Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Gayle Wilmot - Toronto, Canada

“....Having been around the Caribana festival in Toronto for years, I thought I knew a bit of the culture and art form. But there is nothing like actually trying to master the instrument, with all of the language and conventions that go along with it, to truly understand the steel pan culture. It has a unique, very energetic, loving and connected community.”

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - former businesswoman Gayle Wilmot shares her personal journey and passion for the Steel Pan instrument, its music, and the art form in cultivating an environment for change.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about Gayle Wilmot?”

Gayle W. - “I have almost always lived in Toronto, but my soul has longed for the warmth, music and colours of a warmer climate for as long as I can remember! I grew up with music all around me. I played piano, flute, and guitar. I spent many years in the advertising business and raising a family before I found an opportunity to learn to play steel pan. After a few basic lessons, I became part of the rich steel pan community through the generous and welcoming spirits of Cecil ‘Mugs’ Clarke, his wife Heather McIvor, and their daughter Vanessa. It has truly enriched my life!”

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

Gayle W. - “Cecil “Mugs” Clarke invited me to move beyond the introductory course he was teaching to join the band he was managing. Having been around the Caribana festival in Toronto for years, I thought I knew a bit of the culture and art form. But there is nothing like actually trying to master the instrument, with all of the language and conventions that go along with it, to truly understand the steel pan culture. It has a unique, very energetic, loving and connected community.”

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

Gayle W. - “I had always loved hearing steel pan music in Toronto’s Caribana parade. But hearing a school band playing the song ‘Wonderwall’ at a concert awakened me to the instrument’s versatility and ability to interpret any form of music beautifully. That was the moment I knew I had to learn how to play and be a part of a band.”

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

Gayle Wilmot
Gayle Wilmot

Gayle W. - “Every time I hear a new application of steel pan music — either a single pan or a large band, it renews my love of the instrument. But as well, there is an energy that surrounds this instrument that is so exciting at every year’s Pan Alive event.”

WST - “Tell us about the JK Pan Vibration experience that so inspired you to make it your maiden film directorial voyage?”

Gayle W. - “My experience with the band was very inspiring from the moment I arrived. It is a youth band – with players ranging in age from 10 up to 30. And then, there’s ME – MUCH older than any of them. The young people were so committed to learning and to the regime of practice that the summer program required. Despite the wide age range, the camaraderie was seamless and the joy of accomplishment so invigorating. Each person had a slightly different perspective on why they were there. And personally, I found the challenge of learning the instrument and memorizing the music SO CHALLENGING!! But they welcomed, taught, encouraged, and cheered me on. I felt at home there. So I decided to make a little archival film that could possibly be given to the elementary school that most of the band members had attended.”

WST - “Tell us about Hearts of Steel?”

Gayle W. - “As I began to make the archival film, I was impressed with the articulate interviews I was getting from the young players, and their recognition of the important role that “Mugs” and Heather had played in their lives by providing so much structure for them through the band. Over several summers, I gathered enough footage of music rehearsals, triumphant performances, reflective interviews and stories of the urban violence that COULD have been a part of their lives, that I realized I had a story worthy of a film. As well, I had to learn everything about filming, editing and filmmaking. I made a lot of mistakes! Along the way, I had assistance and counsel from experts in story-creation, music score and a couple of great editors. It took a long time to create a first film almost completely on my own, but I’m very proud of it and the people whom it profiles! I truly hope that the film highlights the positive power of “alternative music” (i.e. steel pan) programs for youth.”

WST - “How has the film been received thus far?”

Gayle W. - “Very well! At the time of this writing it has been selected to be a part of four film festivals within Canada, the U.S. and the Caribbean, and has won an audience-voted award in one of them! “Mugs” and Heather are very proud to see their students portrayed so well in the film. (On the Hearts of Steel Facebook page, I run stories of the various band members and their now-successful lives as they mature.) My next challenge is to get the film in front of key people in various school boards and municipal groups to suggest how successful the structure and joy of a steel band program can be in providing a place for youth to feel that all-important ‘sense of belonging’.”

WST - “You may have interacted with others who did not understand what you mean when you say you “play pan.” If this has ever been the case, talk about how you shared your steel band experiences, and their reactions?”

Gayle W. - “HA HA! No one knows what I’m talking about when I say I “play pan”! At my age and in my neighbourhood the two key activities are yoga and book clubs. So I have some explaining to do! But I tell them that NOTHING is more joyful than being part of a steel pan band when it’s jamming really well. My friends have had to watch the film to see what I’ve been talking about for the last 10 years.”

WST - “You have experienced Toronto’s Panorama competition “Pan Alive” up-close and personal. How has it changed you personally?”

Gayle W. - “I think that having a competition to work towards is a very motivating structure for youth. It provides a goal to justify so much practicing. A chance to “show off’ in front of friends and family. But most of the kids will tell you that winning is NOT the most important thing — it is the overall momentum of the experience that matters to them as they practice toward a goal at the end of July. The event itself — wonderfully structured chaos! Moving equipment in and out of the stadium, decorating the float, keeping track of band members, being in place to play on time and play well.....so much fun! For the last several years, my husband and I have focused on creating two-camera performance films of the Pan Vibration’s final song at the event, so that the band has something for marketing themselves on YouTube over the course of the year and band members can show their friends.”

Gayle Wilmot
Gayle Wilmot

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

Gayle W. - “Well I would redesign pans to arrange the notes chromatically so that it would be easier to learn and to play!!

“Seriously though, I would truly like to see more city-funded programming for activities like this. The summer steel pan program that “Mugs” and Heather and Vanessa have run for the last 20 years has been SO successful in keeping youth engaged. There should be more low-cost programs like this.”

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

Gayle W. - “I think that the structure it provides for each ‘team’ to work together to perfect something is tremendous. I suspect that many of the bands would fall apart if they didn’t have this goal mid-way through every summer.”

Gayle Wilmot
Gayle Wilmot

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

Gayle W. - “I like a very wide range of music but am partial to soca, calypso and African music at this point in my life. I think that steel pan music can handle every type of music — perhaps with the exception of country and western....I don’t think I’ve heard that treatment yet!”

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

Gayle W. - “I’m sure it will continue to grow as bands tackle a wide variety of musical styles. It would be nice if it became easier for bands to move themselves around. Transportation of band equipment is always a challenge. Perhaps more bands should consider using the small, hanging basses rather than the unwieldy full size basses.”

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

Gayle W. - “I know that in the run-up to Pan Alive, many bands practice late into the night. This may prohibit young people from being a part of a great experience. It would be nice if there could be more city-funded programs that would run in day time or early evening hours in order to engage younger people and allow them to be a part of the steel pan experience. I am proud and enriched to have been part of such a wonderful group of pan players and I hope for more people to be able to have this same experience.”

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

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