Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Janet Zahradka Reiner - Virginia, USA

“Whatever you pursue, it is your journey. Take the opportunities as they present themselves. Don’t spend too much time in looking backward but look forward to how you can transform yourself. In my journey, I spent most of my life as a full-time band teacher of young people. Now, I am in transition from full time teacher to pan player. It is a glorious adventure!”

She has been smitten with the steelpan music art form and Pan culture. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - panist, performing artist and educator Janet Zahradka Reiner shares her reflections, experiences and views on Pan, and the steelpan art form overall.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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

Janet  R. - “In 1992, at the Mid-West International Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A., I attended a session with the Washington High School Steel Band (Pennsylvania, U.S.A.). I was immersed in the sweet sounds, and listened to Ellie Mannette as he explained his role in the creation of the steel pan.  At this clinic, I hung out with the guys from PanYard, Inc. (Ron Kerns and Shelly Irvine).  I just couldn’t get enough of the instrument. I was captivated, and my life has never been the same!

“Even though I had definitely been bitten by the ‘pan jumbie,’ I didn’t actually have my own pan until 2005.  That’s when I made my first E-Bay purchase ever, for a tenor pan made by Merlin Gill.  I think I gravitated to the high pan, because of my love of playing the flute.  Both instruments play the high sounds and the melody. There is a discipline to learning of any musical instrument.  I taught myself the pan, in the same manner I taught my students to play any other musical instrument.”

WST - “You are an organizer, performing artist, educator, and steelpan player. Which role do you cherish the most, and how do they complement each other?”

Janet  R. “My love of music was cultivated when I was 9 years old, as I began to learn the flute.  I remember the incredible feeling of inner peace by being intimately involved with the music.   This later led to my desire to share my music, resulting in becoming a music teacher of band instruments.  Even though it’s rewarding to teach full-time in the U.S. public schools system, it can be a draining profession.  After 30 years of full-time teaching, I felt it was time to explore the other aspect of myself... playing Pan!!!

“I had shared the pan and pan history with my former band classes, but now here was the chance to share pan by entertaining in other venues.  I realized that people around my area (Richmond, Virginia, U.S.A.) didn’t really know much about pan, and they wanted to hear and discover.  I love entertaining, and experiencing the joy that pan music brings to the listener.   I have the unique opportunity to educate people about music, pan, and the Trinidad culture when I play.   I am a pan player, entertainer, and educator.  It’s who I am.  All three are intertwined.”

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

Janet  R. - “When I play pan, nothing else matters.  When my day seems to not be going well, I realize that I just need to play pan!  I think that once you really have a passion, it doesn’t just go away.  I have found that pan people are some of the more passionate, and are willing to share their stories.  We are all one big family, who share the love and the experiences.  None of us can quite get enough of it!”

Janet Zahradka Reiner in birdsong's pan yard
Janet Zahradka Reiner in birdsong’s pan yard

WST - “Recently you traveled to Trinidad to participate in their national panorama with birdsong Steel Orchestra. Describe the journey and experience.”

Janet  R. - “It was in January 2015, that I became aware of an invitation for international pan players to play in the semi-finals with birdsong Steel Orchestra.  I remember thinking at the time what an awesome experience this would be, but I never, NEVER, thought one year later I would be going.  I had visited T&T (Trinidad & Tobago) as a tourist some years ago, but this was the first time I was going to play pan!

“With  the vision of Dennis Phillips (birdsong), Dr. Jason Koontz (University of Eastern Kentucky University), and Andy Narell (arranger), an educational program was created for foreigners. This program included  master-classes with Andy,  including a performance/lecture with Lord Relator, famous Calypsonian.

“From the moment I stepped on the birdsong panyard, I felt  part of the family.  I found the birdsong family to be gracious people who were eager to share their heritage with us.  Along with their stories, their hospitality included traditional foods and beer.  They watched out for our safety and were available if we had any questions.

“I came home with memories of the many talented people I met from around the world, who shared these experiences with me. We worked hard in the panyard, visited other yards, ate wonderful traditional food, limed at the beach, and had the experience of playing at semi-finals.  A favorite Panorama memory was with the signal “We Go,” running the pan racks up the stage!  To experience pan, in the land of the pan was incredible!!!!”

WST - “Was there a difference in how you mastered the music for Panorama, in comparison to how you may be accustomed to - and what are your relative thoughts?”

Janet  R. - “With birdsong, the players were given the written music score to learn before we arrived in Trinidad. I approached the process as I would perfect music in any other traditional band competition.  First learn the notes and rhythms, and then lots and lots of repetition.  With the pan, that meant relying on muscle memory.  Then in the panyard, there were additional changes made on the spot.  I am amazed at how the Trinis could just step in and learn the music by rote.  They were able to learn it by rote, much faster than I learned it with the written music.”

WST - “What surprised you the most in terms of pre-conceived expectations regarding the Panorama experience overall, if any?”

Janet  R. - “I didn’t have set expectations, but just wanted to be open to whatever the experience would be.  I knew it was going to be hard but rewarding work to play with the full orchestra, and was going to be an overall incredible experience.  Even though I tried to prepare myself by talking with others, and researching Panorama, it was far beyond what I could imagine.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Janet  R. - “To me, Panorama in Trinidad is the performance stage of the birthplace of pan.  It’s the stage where all other Panoramas in the world are modeled.”

WST - “What did you take away or grasp in terms of competition and culture in Trinidad and Tobago?”

Janet  R. - “It’s a very serious business in Trinidad, this Panorama competition.  I found that there is much politics throughout the process.  As far as the culture of T&T, I highly give respect to the locals.  In the​ birdsong panyard, I saw the elders being given great respect, while the youth were nurtured.  We foreigners were given the guidance and protection as special guests.  To speak of the cuisine... I love the spicy taste of peppa, turmeric, and ginger!!!”

Sandbar Trio
Sandbar Trio - with Janet Zahradka Reiner, center

WST - “Did any of these ‘takeaways’ influence your subsequent engagement of Pan back in the USA upon your return, and going forward?”

Janet  R. - ““He who returns from a journey, is not the same as he who left” - Chinese proverb. This is such a simple quote to explain my overwhelming feeling of community, and admiration for Trinidad, the birthplace of pan.​”

WST - “You perform both as a solo artist, and as part of the trio Sandbar; talk about some of your experiences, joys and otherwise relative to gigs?”

Janet  R. - “Performing as a soloist and with a group are two different styles, and both are rewarding.

Janet Zahradka Reiner as ‘PanJan’
Janet Zahradka Reiner as ‘PanJan’

“As a solo entertainer, I play under the name of PanJan, and play melodies, mostly to backing tracks.  I have played at parties, retirement homes, river cruises, weddings, and anyplace that would like the tropical ambiance of the pan sound.  I am a regular summer street entertainer at Beach Street U.S.A. in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

“My trio, Sandbar, includes myself along with two singer/guitar players.  We play a variety of music, where my role is one of accompanying my fellow musicians.

“In addition to the gigs, I look for other experiences to further my abilities.  I have for several years, participated in the PanFest in Virginia Beach, and last summer attended the Mannette Festival of Steel in Morgantown, West Virginia. These are wonderful chances to make new pan friends, and work with some incredible pan arrangers/teachers like Andy Narell, Jeff Narell, Ray Holman, Cliff Alexis, Liam Teague.”

WST - “How often do you perform throughout the year, and how far afield do you travel?”

Janet  R. - “During the summer months, I average 2-3 gigs a week.  There is not as much entertainment action for me during the winter, so my plan is to do more promoting in the future!.  As far as travel distance, I am happy to be able to include in my résumé that I played pan in Trinidad!!!  My usual travel is within 300 miles of my home, but I’m always willing to travel farther.”

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

Janet  R. - “I would like to have pan instruments more readily available to anyone who would like to play.  At this time, there is a worldwide shortage of pan builders and tuners. It takes many years and hard work ​to acquire those skills.  In my area, there are none close by.  I personally travel 5 hours just for a tuning.”

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

Janet  R. - “I just enjoy playing and sharing this special instrument.  I won’t lie, I enjoy the special star feeling of being a pan player!”

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

Janet  R. - “I find it sad that politics play a large part in the Panorama competition.  There is much debate on the best way to move forward.  It is my hope, that one day, the people will agree on how the art form can evolve without losing some of the traditions.”

Janet Zahradka Reiner performing with birdsong Steel Orchestra

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female panists all over the world who are dreaming of becoming involved with the steelpan instrument as a career move?”

Janet  R. - “Whatever you pursue, it is your journey.  Take the opportunities as they present themselves.  Don’t spend too much time in looking backward but look forward to how you can transform yourself.  In my journey, I spent most of my life as a full-time band teacher of young people.  Now, I am in transition from full-time teacher to pan player.  It is a glorious adventure!”

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

Janet  R. - “My vision is for the pan to be recognized worldwide as a valued instrument.  Sometimes when I play, I am approached by people who don’t know what a pan is or where it comes from.  This is unlike when I play another instrument (flute, clarinet, trumpet, etc.) where I don’t need to identify the instrument.”

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

Janet  R. - “I would like to thank When Steel Talks, for this opportunity to share my journey.  I have met many wonderful people who cherish pan.  There is a connection between members of the pan family like no other.  I am honored and humbled to be a part of the steel pan community.”

photos provided by J.Z. Reiner

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