Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Kerry-Ann Wright - Toronto, Canada

“...never forget that being a woman, first and foremost, makes us special; and despite contrary belief, we do not have to act like men in order to be respected and gain success in the industry. Do everything with love and authenticity.” 

She is an entrepreneur, a craftsman and innovator. In  an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  multitalented dancer, instructor, designer and musician Kerry-Ann Wright shares her intellect, optimism,  expectations and views on the Steel Pan music art form in Toronto and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Kerry-Ann Wright, and how and when did you first become involved with Pan?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “My name is Kerry-Ann Wright, also known as Miss Kerr and I have been playing steelpan since summer ‘09. I was born in Jamaica, raised in Canada and inspired by Trinidad & Tobago and the rest of the Caribbean. I call myself an honorary Trini because at first impression most people say I look and act Trinidadian because of my fair skin and passion for steelpan and Soca music. I’m a creative by nature and music/performance is in my blood. I’m a professionally trained dancer specializing in Afro-Caribbean and take great pride in my ability to bring joy to others by showcasing the love I have for my crafts. I’ve always been blessed with the ability to pick up new skills very quickly, so I have many artistic past times that I like to indulge in at any given time.

I first started playing steelpan with Afropan Steelband (under the instruction of Earl La Pierre, Sr. and managed by Earl La Pierre Jr.), which is Toronto’s oldest and most decorated steelband. All of the other steelbands in the city have been created from members of Afropan branching off and starting their own groups; and then members of those groups branching off to do the same (our family tree has a lot of branches, LOL). I initially joined the band hoping to play bass, but due to them having more bass players than basses to play I decided to try my hands at double seconds and the rest is history! (Mind you, I’ll still jump behind a bass any opportunity that presents itself, LOL).”

WST - “The steelpan is an integral part of your life. When did you first come to believe that you could both love the Pan and still be engaged in all your other performing arts endeavors?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “I fell in love with steelpan, when I was younger, the moment I heard its sweet ping pong during a festival my community group performs for each year. From that moment it became my mission to learn at the first opportunity I could get to attend lessons. It took me about 5-6 years before I actually got to attempt, but during the interim I would watch and study other players. Musically, it seemed very simple to me as I had always had the ability to learn/play music by ear on other instruments, but never having played anything like a pan before I couldn’t wrap my head around where notes were etc.

“When I first joined Afropan, during roadside season, the band was practicing daily and getting ready for Toronto’s Panorama, “Pan Alive”. I had joined late in the season, a good chunk of the competition song was already complete, I had no knowledge or expectation of where notes were, how to play or where to begin to learn and all I could do was listen and shadow. I always give my full ‘100’ with anything I do, so at that point I made the decision to rearrange priorities to make the time to attend practices because I couldn’t let YEARS of anticipation and excitement go to waste due to overwhelm. Being a dancer and always relying on rhythmic cues and shadowing choreography I soon realized that MY secret to learning pan, and learning it quickly, was to receive the music as I receive dance and move my way through the music. (To this day I can’t play/learn/enjoy pan properly if I’m standing still, LOL)”

Kerry-Ann Wright - Woman in Pan feature
Kerry-Ann Wright

WST - “Were there any obstacles along the way, or were you cautioned or perhaps dissuaded from focusing on the steelpan instrument as your passion in life?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “The greatest obstacle I’ve had with incorporating pan into my life has been time. I’m committed to a lot of other things, people and groups so my time is already pretty stretched thin, but time management and scheduling has always been my forte; so somehow I make it work. I’ve been cautioned about the pan politics, which I feel I’ve effectively kept myself out of. I’ve also been told some horror stories of joining bands in Trinidad for Panorama and some of the trickery other players will play on newbies... Needless to say it’s always been a fear of mine to arrive in the panyard and get taught a Panorama song in the wrong key LOL, but here’s hoping when the time comes [that] I get the opportunity to play for Trinidad Panorama, that I’m able to make friends quickly and they have some mercy on the Canadian dancer girl, haha.”

WST - “What is the biggest challenge for Pan in Toronto from your perspective right now?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “I’d say right now one of the biggest challenges for the pan community in Toronto is funding and government support. There’s a lot of steelbands, my band inclusive, which struggle to find practice space/storage year round due to funding issues. As a result of this, we are unable to effectively nurture and expand the community because we have no way of holding classes or even practicing regularly so that we can play out when requested. Yes there are steelpan classes in some schools now, but there’s many adults around the city that wish to learn as well and have very few outlets to do so.”

WST - “You play other instruments as well; talk about this?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “Music has always been my driving force. EVERYTHING I do stems from my love and passion for music and performance. It’s always been a dream of mine to be part of a performing band (of any kind, I just want to be on a stage making amazing music with other talented people). This dream is what fuels my desire to learn/play different instruments. I’m also a very self-sufficient person, so when I want to learn a song, I don’t want to wait for someone else to play it for me if I can just learn to do it myself. The first instrument I learned how to play was the piano and then I played guitar for a short period of time. As I got older, I discovered that rhythm is really what drives me, so I then I tried my hand at learning to play the drums. To this day I wish I had more coordination to be really good at them, but alas I’ve plateaued at some basic rhythms, LOL. The happy medium for me, and where I truly find [a] home, is within steelpan music because I get both melody and percussion all in one (LOL - well, two, in my case :-P) I still dabble in the keys and jump on a drum kit when I can, but my heart is committed to pan.”

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

Kerry-Ann W. - “To date, I’m most proud of participating in my first Panorama outside of Toronto. In 2016, I played with CASYM Steel Orchestra (under the instruction of Duvone Stewart) for New York Panorama. I learned the first half of the song by video recording sent to me about 2 weeks prior, and then arrived in New York the Wednesday before Panorama. In just a few days, I learned the second half of the song, intro, outro and all changes in time to play and perform for Panorama that weekend! Needless to say I wowed a lot of people (myself included). I’ve never had to learn so much music in such a short period of time but I loved every second of it. I even managed to get myself in the second row (which was a shocker for me because I figured I would have ended up somewhere in the back being a new face in the band).

“I’m also very proud of the fact that after playing for only 2 years, I made the decision to purchase my very own set of pans. I have the honour of saying I own a set of Low E double seconds from Mr. Guppy himself, God rest his soul. I only wish I had gotten to meet him in person to thank him for my babies, ‘Cedowen’, which I cherish so much.”

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

Kerry-Ann W. - “What I’m most disappointed about in the steelpan movement is the politics. To me, pan is love and love is supposed to bring people together not segregate them. Loyalty plays a HUGE role in the pan community, which I completely understand, BUT there have been too many times where panists are hesitant to play pan outside of their home band because of the backlash they would get. Because I LOVE MUSIC and I LOVE STEELPAN, my pans will go wherever the music will take me. My heart will always know where it will call home (Afropan Steelband), but because I have such a craving to learn more music and play/perform whenever, however and wherever I can, it’s not unlikely to see me pop up behind a double seconds in somebody else’s panyard. I’m grateful that my Afropan family has always been supportive of that, but other panists aren’t so lucky. I think that my stance on that has also contributed to my ability to stay out of the drama because at the end of the day, I will play pan where I want and nobody can tell me anything otherwise (unless they’re sending some notes and a wicked arrangement along with it, LOL - then we can talk).”

WST - “Dance is also a major part of your performing life. Tell us about this.”

Kerry-Ann W. - “I will die dancing. Dance is my primary form of expression and I couldn’t stop it if I tried. I love dance because I don’t need anything else but my body to do it. I can share dance with anybody because there’s really no right or wrong way to do it and I truly believe that dance makes everything better. When you watch a panist play, it’s much more enjoyable watching a panist who dances while they play than one who stands still. Much like music, dance is emotive and interpretive and your only limitations are those which you place on yourself. I find I can completely escape when I’m dancing. I’m often told that people love to watch me dance and people who don’t know me will always refer to me as “that girl always dancing behind her pan!”. It’s actually difficult for me to keep still at any given time, so dance is literally the next best thing to not :-)”

WST - “You are a model, a professional dancer, a panist, an actor and a director of your own dance company. Do you have a preference?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “My preference will always be what puts me on a stage and gives me an audience because performing is where I feel most at home and where my gifts are most appreciated. I also LOVE collaborating with others, so that’s why I will always prefer playing pan with a band or dancing with a group over soloing any day. On the other hand, I am a very strong player behind the scenes and really enjoy being that support system for other performers, so getting to coordinate and direct entertainment creates a great balance for me.”

WST - “Who are your music inspirations and influences - not only relative to Pan, but also in wider music genres?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “I absolutely love, love, love David Rudder and Byron Lee & The Dragonaires. There’s something about their music that really moves me. Otherwise anything ‘old school’ soca/calypso, reggae (lovers rock/conscious) and R&B is where you’ll find me ‘skinning teeth’ and singing along because I’m an old soul and let’s be honest, they just don’t make music like they used to!”

WST - “Compare your experience as a Woman in Pan in 2017, with what you might have heard, or be aware of, regarding women in Pan - decades before you, and challenges they faced?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “My experience as a #PanPrincess has been an easy and enjoyable one. These days, women seem to be outnumbering the fellas when it comes to steelpan and I think that has to do with the growth of the movement and community as a whole. When playing pan started becoming more about the music, it became safer and more acceptable for females to be in the panyards and learn amongst the males. As steelpan gained more respect so did females who chose to learn it. I do find that sometimes I’m underestimated at first impression, but I’m not sure if that’s because I’m a female or it’s because of my timid/quiet focus when learning in a new panyard around unfamiliar players. Regardless, I wouldn’t say being a female panist has really effected me any differently from others aside from the fact that I get a lot of performance requests to play in carnival costumes and I think I look much better in plumes and gems than guys do. :-P”

KERRY-ANN WRIGHT - Woman in Pan feature
Kerry-Ann Wright

WST - “What is the The Hook & Co?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “The HOOK & company is a business I’m part of with two close friends of mine. It’s a referral hub for artists and entertainers where we connect them with any and everything they may need to enhance their journey in the industry. Our goal is to create high quality, customized connections that will result in the artist spending less time sourcing and filtering service providers and more time working on their craft. We have 3 divisions: 1) The HOOK & Co - the generic referral hub, 2) The HOOK Jr. - focusing on supporting youth within the music/entertainment industry & 3) The HOOK Entertainment - focusing on artist development (coaching, branding and marketing) and optimizing end user experience (event consulting & production) thehookandco.com

WST - “You are the owner and founder of Build-a-Mas. What led you to create this organization?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “I started Build-a-Mas (BaM) for a couple reasons. From the time I started dancing professionally, at age 16, I was submerged in the mas world. I have spent more than half my life playing and making mas. Build-a-Mas was created out of my desire to help educate people on the art form of making mas and allow people to enjoy that element of the Caribbean culture without having to break the bank to do so; but also so that I could play mas AND play steelpan on the road carnival day (we used to have to choose one or the other because the band has uniformed t-shirts to wear on the road, but a lot of players like to jump with their mas band and join the steelband after, without having to change out of their beautiful costume) Build-a-Mas allowed me to create a section specific to the steelband so players could wear it and still be ‘in uniform,’ but also supporters would be able to jump up with the band in costume too.

Furthermore it’s unfortunate that Mas (for some) has become a vehicle for greed and cultural exploitation, which can really ruin the experience for people (people are having to pay more and more money for less and less costume). The craftsmanship and artisan element of Mas is being loss due to increased demand for volume; and as opposed to training more people to make Mas, section leaders will sooner outsource designs to be factory produced, than put in the hours at the Mas camp to make the costumes themselves. (That’s not to say that they don’t make anything by hand anymore, because most headpieces, collars, etc. can’t be made by a machine... yet).

But this alone has caused so many problems that I really just felt obligated to come up with a solution. Build-a-Mas allows people to customize their costume (so they can jump up in the same section with their friends knowing each of their costumes will suit their body and preferences and incorporate some individuality into the design of their costume), but also gain an appreciation for the hard work and skill that go into making Mas. I facilitate workshops for adults and youth, which include a brief history of Carnival/Mas as well as a hands-on element for them to make a piece of their own.”

WST - “Do any members of your family play Pan?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “Nobody in my immediate family plays pan, I’m definitely a lone ranger there, but my family has always been very creatively talented. My mother was a dancer/artist, my dad was very crafty with his hands, always making something. I have several uncles who are musicians (some of them well known - Monty Alexander is my great uncle).”

WST - “If there was one thing in Pan you could change immediately what would that be?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “Here in Toronto, I would want to open up a Caribbean Community centre where steelbands could have a collective space to store their instruments and practice/hold classes and concerts. I think it would be amazing to have more opportunities for panists to spread their wings outside of their home bands and collaborate with other bands/panists. There’s so much we can learn from each other if given the chance.”

WST - “What is your vision for Pan in Toronto a decade from now?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “My vision for Pan in Toronto includes there being a Junior Panorama (which Afropan has been working on getting together for about 4 years now... we’ve almost worked out all the kinks, LOL) and that Pan Alive (our Panorama) is as well-attended as I believe it deserves to be. Since I started playing pan, I’ve seen audiences for the show dwindle while performance elements for bands increase. Once we can get panists to promote the show with as much effort as they put into learning the music for it, I believe steelpan in Toronto will be as appreciated as any other live music event in the city. Toronto plays soca music 24/7/365; I see no reason why steelpan can’t be as celebrated by the masses. Pan deserves to be on a world stage (as Pan Arts Network always says) but we need to master our city stages first ;-)”

Kerry-Ann Wright - Woman in Pan feature
Kerry-Ann Wright

WST - “What would you say to young women who are looking to follow in your career path in the arts?”

Kerry-Ann W. - “I would definitely say to never forget that being a woman, first and foremost, makes us special; and despite contrary belief, we do not have to act like men in order to be respected and gain success in the industry. Do everything with love and authenticity. Figure out what you really want, establish quantifiable goals to work towards and understand that not every ‘opportunity’ that comes your way is for you (don’t be afraid to hear or say, “No” to some so that you can hear and say, “Yes” to better) and most importantly... NEVER STOP PRACTICING... you will never ever fail if you’re always moving forward and working towards being better than you were the day before... Practice makes progress :-)”

photos provided by Kerry-Ann Wright

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