Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Marina Marfan - Tobago

“Many times people have commented and told me that I seem to have a glow or a sparkling aura when they see me play the Steel pan instrument. At times I can be lost in my own little world once I start to play or practice on the steel-pan; it may be minutes to hours. The instrument gives me a drive and energy: no matter how tired I may be I always can find the vigour to play.”

She is driven, ultra-focused and immensely talented. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  musician, arranger,  and panist Marina Marfan shares her personal journey and passion for the Steel Pan instrument, its culture, and the art form.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

WST - “Tell us about Marina Marfan?”

Marina M. - “I am from Trinidad’s sister isle, Tobago, in which my date of birth was the 8th of March 1988. In a nutshell I consider myself to be quite a humble, shy person who is blessed. I was never alone, since I was born with a twin sister Marcella Marfan. So therefore from the very start of my life a companion was always there. My family consists of eight people and we were bestowed the gift of music and medicine. In other words I have pharmacists, musicians, choir leaders, music teachers, a disc jockey (DJ) and one doctor in my family. Interestingly enough all the medical persons can play at least one instrument. Therefore music was and still is a norm in my family. As a child the sports I took part in were javelin, and I represented my high school in InterCol. I was in church and school choir and performed in music festivals as a teenager.”

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

Marina M. - “My first time associating with the steelpan instrument was at the age of ten. Of course my twin sister was with me since we did almost everything together. It was my mother Brenda Marfan who sent us to the pan tent in the village, Our Boys Steel Orchestra. She wanted us to be occupied with an activity since we both were free after sitting our common entrance examination. Since my elder sister Maria Marfan was already in the band she was comfortable sending us there. We joined the junior band and my sister and I both started in the Double Guitar section.”

WST - “Have you ever been dissuaded from being involved with Pan?”

Marina M. - “Fortunately I was never faced with any discouragement from being involved with Pan. I suppose since I was already taking music lessons from a young age that my parents saw it as another musical instrument to learn.”

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

Marina Marfan
Marina Marfan

Marina M. - “I have a genuine appreciation for culture and I am still involved in concerts, music festivals, heritage festivals and Panorama up to this day. My love for the art form goes quite deep, especially for pan because I find it to be enticing, exciting, and truly enjoyable. Many times people have commented and told me that I seem to have a glow or a sparkling aura when they see me play the Steel pan instrument. At times I can be lost in my own little world once I start to play or practice on the steel pan; it may be minutes to hours. The instrument gives me a drive and energy: no matter how tired I may be I always can find the vigour to play.”

WST - “Which Pan is your favorite and why?”

Marina M. - “I cannot really choose between the Double Seconds and the Quadrophonic. The Double Seconds though have a special place in my heart to some extent. This is evident since I often refer to my personal seconds pan as “my Baby.” It was given to me as a gift by my parents when they realised I was going to Trinidad to pursue my education at UWI (University of The West Indies) in music arts. It was the first frontline instrument I ever played. I prefer this pan for its range and warm tone compared to the tenor pan. Additionally, I was assigned to a G double seconds when I was also in the National Steel Symphony Orchestra (NSSO).

“The Quadrophonic is the next pan I am very much fond of. It is such an exquisite pan just by looking at its setup. From ever since as a teenager, I have always admired the pan and the skilful people that would play this instrument. This year has been the third time that I have played this pan, and it so unfortunate that it only makes its appearance around Panorama time since bands tend to not use it on their stage-side. The pan can seem like a challenge to play but there is sense of accomplishment and satisfaction I get from playing it. Not matter how fast, or demanding the musical passages may be I just stick with it.”

WST - “Tell us about your experiences with the National Steel Symphony Orchestra?”

Marina M. - “I do miss performing at that high calibre of music and the usage of music skills such as sight reading. I still do sight read music as a solo performer but I missed the orchestra’s symphonic feel with the NSSO.

“Whenever I ponder about my time there it brings back such lovely, nostalgic feelings. It was such a blessing to be able to work among such talented, experienced persons such as Carlon Harewood, Curtis Edward (from Exodus), and so forth. The orchestra was always full with energetic, driven people and musicians. They were band managers, steelpan arrangers, steel pan drummers, people doing their music degrees from various ages, and at a point in time I was one of the youngest members in the orchestra. I often remember chatting with Kegan Kellar, and Aaron Bonnet about music arranging and chords. I was learning and often asked questions based on that since I was interested in composing music.

“I recall many times trying to create music, and getting the approval for my very first arrangement by the musical director at that time Mr. Jessel Murray was not easy. Simply because - if any arrangement was to be performed by the NSSO it had to be written out or transcribed into music notation and granted the approval from the music director. I was elated that my song “All The Things You Are”—a jazz standard—was chosen and it debuted at Carifesta X in Guyana and then in a concert on Republic Day in Naparima Bowl [south Trinidad]. If given a chance to return to the orchestra I would gladly do so without much hesitation.”

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

Marina M. - “I would change the mindset of how people in my own country unbelievably mistreat and look down upon our own National Instrument. I would like them to understand, appreciate and realise the value of the music instrument that we can claim as ours.

“Unfortunately some children’s parents are to blame for this. I recall teaching pan in a workshop. There was a girl quite excited to play. I showed her music notes on the double seconds - a simple tune the - first day and then the next day she intimated to me that her mother does not want her play the Steelpan – her exact words were: “My mother said to leave pan for the negro children and them,” and she asked to play the tambourine in the ensemble instead so as not to get into trouble when it was the graduation ceremony at the end of the camp.”

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

Marina M. - “My most proud moment was crossing the Panorama stage this year 2017 with Alpha Pan Pioneers. The reason being it was my first year arranging and it was the first time Alpha Pan Pioneers ever crossed that Savannah stage.”

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

Marina M. - “It would have to be this year with the fiasco with [Pan Trinbago] central executive and the cloud of corruption hanging over the organisation. It still is not resolved as this topic is quite a heated one. It looks extremely bad especially as they are responsible for Pan locally, and to an extent internationally also. I do hope things are resolved so that we can move forward.”

WST - “Describe your experience as Alpha Pan Pioneer’s arranger?”

Marina Marfan
Marina Marfan

Marina M. - “Just thinking about the experience, it was quite exhilarating, exhausting and at times nerve-racking. I must admit that I suffered a lot with insomnia and the occasional nightmares - that is, being on stage and sometimes things just go horribly wrong and I am cold-sweating. Some people did not believe me that I was actually going to arrange with this inexperienced band. Since it was Alpha Pan Pioneers’ first time entering this mega competition alongside a novice Panorama arranger and it was my first time.

“But I was brave when facing everything. It is definitely not an easy task. I experimented and challenged myself and the dedicated players. I even faced ‘writer’s block’ where no creative musical ideas flowed. But nevertheless Alpha Pan Pioneers is a band I hold dear to my heart. Therefore I am quite emotional in terms with the band since I was there when it was conceived.

“This year 2017 marks the first time as an arranger on that grand stage. It is still unbelievable when Alpha Pan Pioneers crossed the Queen Park Savannah stage for semi-finals. It was truly a profound and magical moment. My dad Mathias Marfan explained how proud he was of me and he never dreamt that he would cross a Panorama stage in his life since he always saw me and my twin sister on the television. However, preliminaries night was actually the scariest out of all the performances, since that night was when both Alpha Pan Pioneers and myself made our debut in a Panorama competition. I remembered how I was extremely nervous but I smiled and tried to keep calm composure in spite of it all, so that my players would also be relaxed and focused while the MC announced us.

“It was all possible because I had faith, the support from my band players, my family even in the USA and friends - in particular Anslem Campbell and Akil Browne who encouraged me immensely.”

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?”

Marina M. - “I encourage the female panists and upcoming arrangers to hold on strong and believe in themselves and what they can achieve. I urge them to push forth, and please do not be disheartened or discouraged by the obstacles they may face along the journey. It is good to have a support by your side and I too support them, since their progress will also be a progress for me and all female panists and arrangers.”

Marina Marfan
Marina Marfan

WST - “What is the most serious challenge facing Pan in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Marina M. - “Finding committed players and the financial costs to run and maintain a Steel band.”

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

Marina M. - “Firstly, my father Mathias Marfan is my most biggest influence; ever since I was a child I admired my dad. It is part of the reason why I wanted to learn to play the guitar just like him and that is exactly what I did. Secondly I listen to music of all genres including steelpan music.”

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

Marina M. - “Panorma can be a blessing when you look at it from the perspective as a visitor coming to see, hear and even play with bands. However it can be a curse in terms of management. It is quite disappointing to know how many pan players or people do not even know the amount of work it takes to perform for Panorama. Even some of the players take it for granted especially when the bulk of work is on the shoulders on one or two persons in the organisation. There are a lot of things to be handled such as getting instruments, players, uniforms, transportation, tuner, an arranger and so on - and everything has a cost attached to it.”

WST - “What changes, if any, have you noticed since you first started out in Pan years ago, and present day 2017?”

Marina M. - “One change I can recall is when the different categories like small, medium, large were implement in the Panorama competition. Another is the first ever International Panorama Competition 2016.”

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

Marina M. - “I would like to see an advancement in which the bass pans’ design can be more portable. I always wondered if it could fold like a ‘telescope.’ This would be useful in terms of travelling, especially on tours.

“Additionally I would like to see both small and single pan band Panorama finals to be more recognised. I am disappointed that those finals are not broadcasted on television and sometimes not even on the radio. Also no CD of those Panorama finals is ever produced to be sold like the medium and larger categories. ”

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

Marina M. - “I would like to see pan shows like Ramajay be re-introduced and that the pan show in Tobago Jazz festival return, and more pan shows like the ‘Pan Down Memory Lane’ and ‘Pan In The 21st Century’ have a second look at.”

Marina Marfan
Marina Marfan

photos provided by M. Marfan

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