Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Gerelle Forbes - Trinidad & Tobago

“Women still cannot get the same RESPECT as their male peers...

“....So when I create and want to fall in love with the music and industry again…. I just go to the younger players. I create with them in mind. You don’t have to tell them a word. Just go and observe them work.”  She is a self-described free spirit, an intellectual - gifted, accomplished and a straight-talker...  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  panist, musician, composer broadcaster and performing artist Gerelle Forbes shares her thoughts, experiences and views on Pan, and the steelpan art form.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

WST - “Tell us about Gerelle Forbes?”

Gerelle F. - “I am a 26 year-old free spirit. A characteristic I recently learnt about myself.  I haven’t engaged the visual artist in me in years, and I have learnt to apply the thespian side of me to my singing and now my radio and television presentations. I am the Director and lead singer of my own Neo-Soul band called “Gerelle & the Gentlemen.” Through my music, I try to be as honest with my moods and emotions as possible. I am inquisitive, naïve, and gullible. VERY VERY gullible!!! Though I think those elements allow me to better appreciate, stories from other people. I love stories. I love to hear them and to create them. So the arts and culture is like Disney World for me.”

WST - “When and how did you first become aware of the steelpan instrument?”

Gerelle F.

Ms. Esther Batson
The late Esther Batson

“To be honest, I am not certain. I don’t have any memory of the first time I saw or heard the instrument. It was just another one of the instruments I was exposed to at primary school level. The late Ms. Esther Batson introduced me to all instruments. Voice being what my parents registered me into music to develop, but Ms. Batson wasn’t allowing it. While training my voice she taught me piano, violin and steelpan. I excelled the most on the violin, (dropping piano like a hot potato), though I secretly kept my eyes on the steelpan. It wasn’t until secondary school I was allowed to drop my violin for pan sticks, for good. I stopped playing violin at Grade 6. I didn’t care how good I was or that I only had 2 more grades to complete. I really wanted to play pan.”

WST - “What made you fall in love with the steelpan instrument and its music?”

Gerelle F. - “The energy!!!  There is something that comes out of the vibrations of those steel drums. You don’t get it when you sit in an orchestra, nor with a choir.  And no, the genre doesn’t matter. The energy that escapes the instrument is parallel to none. You don’t feel it as a spectator. You can only experience it when you stand behind, and/ or you are surrounded by the drums.  I think it is the vibrations from the skirts of the pan, bouncing off of you, the performer, strategically placed between the instruments. I’ve even played the Marimbas and Timpani and neither can give the same energy. Note that I have not yet discussed the energy that can come from the music itself, or the other musicians. We have designed something that really does resonate within you... literally.”

WST - “You are truly a practitioner of the performing arts - you are an accomplished singer, performer, panist, composer, broadcaster and musician. Do you have a preference?”

Gerelle F. - “Once I thought I was meant for Broadway, because I loved both music and theatre arts. Only within the last 3 years I realized Broadway wasn’t really what I loved. It was stories.  Telling stories (the writer in me), forming my own interpretation of stories (through performing), and hearing stories (the interviews and interactions with co-hosts, guests and callers through broadcasting). So to say I have a preference would be a lie. They may seem like a long list of different things, but they are all branches from the same tree for me.”

WST - “The contributions of women to the steelpan movement are undeniable. Do you believe women are finally getting that acknowledgment?”

Gerelle F. - “Hahahaha No way!! And let me make this clear, this isn’t just part of the steelpan movement. ALL THE INDUSTRIES are doing it. EVERY SINGLE ONE! Don’t get me wrong; I applaud the efforts of some people (like yourself) who really take the time to feature the works of women. For me, however it’s bigger than that. Women still cannot get the same RESPECT as their male peers. Not in the studios, not with producers, not in the panyards, not with the managers, not with the promoters; women are still not even welcomed or engaged in discussion. The interactions are different. I’ve observed it.  I have experienced it. (And I have all the culprits names stored in my head LOL).  It’s more of a “Oh yea - we see allyuh doin’ allyuh lil ting… good for allyuh” ….. smile…. And continue to belittle and disrespect us.  But doh frighten guys, where horse reach jackass does reach too.”

Gerelle Forbes
Gerelle Forbes

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing the current generation of steelpan musicians in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Gerelle F. - “Progression. The Law of the Lid is a dangerous thing. I think this generation feels suffocated. We are ready for the next step for steelpan. We are ready to create it and own it and let it be clear that this is our pride and joy too. Pan has been dormant for far too long. Instead, we have to deal with the egos of the previous generations and the “entitled” attitudes. Sometimes it feels as though the older heads created the pan for themselves and not for a nation or the world. We still don’t have a strong enough foundation for an industry to properly develop.  There is no question that we are way more talented, more creative and willing to take more risks with the music. We are educated enough and have the passion, yet we can only go as far as the ancient and sometimes unwritten rules. Understand as well this generation doesn’t want to go further alone. We need the wisdom from the older heads. We need your continued support. Most importantly we need you all to trust that we are ready to take this instrument to the next level.”

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

Gerelle F. - “My students. The story, physical structure and sound of the steelpan is so unique, it reflects exactly that of my students. (And I have had to teach students who never had to worry about money or their futures, and also students who have nothing and no one).  I’ve witnessed our instrument tell the stories of students who couldn’t speak a word of English, students who have been failing in LIFE, students who couldn’t find ways to communicate, students who were unhappy, students who just didn’t know how to feel.

“THE GREATEST THING FOR ME is to witness young people get lost in the music and the sound of the instrument. I can’t even begin to explain the feeling of seeing that. Forget the big yards. Go into the junior bands’ panyards. THAT is where you will find the magic. So when I create and want to fall in love with the music and industry again…. I just go to the younger players. I create with them in mind. You don’t have to tell them a word. Just go and observe them work.”

WST - “This year you composed two tunes for Panorama consideration - Roxanne and Sweetest Escape.  Tell us about them.”

Gerelle F. - “Sweetest Escape was our experimental sound. It doesn’t settle well with me that we are in 2016 yet pan songs cannot play comfortably on urban airwaves. And though the DJs are half-way responsible for that I don’t think the music is inviting either. The 1994 sounding productions, recycled melodies, lack of creativity. How can you expect a non-pan person to appreciate pan songs, when they sound the way they do now? What is disappointing, is knowing that it was done in the past. So what happened along the way? And why is there a disconnect between panists in Trinidad and Tobago and panists in the other islands? I think the pan songs have created selfish borders and Sweetest Escape was our (Jeanine Ruiz and myself) way of trying to create a sound that can go beyond that.  It is the first attempt, and we plan on further developing that SOUND.

“While ‘Sweetest Escape’ catered to a different audience and had different intentions entirely, Roxanne was trying to stay more within that classic sound. I also wanted a song that was memorable and whose story was entertaining. To be honest, she happened accidentally. I sat one day thinking of ways to make the Panorama more entertaining and improve the flow of the show. I also had been giving thought to the dying cultures in the pan world - (Flag women especially coming to mind). So I came up with the idea of two competitions happening at the same time.

“Each band has a flag woman/women. They are to give a performance on a smaller stage at the end of the savannah big stage. (And I doh mean de choreographed nonsense we saw for 2016). This performance would happen while the steelband sets up on main stage. The performance will come like a prelude to the arranger’s story.  The flag woman’s job, then, in this competition is to hype the crowd, intimidate the competition and build anticipation for the arrangement to come. I became so lost in the idea of this second competition, the character Roxanne simply created herself (so to speak) and the rest is, well … the song. LOL.”

WST - “Do you have a different approach to composing when writing for Panorama consideration?”

Gerelle F. - “I can’t say I do. It really depends on my intention and who I’m working with. E.g. When I wrote Pan Victory for Success Stars, the intention was different. I had a meeting with the players and asked them what they wanted to accomplish in that year’s Junior Panorama competition? What would they like to bring across to the public and their competitors? After a long meeting I went back home and tried to interpret their words and emotions. A similar situation with Carlon Harewood’s Champions sung by Chucky Gordon.”

WST - “Success Stars Pan Sounds performed Roxanne for Panorama 2016 with you on stage as ‘Roxanne’ - tell us about that experience.”

Gerelle F. - “I missed being on stage with my little monkeys (that’s what I call them). I’ve worked with Success through 2 Sand Fest victories, 2 Junior Panorama victories, 1 Queen’s Hall concert, 1 tour to Atlanta, and countless workshops, but this time around was definitely different.  They are now taking charge of the band and grooming younger players. Teaching the things I taught them. The only thing left for me to do was to enjoy the moment on stage with them. Their approval of the song was a little emotional for me.  Unfortunately the performance on stage wasn’t its usual nostalgic energy, due to the passing of a teacher that morning; Ms. Applewhite always supported the band. Her presence was missed. The energy was different from the moment we got to the foot of the stage. But we did our best nevertheless and placed 3rd.”

WST - “Who is your favorite arranger and why?”

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

Gerelle F. - “I don’t have one actually. I like different people for different things. It ain’t no secret I am biased to Ray Holman and his ability to drown an arrangement with condensed milk and give yuh diabetes. But then there is Dr. Jit Samaroo’s flawless ability to tell a panorama story. Robert Greenidge’s arrangement of “Dead or Alive” with Solo Pan Knights, is my all-time favorite arrangement to play. I played that song for months after the competition, at home. Looking ahead however, currently my eyes are on Dike Samai, Mickiel Gabriel, Keisha Codrington and Liam Teague. (I’m a sucker for stories I tell yuh). I’ve had enough of runs, aggression with loud and soft dynamics. I want more out of an arrangement.”

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

Gerelle F. - “The absurd voting and electing system for our “governing body” of pan. *Insert rolled eyes here*.  It’s high time the players, arrangers and everybody who has a part to play in pan and Panorama, actually have a fair say in who leads and who get to hold the money.”

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

Gerelle F. - “EVERY SINGLE ONE OF MY STUDENTS that came out of Success Stars Pan Sound. I am super proud to say that the core members of the band are currently all making great strides and investing wisely in their lives, their careers, their future and the future of the band. That includes the achievements of Mickiel Gabriel and Cherylee Legair. I am proud to say there have been no deaths, no jail birds, no murders, no negative stereotype. For others, junior steelbands and the competitions are about the trophy and bragging rights. For me it was about my community, Success, Laventille. I wanted so much for these students to use their talents and the instrument to prove everyone wrong. It angered me to witness so many people expecting these youths to fail. From family members, to the school, of course the society; I can go on and on.  I wanted them to succeed in life.  And they are most certainly doing that. If I had to choose one moment in particular it would be our 2012 Junior Panorama Victory. The energy on that stage was out of this world. And their faces when they found out they won…. Priceless”

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

Gerelle F. - “PAN TRINBAGO!!! Next question…”

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young females who are looking to follow in your footsteps?”

Gerelle F. - “I’d give the same advice my mother gave me: “You are in this world with 3 disadvantages: You’re young, you’re black and you’re a woman. They will come at you hard but you have to focus. You must do what you have to do. No matter what”.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Gerelle F. - “For me, Panorama is not about the players or their skill. It is about the arranger, and his/her ability to take an already completed song (by another artist)  and recreate and expand on it, giving his/her own interpretation of the story through their pan arrangement.”

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

Gerelle F. - “I think Panorama is a blessing...  haunted by many devils.”

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

Gerelle F. - “My vision for the steelpan includes it becoming a conventional instrument worldwide. The instruments’ presence in an international orchestra would be as common as seeing a triangle. All the popular genres would have found ways of including it in their compositions. Its sound will be as familiar and common as that of the piano and violin. I don’t necessarily see the need to further improve the instrument but I encourage experimenting with its current sound.”

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

Gerelle F. - “I am against the idea of arrangers writing their own song for the Panorama competition. I believe it is one of the reasons why the competition and the music have not improved. When an arranger can take another person’s already completed song and recreate it in a way that goes beyond the original, it really shows the skill of the musician as well as the versatility and zero boundary of our music. (e.g.. Baron’s ‘Somebody’ vs. Jit Samaroo’s arrangement). Currently we have arrangers creating “shells” of a song to be filled only with their arrangement, at Panorama time. Acts like these, not only affect the appreciation for “pan songs” within the pan fraternity and among pan music lovers, but also don’t help with the longevity of the pan songs, nor welcomes other listeners to the wonderful world of Steel. It’s a short cut and one that our culture is paying heavily for. Can you imagine Lord Kitchener doing a “shell” version of “Pan in A Minor” or  Blue Boy’s shell version of “Rebecca?” We are underestimating how closely related the Pan Music is connected to the world of Calypso.”

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

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