Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Lilian Sten Nicholson - Barbados/Trinidad & Tobago

“Pan is about to become a billion-dollar, global industry, and not a cent will go to the inventors.”

She is an artist who captures history and culture in the most authentic manner, thereby  allowing us to reflect on and embrace truth going forward. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - painter, musician educator, historian and accomplished artist Lilian Sten Nicholson shares her reflections, experiences and knowledge on Pan, Mas, Carnival culture and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

WST - “Tell us about  Lilian Sten Nicholson?”

Lilian S. - “I am an artist and a writer, but music is my first love. I have lived and worked in the Caribbean since 1965 and I can best describe myself as ‘Swedish by birth, Bajan by choice and Trinidadian by inclination.’”

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

Lilian S. - “The first time I heard pan was in the late fifties, in the most upper-class, rarefied surroundings you could imagine: a ‘Commem Ball’ at an Oxford College. It was a Black Tie affair, with silk tents, champagne, strawberries and cream and four orchestras, one of which was a steelband - (Betancourt’s). I never heard the other three bands and the champagne and strawberries were left untouched as I kicked off my satin shoes, gathered up my silk skirts and danced the night away.

“Roy Boyke, a fellow art student in London, showed me photos of steel band clashes and told me the stories that went with them. So, I realized early on, that the steel band scene is as many-facetted as the music itself. And I am still learning.

“The second experience was in the mid-sixties, when Pan Am North Stars gave a concert in the Sheraton Hotel, Kingston, Jamaica. The beauty, the purity and sheer force of that music hit me like a Tsunami. In a nice way. And I haven’t recovered yet, still at sea.”

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

Lilian S. - “Love, respect and admiration.”

Lillian Sten Nicholson
Lilian Sten Nicholson

WST - “The late great calypsonian Dennis Franklyn Williams - better known as “Merchant” penned the classic  “Pan in Danger.”  Is the future of Pan in Danger? And to a wider extent - are Mas and Carnival in Danger?  And cultural activist Rubadiri Victor in his 2015 photographic summation of Carnival  2015 - MEDITATION ON THE TRADITIONS- CARNIVAL 2015 paints a dismal picture of the current state of Trinidad and Tobago carnival. Is it really “dead man walking” or is it more scripted reality?”

Lilian S. - “Carnival, Mas  and  Pan are dynamic expressions of society, culture and the ‘livity’ of a people.

“Dynamic means, that it is constantly moving and changing and cannot be locked down and preserved in a permanent state. There is ebb and flow in all things- we are in a state of flux. The past is no more, but should be remembered, honoured and respected. We can only move forward if we  know the true and rich history of pan, rather than the select static narratives, which only advance the agendas of a few. The importance of the WST forum in this process of recording and disseminating historical facts cannot be overstated. ”

WST - “What is it that makes Pan so powerful?”

Lilian S. - ““How do I love thee? Let me count the ways….” This question could be answered with a full thesis, there are the technical, musical, emotional, social and mystic aspects of pan, and they can’t really be separated. But, to put it briefly: pan is an instrument of expression, it can be powerful or weak, inspiring or annoying depending on who plays it. The power is in the people who make the music.”

WST - “In your very insightful and sobering post in response to “It’s Broken! Fix It! - Pan & Mas” on the WST Forum, you said “It’s not lost, it wasn’t stolen-but it has strayed... But when I see the empty streets of Port of Spain, I see opportunity...” An opportunity in what regard do you see?”

Lilian S. - “The streets have been cleared for a resurgence of Real Mas, live music , and mas participation:  the small bands, the Devils and the Imps, the Bats and the Beasts, the Indians, the Sailors ,plain and fancy, and all the various Carnival clans in their full glory.

“All these have become almost invisible among the big-wheeled traffic-jams and the tide of sequined bassa-bassa. But they are all still very much with us.

“So, bring on drummers and brass bands, Rhythm sections, bottle-and-spoon posses and steelbands big and small. And whatever new things of sound and sight that unhampered creativity can come up with. Let the city hum with the sound of live music again. Let there be food and drink (and decent toilets) and people will come, to watch, to lime, ‘to tek a little jump,’ ‘tief a little wine’  and just to have a good time. It can happen. It will happen, and with very little expense and effort. And yes, there will be good financial returns- no one will become a millionaire, but a whole lot of people will benefit.”

WST - “Are you an optimist, pessimist or a realist?”

Lilian S. - “Yes.

WST - “You are an accomplished painter, print maker, writer, curator, organizer and educator - which role do you like best?”

Lilian S. - “I am first and foremost a painter, everything else flows out of that. Writing is a completely different creative process, but, as I get intensely involved with anything I do, it’s all enjoyable.”

WST - “In the past you have described yourself as a ‘Carnival jumbie’. In addition you have publically stated that “I have made Mas, played Mas and judged Mas. Carnival is an essential part of my life.” Are the shine and life of Mas and Carnival still there for you?”

Lilian S. - “My first Carnival was in 1975, when I played in Stephen Leung’s “We Kinda People.” I have only missed a handful of carnivals since. My Carnival used to look like this: Pan yard /Semis/ pan yard /Panorama- Sunday fete,/ pan yard /J’Ouvert. Monday Mas  /Night mas, Tuesday Pan on the Road./ Las Lap. With just a few breaks to bathe, eat and nap, in that order, for 30+ years.

“I am now down to panyard /semis/ pan yard/ Panorama / Sunday fete and J’Ouvert.  I’ve given up on Tuesday with its big trucks, its endless containers and its all-inclusive, roped-in exclusivity. Until I saw Rubadiri Victor’s photos of Port of Spain, Carnival Tuesday, looking much like a Sunday morning in Lent, I thought it was just me, and that I was getting old, (which I am), but then I realized that what I saw and felt about the loss of real Mas was justified. It feels a bit like when your favourite homemade ice cream has been taken over by one of the multi-nationals; the name is the same, and it is still ice cream, but mass production and cost-effectiveness means that it ‘don’t taste nutten’ like it used to. You still buy it because the alternatives are even worse.”

WST - “What is the responsibility of the artist to the art form - be it Pan, Mas or Calypso?”

Lilian S. - “Be true, be respectful, be creative, be original and don’t exploit.”

WST - “What would be your advice to thousands of young females all over the world who dream of following in footsteps of artistic pursuits such as yours?”

Lilian S. - “Go for it, the possibilities are endless and the world needs art now more than ever.”

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

Lilian S. - “My musical taste is eclectic. I have classical training (piano) and had to choose at the age of 17 whether I should become a concert pianist or an artist. I chose art, but music remains my first and enduring love. Classical composer: Beethoven, Jazz: Sonny Rollins, Thelonius Monk, Reggae: Toots and the Maytals, Cedric Brooks and the Light of Saba, Bob Marley and the Wailers. Calypsonians: too many favourites to list here so I’ll just mention Shadow, Rudder, Kitchener, Stalin, and Baron, Pan: Jit Samaroo, Ray Holman, Clive Bradley and now Duvone Stewart.”

WST - “From “Sharpeville” to “The Middle Passage Revisited” to “Pan and People” - your art work is both thought-provoking and historical. What do want your audience to feel after engaging your paintings?”

Lilian S. - “The interpretation of a work of art is personal.  People often see things in my paintings that I myself am not aware of. I welcome new insights and perspectives.”

WST - “You have a painting called ‘Flagwoman.’ What does the Flagwoman represent to you?”

Lilian S. - “The Flag woman/ or -man is the warrior who clears the way of debris and obstruction, physically and spiritually. We need more of those-on and off stage.”

WST - “In your painting “Comin’ Thru!” what did you see and/or feel?”

Lilian S. - “Comin’ Thru is about that last stretch on the drag before going on stage, the feeling of apprehension, of excitement and triumph. “Comin’ Thru” has the triumphant vibe of a winning band. Maybe because it was painted to tunes that won. Or should have won.

“I don’t remember exactly which tunes I had on the loop,  but I think All Stars’ ‘Curry Tabanca’ Despers’ ‘Pan-A-Minor’, Fonclaire’s ‘Pan by Storm’ and Renegades’ ‘Guitar Pan’ were all in the mix. The painting evolved out of the music.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Lilian S. - “A homecoming. The end of the old year and beginning of the new, an essential part of my life. A joy.”

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

Lilian S. - “Musically speaking it is a two-edged sword. It is possible, but unlikely that the music would have reached the high standard it has now, if it wasn’t for the concentrated effort and knife-sharp competition of Panorama. On the other hand, it seems to me, that the judging criteria and the wish to please the judges are beginning to stifle the music. The musical skills of the leading bands are superb, but several arrangers now play it safe and remain in their comfort zones of rearranged re-runs.”

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

Lilian S. - “The loss (sale) of patents to any of the Music industry giants.

“Pan is about to become a billion-dollar, global industry, and not a cent will go to the inventors. You will be making pan on license, and these companies are beasts when it comes to enforcing copyrights.

“Not only that, they will sell the pans back to you, and the story will be, that you make and tune your pans the way you do “ because you don’t know better.”

“The Price-Whitmyre patent application described pan as a “folk instrument.” It is not. Its origins are not lost in the mists of time. The inventors are all known and some are still alive.

“So, the challenge is to reverse the process: lease the patents, don’t sell them, and allow the ‘Music Industry Giants’ to make pans on license. Those tempted to sell out for short-time gain, are advised to look at the long-term profits.”

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

Lilian S. - “The judging criteria.”

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

Lilian S. - “Family. The family of pan, which crosses all boundaries. The incredible talent and skill of ordinary people in ordinary walks of life, people who are not career musicians who come together and practice for long and exhausting hours in order to produce, together, something of almost divine beauty.  Where else in the world?”

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

Lilian S. - “Petty squabbles over things that don’t matter and the lack of good recordings.”

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

Lilian S. - “Pan is loved and revered all over the world. It is a healing force, which creates community and inspires cooperation. And it makes both performers and audiences happy. It can only grow and spread and become more powerful and popular.”

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

Lilian S. - “I would like to see the town steel bands get together and take the lead in organizing the new Tuesday mas. That would be simply  glorious.”

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

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