Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan


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Meet Hope Munro Smith - of California State University, Chico, CA

With a genuine interest in the contributions of women to music globally, she fell deeply in love with Trinidad and Tobago’s culture, music and Pan.  She is a steelpan musician, author, ethnomusicologist and educator. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, Associate Professor, Hope Munro Smith of California State University shares her thoughts, experiences and views  on the steelpan art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive


WST - “Tell us about Hope Munro Smith?”

Hope Munro S. - “I was born and raised in New England, mainly Vermont. The Munro family always valued studying music, though I am the first one in my family to pursue music as a career.  I have two sisters, my identical twin Heather, who is a professor of history, and my younger sister Sara, who works in advancement and development.  We all played musical instruments starting in grade school. I played flute and piccolo in the band and orchestra, and guitar in the jazz band.  I picked up percussion later on as an undergraduate and in graduate school.   I first played pan myself when I was living in Trinidad.  Now I am an associate professor of music at Chico State, and I direct the university’s steelpan ensemble.”

WST - “When and how did you first become associated with the steelpan instrument?”

Hope Munro S. - “I fell in love with the sound of the steelpan when I heard a steelband playing at the Vermont Jazz Festival. But I did not really get an opportunity to play myself until I started doing my dissertation research in Trinidad in 1998.   I took lessons at UWI (University of the West Indies) and also played with Courts Sound Specialists at Panorama and Music Festival.  Coincidentally, my graduate school, the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, started a steelpan program while I was abroad.  So when I returned I was able to continue to play pan and help with the leadership of the steelband at UT Austin.  Since moving to California in 2003, I have pursued every opportunity to play and learn.  I have participated in workshops with Ray Holman, Liam Teague, and Andy Narell.  When I first started teaching at Chico State in Chico, California, I was determined to start a steelband at the university.   It took a while, but we finally acquired a full range of steelpans and began rehearsals in the fall semester of 2012.   It is a small ensemble of 12-16 players any given semester, but we have a great time playing at events in Chico.”

WST - “What is your area of research?”

Hope Munro S. - “My area of research is the music of the Caribbean and Latin America.  I was fortunate to study ethnomusicology with some terrific scholars at UT Austin.  These include the late Gerard Béhague, as well as Stephen Slawek, who is a student of Ravi Shankar.   Specifically, I focus on the role of women in the musical culture of Trinidad and Tobago:  how they have shaped the direction of calypso and soca music and the steelband movement.  I have also written about children’s participation in Carnival.”

WST - “What is it about Trinidad & Tobago that has fascinated you so?”

Hope Munro S. - “The nation has a rich cultural heritage, maintained by fantastically creative people. I have met so many women and men who are incredibly inspiring. There is so much to experience and learn whenever I visit, there is simply not enough time to do as much as I would like to do when I am in T&T.”

Hope Munro Smith
Hope Munro Smith

WST - “You have studied the nuances of Trinidad & Tobago culture - how has this helped you in your profession?”

Hope Munro S. - “Living abroad is a really important experience for any person.   When I relate my experiences in T&T to my students, it really helps enrich my classroom lectures and rehearsals.  I encourage all my students to pursue study abroad experience, whether it is a summer program or a semester or full year program.”

WST - “As an ethnomusicologist, you have written papers on Trinidad and Tobago culture and music - how did you choose these subjects and what did you learn?”

Hope Munro S. - “In some ways, these topics chose me!!   For many years, I have been interested in women’s contributions to music globally.  At the same time, I fell in love with the culture and music of Trinidad and Tobago.  So putting the two together was a natural progression.”

WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument (steelpan) and music going?”

Hope Munro S. - “Becoming the director of a band was a big learning curve, but it has really helped me grow in so many ways.  I am definitely a better player, and all of my musicianship skills and leadership skills, have improved. In general, teaching helps bring me new insights and keeps me learning new things everyday.”

WST - “The former music director Joan Wenzel, of Dover Middle School Steel Drum Band, said “The steel drums are about relationships, they build community and it truly is an art form.” How do you feel about that? Has this been your experience?”

Hope Munro S. - “That is a very good statement. I would have to agree that playing music with other people is a community building experience.  This is not limited to pan I would say. I think one would build similar relationships with other people in other sorts of bands or choirs.”

WST - “You are a player, instructor, researcher, writer and musician – which role do you like best?”

Hope Munro S. - “That is a hard question to answer!   I would say that playing pan and teaching others to play is the most relaxing and immediately rewarding because I can see results more quickly than in other areas.  But I enjoy all of the above.

WST - “What have you been most proud of, as it relates to your involvement in Pan?”

Hope Munro S. - “Again, I am so proud of my students and what I am able to help them achieve every year as a group.”

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

Hope Munro S. - “Again this comment is not reserved for the steelpan movement. I would say that I am disappointed in how little value is placed in the larger culture on teaching young people musicianship skills, as well as developing an appreciation of various types of music and performance traditions.”

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

Hope Munro S. - “It would be wonderful to give access to musical instruments to more people.  Playing music is so enriching for people of all ages.”

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

Hope Munro S. - “Find a way to make it available to a wider range of people locally and globally.”

WST - “You have studied many aspects of Trinbagonian society and culture - what are its greatest strengths, and what are its weaknesses - from your perspective?”

Hope Munro S. - “The greatest strength is in the people and their creative spirit.  I feel it may not be my place as a foreigner to point out weaknesses, except the general ones above that are not unique to T&T:  that is, lack of appreciation for the time and energy that goes into musical performances.”

WST - “What stands out as your most memorable steelpan experience?”

Hope Munro S. - “Panorama was definitely memorable.  Someday I hope to participate again – it’s just too hard with my university schedule.”

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

Hope Munro S. - “In terms of pan, I would say that my biggest influences are Michelle Huggins-Watts, Ray Holman, Andy Narell, and Liam Teague.  They all offer something exciting and different to they way they write and arrange for the steelpan.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Hope Munro S. - “Pure excitement!!”

WST - “What would you say to encourage more women to take a leadership position in steelpan music management?”

Hope Munro S. - “Leadership positions carry a certain risk, but they are also a way to grow and learn new things about oneself.”

WST - “What advice do you have for a young musician or scholar interested in studying ethnomusicology?”

Hope Munro S. - “Like anything else, have a passion for what you want to do.  But also, keep yourself open to new possibilities that may come along.”

WST - “What projects have you done involving pan?”

Hope Munro S. - “My biggest project so far is getting the Chico State Steel Pan Ensemble up and running.   There’s certainly more to do, and it would be great to involve other musicians at the university and in the Chico community in our musical projects.”

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