Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan


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Meet Doris Green - Brooklyn, New York

The narrative of the life and times of Doris Green is in itself a compelling story and fantastic journey that needs to told, studied and chronicled. Her seminal work in a notation system for the oral tradition of African music is not only ground-breaking but genius level. In addition, she is the author of  the historically significant "Steel Bands of New York."

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  African and Music and Dance Historian,  Fulbright scholar, ethnomusicologist, inventor, musician, composer, instructor, author, panist, performing artist and educator Doris Green shares her intellect, strength, experiences with Pan, culture and desires for the steelpan art form, and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


WST - “Tell us about Doris Green?”

Doris G. - “Doris Green at an early age realized that boys were accorded greater opportunities than girls. I did not believe this was fair, so I set out to prove that I was just as capable as any boy.  In my youth I would compete with boys in neighborhood sports. My skills surpassed theirs and it angered many of them.   I was given music and dance lessons at an early age to keep me out of harms way.  

“I wanted something that would distinguish me from all others. I was an energetic young girl who wanted equality for girls.  The role for young girls and what they could be as adults was not pleasing or challenging to me.  

“I believe everyone has a special talent given to him or her by the creator.  I discovered my special talent when I was in high school. I was in a stenography class and heard the teacher remark that  “any sound can be written with Pitman Shorthand”. I pondered the statement and asked myself why not write drum sounds. I took the symbol for the word “drum” in shorthand and wrote my first drum sounds. That was the beginning of my journey into percussion notation.  When I embarked upon this journey, I was originally searching for a way to teach Congo drummers how to read music so I could have rhythms that were constant for my choreography. These drummers usually improvised and without having the same rhythm each time caused havoc for my choreography. When I created Greenotation, I never dreamed that it was what Africans had been searching for decade.”

WST - “What were your earliest experiences with the steelpan?”

Doris G. “My earliest experience with the steel pan was with Rudy King who was the first person to introduce the steel drum in Brooklyn.”

WST - “You have had great accomplishments throughout your career. What are you most proud of?”

Doris G. - “I am most proud of being the person to create a notation system for music of African percussion instruments and align it to the correspondent dance movements through Labanotation. My greatest joy was my first trip to Africa where I applied my work to the music.  It was also an indescribable experience, as I was able to learn first hand the cultures of several groups. There are also other auspicious memories I have of Africa such as introducing my system to noted African musicians such as Duro Ladlpo of Nigeria. He was literally stunned when I demonstrated how I wrote music for the Talking Drum (Iya-Ilu Dun-dun drums) of the Yoruba people.  He said that the talking drum was the most complex drum of Africa, and to be able to write music for it was something he and others had been seeking for decades.  Also the Timi of Ede Oba Adetoyese Laoye 1, Yoruba master drummer also gave me an assignment to come to Nigeria to assist him in putting the Igbin set of Yoruba drums in written form.”

Doris Green
Doris Green

WST - “You are an African and Music and Dance Historian, ethnomusicologist, musician, composer, instructor, performing artist and educator - which role do you like best?”

Doris G. - “Indeed I am an African music and dance historian, ethnomusicologist, musician, dancer, choreographer and educator. I believe I would say my greatest role is educating Africans how to write their music and dance thus giving them the scientific basis they had before the “middle passage” when much was drastically altered or lost. I am also a columnist and am writing my textbook on African music and dance notation.”

WST - “You were a cultural specialist to Ghana. Tells us about that?”

Doris G. - “Ghana was the first country to gain its independence from the colonizers. They were the first to establish African studies in the curriculum. More studies have been done on Ghanaian music and dance than any other country in Africa. Ghana played a leadership role in establishing the format of African music and dance in the curriculum that would make it applicable to study. As a United States State Department cultural specialist I went to Ghana to teach how to write African dance on the computer. This was done to create an archive of written notated scores of music and dance.”

WST - “Your magazine "Steel Bands of New York" was one of the first publications that seriously focused and detailed the development of the steelband movement in New York. What led you to write that collection of articles?”

Doris G. - “Priscilla Taylor asked me to write this for her organization, I agreed and it developed from there.  I had studied the different kinds of pans from the Tamboo-Bamboo to the Elliot Mannette pan to the Spider web pan. ”

WST - “Your interview with the late Rudy King was both ground-breaking and eye-opening in terms of documenting and illuminating some of the trials and conditions under which the early steelpan musicians performed in America. What do you remember of Rudy King? And who were some of the other players around at that time?”

Doris G. - “I remember that Rudy King built a fire in the park and was cautioned by the police that open fires were not allowed in New York. Life in NY was not like it was in Trinidad.  There was a host of steel band men, Rudy, Gabriel, Claude, Bassman and his brother. I remember that both Rudy King and Bassman made pans for me.

WST - “What is your personal recollection of those early days of the steelbands in New York?”

Doris G. - “When I first heard that steel pans could make music, I did not believe it. When I actually heard the pan, I was immediately drawn to it as a musician.”

WST - “One of the multitude of things you did with the steelpan was take lessons from the leader of Antigua’s Brute Force Steelband. How did that come about?”

Doris G. - “I was vacationing on the island where this group was playing, I expressed interest and the leader of Brute Force gave me some lessons.”

Doris Green playing Tog in Sokone Senegal
Doris Green playing Tog in Sokone Senegal

WST - “You invented the Greenotation system for African instruments. What exactly is Greenotation and why is it so important?”

Doris G. - “To answer this question would require a dissertation or a lengthy book. As I stated in the beginning, African music is an oral tradition that is passed between generations by a mouth to ear process. Unfortunately any society that is totally dependent on oral transmission of its culture is doomed to failure because of the breakdown of the human memory and outside interpretation.  Whatever is not passed on goes to the grave with its holder where it is lost forever. In this manner much of the rich traditions of African music and dance were being lost. There had to be a way to write music for these percussive instruments. This was my special talent that I discovered while I was a youth in high school. At first this system was called Percussion Notation. A Kenyan colleague of mind in Brooklyn College gave me the name Muziki Waki Afrika, which meant music of African people in Kiswahili language of East Africa. Because of the continental divide in Africa Africans rejected this name. I therefore renamed it Greenotation to identify me as its creator. Greenotation is an innovative system that allows music of percussion instruments such as bells, rattles, drums, xylophones, talking drums and water drums to be written on paper. Once written this music is permanently preserved, and later can be read and performed from a print source.

“It is the most important representation of African music and dance.  Without Greenotation African music and dance would continue to go to the grave with its holders. Greenotation breathes life into African music and dance.  Greenotation is important for the salvation of African culture not only in Africa, but in all places where African music is studied, learned, written about of otherwise addressed. It serves the world no justice to have incorrect information on African music and dance circulated by misinformed students who are writing on topics where they have little or no experience.”

Doris Green:  Fighting the Deterioration of Africa's Traditional Music

American Doris Green, authority on music notation and African music, on Wednesday gave the last in a series of seminars at the University of Ghana's School of Performing Arts. Hailed as a "path-finder", Green developed Greenotation, a system for writing African music which is aligned with dance in a single score.

Green stressed the importance of written documentation in preserving musical traditions. Without written documentation, African music has been degraded by the academic world of the west, she said. She also criticized sole reliance on oral tradition in preserving tradition and stressed the value of a written record.

"When you die, what you don't pass on is lost," she said. Written sheet music, she said, preserves musical traditions that might otherwise be lost through the generations...

"The western quarter-note cannot tell you to hit the drum with half your hand, your whole hand, a stick..." she said. "It deals mainly with melodics, not rhythm." For rhythm- and beat-driven African music, Green devised a new system attuned to these needs.

read more (Modern Ghana)

WST - “You are a columnist for ModernGhana.com on the net. October 19, 2002 - You wrote an article. Fighting the Deterioration of Africa’s Traditional Music. Since that article, have more African nations adopted your system to stem the tide of more lost music traditions?””

Doris G. - “The system has been introduced in nations from Tanzania to Senegal. My work has been endorsed by the OAU, now African Union for inclusion in all schools of Africa. It takes finances to implement these programs and to keep them going. Countries that are fighting starvation are focused on solving this problem first. Also tensions in various African countries makes it difficult to implement and maintain programs in several countries.”

WST - “In an interview with the Journal of Pan African Studies you mentioned that “Music is based upon the language of the people... On the drum you have your language, philosophy, artifacts of your culture... You have to understand the language in order to do the dance and understand what is being said.” How does this translate in steelpan music and music of the Caribbean?”

Doris G. - “I do not know that it has a specific translation into steel band music because melodies play a greater role than percussion. I will say that the bass drum(s) of the steel band player are similar to that of the Chopi xylophone of Africa.  The fact that this xylophone uses graduated tin cans as resonators is another similar factor. They come in Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. In order to have the full range of bass tones, the bass player uses several oil vats.”

WST - “What attracted you to African music?”

Doris G. - “African music runs in my blood. I was born into this culture, the culture of rhythms, which fascinated me from birth.”

WST - “Upon your graduation in 1969 you became the first person to teach African dance and music at Brooklyn College. You followed that up by going to East Africa to study. What was that experience like?”

Doris G. - “It was a most enlightening experience as I was able to view a number of different ethnic groups of African with their different musical styles. There were Masai who did not use instruments, and Wamakonde who used a number of instruments.”

WST - “When you went to Africa and played the drums, the people were shocked because you were woman and women did not play drums at that time. However, you were taught the language of the drum. Similarly, women were not allowed to play steelpan instruments. But today they represent the a very large percentage of players in steel orchestras today. Were there any other women playing the steelpan when you played? ”

Doris G. - “Not that I know of or not at least in my vicinity. These were the years of the fifties and sixties. I recall when I began teaching at BC that I formed a club called the Afro-Soulfolklore Club. I invited Bassman. We played an African selection entitled Etoile de Neige. This was in 1970 and it enlightened the students to the world of the various cultures of Blacks in the Diaspora.”

WST - “Do you think your system of notation can be used to preserve the sound and nuances found in steelband music that cannot be represented completely in western musical notation? ”

Doris G. - “I cannot say for sure. People such as Ellie Mannette would have a better perspective on this than I.”

WST - “What have you been most proud about given all your accomplishments?”

Doris G. - “My experience as a Fulbright scholar in Ivory Coast. To see the desire on the faces of students as they made use of my work. Also the fact that Senegal wanted to create a Pan African facility for teaching of my work.  I am also proud of the fact that I was sought after to sit on Faculty Search Committees to find appropriate teachers of African music and dance. When NYU (New York University) wanted to create a course in traditional African dance, Dr. Roscoe Brown Jr. head of the Africana Studies Institute, and also a famous Tuskegee airman, asked me to conduct a personal search among my colleagues in Africa. It was admirable that he valued my knowledge and expertise in the field to ask me to do this. I was successful with bringing a personality from Ghana to teach this course. This was a tremendous task that I managed to do. It was successful and my reputation resounded throughout Ghana.”

WST - “What disappoints you the most in terms of what the community has accomplished, or not accomplished - given the foundations you laid years ago?”

Doris G. - “The joys outweigh the disappointments, but with all the new technology present today, we are playing the game of ‘catch up’ and now we desperately need to consider the “on-line “approach as people who are interested are spread over the world and cannot spend time in a university setting for prolonged period of time.”

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female musicians and artists all over the world who may consider following in your footsteps?”

Doris G. - “Be it known that women are not given equal opportunities on a world-wide basis. Be prepared to put in long hours and years. Nothing comes overnight.”

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

Doris G. - “I grew up as a classical musician playing Chopin, Listz and others, but my favorite African musicians are Dou Dou N’Diaye Rose, celebrated drummer of Senegal, the Gueye family of Wolof drummer of Senegal. Also Mamadou Ly of Gambia on the Kutiros (Mandinka drums). In Ghana there is the Ladzekpo family. I also have a number of colleagues in East Africa.”

WST - “In your autobiography “No Longer An Oral Tradition: My Journey Through Percussion Notation” you said - “I have known from childhood that I was chosen to do something great that no one else was able to do. My task would distinguish me from everyone else.” Do you feel you have accomplished that feat?”

Doris G.  - “Yes I have- there is no other like me.. There is a Yoruba expression that says:
Iwo la fi s’agbe, Iwo la fi s’agbe, Iwo la fe se.                    
B’eni kan se kandu, kandu, kandu, Iwo la fe se.
It translates as:                     
You have been chosen as the leader, You have been chosen as the leader.
You are the chosen one. In spite of rivalry and opposition,
You are the chosen one.
The Nigerians have told me that this statement that is played on the Talking Drums is a reflection of my gift of writing African music. I am the chosen one.”

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

Doris G. - “No, except to say that the Pan has come a long way from Tamboo-Bamboo to the biscuit tins, to the Mannette style, and Spider web to the Electric pan of Salmon Cupid.”

Later this year Doris Green will publish her next book:

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

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