slow version of All Stars Woman on the Bass, thinking that the Londoners would leave immediately. They all stood there, listening to the music. One woman had tears in her eyes. They wanted more by the end of the song. I guess what I want to say is, we doubt and second guess our talent so much. Pan is a powerful instrument that has a worldwide impact that we continue to be oblivious to. We don’t know the value of what we have. Imagine how awesome we would be if we did. ”

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