Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Oriana Estrada - Seattle, Washington

“What captivated me at first was the uniqueness of the instrument and the beautiful sounds it makes....” says founder of  Seattle Women's Steel Pan Project, Oriana Estrada.

She is keenly focused on the arts - both as a pan player and dancer.  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - performing artist and band manager Ms. Estrada shares her thoughts, experiences, views and dreams on Pan, and the steelpan art form overall.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself, a dancer - when and how did you first become aware of, and involved with, steelpan?”

Oriana E. - “My name is Oriana Estrada, I am 32 years old, born in Managua, Nicaragua and raised in Seattle, Washington. I have loved music and dance from a young age. I have been performing and dancing professionally for the past 10 years of my life, primarily Samba and Salsa. I was first connected to Steel Pan music personally through Michael Shantz’ steel pan group Bakra Bata; his band has been playing in Seattle for over 30 years and has toured internationally. I was hired to dance with his performance group and this is how I was first introduced to steel pan music and culture.”

WST - “What about it, in contrast to other instruments captivated you, personally?”

Oriana E. “What captivated me at first was the uniqueness of the instrument and the beautiful sounds it makes. I also love the danceable and energetic rhythms of calypso and soca that are so often played on pan. I love how accessible steel pan is. You don’t have to have years of music theory or experience before you can jump in and participate. I think of it as a very open, accessible and welcoming instrument.”

WST - “You've been a player for three years - talk about your experiences, and evolution over this period?”

Oriana E. “It’s been such a joy to go from dancing to music to actually making it happen with my own hands. I have a long way to go but also have come very far from my first lessons three years ago. I’m just as excited and passionate to continue learning as I was the first day, so it has been a very positive experience in my life.”

WST - “What were the initial thoughts of director Michael Shantz to offer steelpan classes with solely women as the focus group? Was there any difference in his customary approach?”

Oriana E. “So Michael and I had both been contemplating the same idea separately before I mentioned the idea of offering classes specifically to women, to him. Michael was very influenced and inspired by Women of Steel as well of Neguina do Samba from Brazil. It was really perfect timing as we both were looking to create space and opportunity for women in music. I was focused on offering classes but Michael really encouraged us early on to break out of our shell and not only learn but perform as a group.”

Oriana Estrada with ‘The Seattle Women's Steel Pan Project’
Oriana Estrada with ‘The Seattle Women's Steel Pan Project’

WST - “How many members in ‘The Seattle Women's Steel Pan Project’?”

Oriana E. “About 15 players, though over the years we have had maybe 40 or more women come through our project.”

WST - “What pans are currently in use in the group:  tenor, guitar, tenor bass, bass, etc.?”

Oriana E. “Tenor, double tenor, double seconds, triple guitar (cello as we call it), tenor bass and six bass.”

WST - “When you introduce to women in Seattle, the idea of being part of a steel band, what are the various responses?”

Oriana E. “Women who know about steel pan are very excited about this group/project; even those who know nothing about steel pan are still very supportive and enthusiastic about our project.”

WST - “Have any of them found the instrument a challenge?”

Oriana E. “No more or less than any other instrument; a lot of the women who come in through the program have no musical training and if anything I think people find pan very accessible compared to other instruments. The biggest challenge can be transporting them!!”

WST - “Upon joining the group, how are the women matched with the instruments i.e. tenor, guitar, bass, etc.?”

Oriana E. “Women are encouraged to try different pans as we move through songs so that they get the opportunity to see which pan instrument they connect with most. Sometimes if we are low on certain pans for a given song we will match people that way.”

WST - “Do the women share stories on perhaps their own experiences with friends and family, when they say they are part of a steelband?”

Oriana E. “Yes they do share what an incredibly positive experience it has been and for the most part everyone has a lot of support from their friends and family.”

WST - “Do you personally ever encounter persons who are unaware of Pan? If so, how do you describe it to them, as an instrument?”

Oriana E. “Yes I do encounter people who don’t know what Pan is. I explain it to them as an instrument that originated in Trinidad, and that it is most commonly known for what people would generalize as “Caribbean music.” If they seem receptive I’ll give more of the history and explain that it is a fully realized acoustic mallet instrument that has a unique and permanent presence in the world music and cultural scene.”

WST - “Do you still combine dance with pan?”

Oriana E. “Yes we certainly do, a lot of our women have strong backgrounds in dance. We also collaborate with others in the dance community and invite them to perform with us as well. We recognize that it is a cultural art form from the African diaspora and that music and dance go together, so we try to stay true to that. Our band director Michael is constantly emphasizing the importance of this element of our performance.”

WST - “Describe your most memorable steelpan musical experience?”

Oriana E. “That would have to be our first real performance as a women’s pan band. It was at ‘The Women Who Rock Conference,’ which is a local, grass-roots, conference that focuses on women in music scenes. To finally perform and feel the energy of the band playing together was so moving. I was literally fighting back my tears towards at the end.”

WST - “What has been your most disappointing experience, if any?”

Oriana E. “The lack of appreciation and respect for the arts in general. I think our society as a whole does not value the arts the way it should. It is very hard for people to make a living as musicians and that is frustrating and disappointing for all the musicians in my life.”

WST - “You are a dancer, pan player, and coordinator/manager; talk about how these roles come together and complement each other - and do you have a preference?”

Oriana E. “I coordinate and manage because I don’t know how not to. It’s just one of my character traits to lead, manage and organize. It’s not my favorite part, but I believe in what we are doing and I want to see it continue, so I do the often challenging task of trying to coordinate some 14+ people every week.

“Being a dancer has helped me be a better pan player. I memorize songs the way I memorize dance routines by visualizing patterns. I also can’t help but move and dance when I play and that makes the experience more fun for the band and the audience when we express ourselves through our bodies as well.”

Oriana Estrada
Oriana Estrada

WST - “Where do you see ‘The Seattle Women's Steel Pan Project’ in five years’ time?”

Oriana E. “With a robust professional group and a solid beginner group, as well as expanded classes that continue to bring in more women to pan and continue to expose the northwest to this beautiful instrument and culture.

“I’d also love to see us travel and play outside of Washington and give the women in our band the opportunity to travel outside the United States and continue to develop their musicianship internationally.”

WST - “With your experience to date as coordinator and manager of a female steel band group, what advice would you share with other women who are, or will someday be, in this role?”

Oriana E. “Coordinating and managing a large group of people is challenging. You must have strong people skills for sure, and you also have to learn to let go of the idea that things will always go as you plan. J

WST - “Are you aware of Panorama in Trinidad and Tobago, and if so, what are your thoughts on what you know about the competition?”

Oriana E. “I’ve definitely heard of it, and watched plenty of clips online; all of what I know of it is from other people’s experiences and opinions. I’d love to experience first-hand someday soon!”

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

Oriana E. “Increased awareness of Pan and of what a cultural treasure it truly is. More opportunity for it to continue to grow and prosper. Oh - and I wish the bass wasn’t so heavy! J

WST - “What do your friends and family think of your involvement with Pan?”

Oriana E. “They think it’s awesome, in fact a lot of the women in the band are my friends who joined.”

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

Oriana E. “I’m aware that there is a need for tuners and the art form depends upon competent pan tuners and makers and there aren’t enough of them.”

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

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