Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

Follow When Steel Talks
WST google search WST Forum WST facebook page WST on Twitter WST Newsletter Global Steelband listings

Meet Malika Green - Chicago, USA

For over 23 years the steelpan instrument has been an essential  part of  the life of this Fulbright scholar, educator, director, arranger  and performer.  She is currently a Community Engagement Coordinator, Director of Steel Orchestras, working with CYSO - Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras.

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Malika Green shares her personal journey and perspective on the global reach and influence of the Steel Pan instrument, its music, and the art form in cultivating an environment for change.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

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

Malika G. - “I am an educator, administrator, arranger, performer. I first started playing pan in middle school and have been playing for over 23 years. I first learned in Trinidad during the Entertainers steel band summer camp under the direction of Maureen Clement. I stayed at my grandmother's house that summer. At the end of the summer she bought me a double second and I returned home to Maryland, USA with my new instrument. I’ve played double second ever since.”

WST - “The steelpan is now an integral part of your life path. When did you first come to believe that you could both love the Pan and perhaps even make a career out of it?”

Malika G. - “I was a business major when I first started college at Drexel University. During my second year at the school I made the tough decision to actually withdraw from school, because I was so unhappy, and I set my mind on auditioning at Northern Illinois University to pursue steelpan. My parents were not initially happy with my decision but when they saw I was serious and determined they were completely behind me. Once I was accepted into NIU (2002) I felt the possibilities were endless. I knew I wanted a career in pan but didn’t know exactly what it looked like. I just knew that I had to believe in myself and trust the advice of those who cared about me the most. Also, seeing how much Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague have done with the instrument was a constant reminder of how staying on your path can lead to a fulfilling life.”

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

Malika G. - “Definitely! As I mentioned earlier I started out as a business major. As a senior in high school I was very much interested in majoring in music. In fact my senior project involved a paper about the history of the steelpan accompanied with a self-produced CD where I played original compositions on piano and steelpan and a few arrangements for steel band. At the time my family and I were not really aware of all the career possibilities with music in general. I had an interest in business/marketing, so I went that path. After trying it for a year followed by 9 months of an internship, I quickly made a U-turn!”

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

Malika Coletta Green
Malika Green

Malika G. - “I started playing the piano at age 8. Like many I had an on-again, off-again love affair with the instrument until I started playing pan at age 12. I fell in love with pan right away, and started regaining interest in the piano so that I could become a better steel panist and arranger. I eventually started to love the piano as well. Today I still go to the piano first when it’s time to arrange, especially when working with songs that involve extended harmonies. Sometime I have students who want to quit their first instrument after learning how to play pan. When possible I always encourage them to play as much music as they can. They can discover new ways to interpret music by studying other instruments and genres of music. On a side note, the next instrument I want to learn is the string cello!”

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

Malika G. - “Well there are certainly several. My first pan teacher was Maureen Clement who is still heavily involved in community steel band programs in Trinidad. I still enjoy hearing her talk about music education. Pat Adams who works with the Pan in Schools Coordinating Council (PSCC) in Trinidad was very helpful in advising me on my Fulbright. I grew up around Shawn and Sherwin Thwaites. They actually got me into my first New York Panorama experience! Staying in touch with them after high school actually inspired me to buckle down and go the music major route. I don’t even think they know that but it’s the truth! Liam Teague’s and Cliff Alexis’ influence almost goes with saying.

“As far as wider genres, I love Stevie Wonder. I am truly inspired by the fact that a blind man has more insight into how people should love each, treat each other and how the overall purpose of music is to inspire others to be their whole selves and live wholehearted lives. I also feel that jazz as a genre continues to be that place where artists transcend all racial and cultural stereotypes. Jazz performances (and any style of music that has an improvisational aspect to it) always seem to be an evolving conversation, and in the end leaves you satisfied with the outcome when you are truly listening and engaged.”

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

Malika G. - “I have to be honest that I don’t know many facts about the growth of women in steelpan culture. I will say several of the people who have inspired me are women and that more and more I meet amazing women who approach the instrument as if sexist stigmas never existed. That makes me hopeful that we will see more female arrangers and more women as directors of organizations that deal with the steelpan. Also, my mother who started her own non-profit focusing on steelpan education while I was in high school, is a huge inspiration. She has persisted for many years and as a woman she is very much respected and recognized for her contribution to steelpan education.”

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

Malika G. - “My dad learned to play a few years ago. He played double second like his daughter. My mother played guitar pan once! Other than that I never grew up with any pan players in the family.”

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female players all over the world who are dreaming of following in footsteps such as yours?”

Malika G. - “I don’t know that anyone is dreaming to follow me but I’ll share a few thoughts I have about striving to be your best self.

“Listen to those who can make an account of your qualities and virtues and be wary of “yes” men/women.

“Remember that learning an instrument (or anything in life) it’s not about gender, race, religion or culture. It’s about follow through and you are responsible for your own happiness.

“When you start to learn how to be comfortable with who you are as a person, and a woman, that is when opportunities will start to open up for you.

“Never forget about those women who inspire you. Stay connected with your mentors because your progress will inspire them in return.”

WST - “Talk about your recent 2017 Panorama experience/performance in Trinidad and Tobago?”

Malika G. - “It was everything I hoped for and it was what I needed. I wanted to get recharged. I played with Silver Stars Steel Orchestra. There is not a big Caribbean steel band community in the Midwest like what you see in the Mid-Atlantic Region of the US. It was great to get back to the raw reason of why I love this instrument and share with my students.”

Malika Coletta Green
Malika Green

WST - “Congratulations on your recent Fulbright Scholarship Award. What impact will this have on your life plans going forward?”

Malika G. - “Thank you! I have no idea! I do plan to stay in the Chicago area. My Fulbright award will allow for me to travel to Trinidad, London, UK and Toronto, ON to research the development, pedagogical practices and sustainability of community steel band programs. I am looking at the sustainability of youth steel band programs through the lens of community support, advocacy, and professional development for educators. I believe this will be beneficial for the steel band community as a whole and the programs I direct here in Chicago, Illinois, through the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras (CYSO).”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing the steelpan art form and music?”

Malika G. - “I think the ability to easily acquire quality instruments is growing at a pace that far surpasses the amount of qualified, experienced teachers (those who are dedicated to integrating the instrument into curriculums while still:

1. paying close attention to technique and its impact on the fragility of the instruments, and

2. being cognizant of and prepared for the care and maintenance requirements) being available to direct current, create new, or develop existing, programs. In short, anyone can get a pan, but everyone doesn’t know what to do with it.”

Malika Coletta Green
Malika Green

WST - “You’ve experienced steelpan in Trinidad & Tobago, also as Artistic Director for the Cultural Academy for Excellence and then at the Northern Illinois University as a student; share some comparative observations regarding steelpan in these three environments.”

Malika G. - “This is correct but I will also mention that most of my time spent in training on the steelpan occurred in the US. In Trinidad there is definitely a sense of community and ownership when it comes to steel bands. Panyards in a way can represent cultural and historical landmarks for the communities they reside in. That is definitely a very special attachment that will be difficult to replicate in other countries. Being a foreigner I still feel there is sense of pride for the steelpan especially since it was born out of resistance. Whether you like pan or not, as a Trinidadian you can claim the creativity of your ancestors that was needed to conjure an instrument that is now a global phenomena. Also there is more access to the instruments, allowing for students to improve at a much quicker pace. This is something I’d like to see improve in community programs around the US.

“My experience at NIU turned me into a musician. When I arrived there my first semester I had no idea what I was getting in to! Up until starting at NIU my steelpan education was mostly rote, even though I played piano. My first semester at NIU I barely slept because I was staying up late trying to understand these complex rhythms that I had never seen notated before. One of the benefits of studying music at a university is the access to other instruments, other styles of music, and attending master classes with some of the world’s leading musicians. I enjoyed writing and arranging pieces that featured orchestral instruments. When the unique timbre of the steelpan is combined with different colors and timbres, the collaboration truly highlights the beauty of the instrument and its artistic capacity. The hurdle with the NIU steel band is that many of the students have not been exposed to Caribbean culture. Performing the rhythms on the page with the nuances needed to evoke a calypso groove required translating by Liam and Cliff. I learned a lot as well, and those rehearsals definitely laid a foundation for how I work with my most advanced students today.

“The Cultural Academy for Excellence was started by my mother Lorna Green in 1996. It’s a very unique program which uses the steelpan to encourage students to improve or continue doing well in school. One aspect of the organization that I feel is key in its sustainability is the fact that most of the [members] up until the last 2 or 3 years were Caribbean American. These were families who knew that a steel band needed to have community support to survive. Fortunately there was a vibrant Caribbean community in the D.C. metropolitan area that was eager to celebrate youth who were embracing their culture. As artistic director from 2007 - 2011, I was charged with working with our highly qualified staff (shout out to Victor Provost and Adam Grise) to stay true to steel band culture, meet music education goals and grant requirements, while finding ways to push the students’ artistic and technical abilities in very relevant ways.”

WST - “In your opinion, what do you think is the place of the annual Panorama competition, with respect to the overall art form in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Malika G. - “In general I am not a competitive person. With that said, I feel that competition in the Arts surfaces when a new style or medium is being developed. There are several pan historians who have already shared that pan would not be where it is today without the competitiveness that existed among different bands when it came to their arrangers and the building of the instruments. I feel that the level of playing exhibited during Panorama needs to be showcased, and maybe the competition aspect of it is no longer needed.”

WST - “And is Panorama a curse or a blessing?”

Malika G. - “For foreigners it’s a blessing for sure. For many Trinidadians it may be a curse.”

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

Malika G. - “With my magic wand I would make them at least 50% lighter!”

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

Malika G. - “I am starting to see pan as a part of a larger conversation about education. I think Pan has an important role right now as a poster child for multicultural music education in the U.S. This type of education is more important now than ever as the country is becoming more divided on issues surrounding race, culture and religion. In a decade I hope to see more non-western European styles of music offered in more elementary and high schools. If this does occur I believe many will name the steelpan a catalyst for this change.”

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

Malika G. - “Nope! Thank you for having me as part of this series and for being an important source in the global steel band community.”

Malika Green
Malika Green

photos provided by M. Green

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

Leave a comment in the WST forum

When Steel Talks shirts
now available!
Order yours now!
When Steel Talks -- T Shirt

When Steel Talks logo

Join When Steel Talks