Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Quill Barthelmy - Laborie, Saint Lucia

“...my main role is to be a mentor, a leader, an organiser and a role model for the entire band. I think it’s very important to have women in lead roles, because this encourages girls and young women to express themselves and take on an active role.” 

She is one of the main driving forces behind the success of Panorama Champion, Laborie Steelpan. In  an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  mentor, director, manager and musician Quill Barthelmy shares her experiences,  expectations and views on Pan in St. Lucia, and the steelpan art form.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Quill Barthelmy, and how and when did you first become involved with Pan.”

Quill B. - “I am from the coastal village of Laborie, in the south of Saint Lucia. I have always lived here, and I am the last of three siblings. I am single. My first real exposure to pan was through a local football club, NAPA Giants, that also had a steel band called Pan Fusion. In fact, I would have liked to play football then, but at that time there was no opportunity for girls. I spoke to the club manager, Spencer Emmanuel, and joined their steel band. But pan is not my only passion, I am passionate about my community, I have also created and used to manage a quadrille band, I am involved in our local Youth and Sports Council, I am a community worker. And I work at the Post Office in my community.”

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

Quill B. “My understanding of pan and my interest in the music really grew after I had the privilege of seeing Robbie Greenidge, Andy Narell, Ray Holman and Gregory “Shining” Emmanuel performing on our village square in 1996 as part of Jazz in the South. In fact, that evening I spoke to Mr. Narell and told him that I had never heard pan used as a solo instrument and I wanted to play like him. His response was that I could not become a talented musician if I did not have my own instrument to practice. So I turned to my father, Augustin Barthelmy, one of the leaders and founders of Labowi Promotions (the organisers of Jazz in the South) and they sponsored my first tenor pan, which was handed over to me in 1997 by one of our most prominent community leaders, Mrs. Agatha Jn.Panel, a Senator at the time. Having my own pan allowed me to practice much more, and in 1998 I took part in my first Panorama, that was with the Castries-based band North Stars.”

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

Quill B. - “The main obstacle was when I went to live in Castries, I was unemployed at the time, and I was playing pan. There was stigma associated with women playing pan at the time, but with determination and willingness to play I got through that obstacle. I had to blend in, I had to make the sacrifice.”

Quill Barthelmy
Quill Barthelmy

WST - “Tell us about Laborie Steel Pan?”

Quill B. - “Laborie Steel Pan is part of the Laborie Pan Project, an initiative of Labowi Promotions, which started 10- years ago with the support of the Cultural Development Foundation and the Poverty Reduction Fund. So far, the Project has been able to achieve much, and more than 80 children and young adults have been trained and given the opportunity to perform. The first appearance of the Laborie Pan Project took place in February 2007. Since then, the Project has performed on many occasions. During the past years, the project has focused on training more young musicians, primarily children and young people aged between 6 and 20, and building a strong band able to perform in a range of situations. Our purpose is to develop musical and artistic talent in the community, and to give participants the opportunity to engage in a meaningful social activity and to gain pride and self-confidence in the process. Our main sponsor is a local business, Wilrock Ltd., they believe in what we do and give us tremendous support.”

WST - “In the Summer of 2016, Laborie Steelpan won St. Lucia's National Panorama. How has that impacted you and the youths of your program and greater community?”

Quill B. - “Panorama had a huge positive impact. Personally, Panorama is not really my thing, I know it’s part of pan, but my focus is on the kids, on the players and on the music. But by achieving this, it put us on the map, and all our members are of course happy to be champions. One of the things that really made us proud is that it is one of our young members, Andrius Edwide, who arranged the song. He was 19 years old at the time. The whole community of Laborie is very proud of this achievement, especially since this is the first time that a band from a small village had won Panorama.”

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

Quill B. - “I’m not an arranger, I am no longer an active player (I still play the iron, though), but my main role is to be a mentor, a leader, an organiser and a role model for the entire band. I think it’s very important to have women in lead roles, because this encourages girls and young women to express themselves and take on an active role. I had to give up playing to devote time to my leadership role.”

WST - “As a player, administrator and fan of pan - which role do you like the most?”

Quill B. - “As a player, the kids feed off you, and they inspire you, it gives you a sense of belonging, you are part of what they do. As a band leader, I organise our activities, I coach the section leaders and other senior members, and I speak often to the entire band. I also keep in touch with the parents of the players. For administration, our Laborie Steel Pan is part of the Laborie Pan Project managed by Labowi Promotions, so I get good support for financial management, logistics and such aspects. And I will always be a fan of pan. I like all these roles.”

WST - “In February 2017 you and other members of Laborie Steelpan journeyed to Trinidad & Tobago to participate in the country's national panorama competition with Silver Stars Steel Orchestra, under the direction of one of the foremost arrangers in the world, Liam Teague. How did that experience impact on you and the young musicians from St. Lucia who participated in the competition? What did you learn? How has it changed you?”

Quill B. - “With every experience I challenge myself, I look for something different, something new. So we went there with that mindset, we were looking for change. Silver Stars is a large band, with many members who are very knowledgeable about music, and it was good to be able to interact with them. Being given the opportunity to compete with Silver Stars in Panorama — and to reach finals in Trinidad — has given our players a huge encouragement, it has told them that they are good enough to compete with the best. And meeting Mr. Teague was very special, he is a humble man, very talented, and his music is different. We also need to thank Marcus Ash, he is really an inspiration, he always motivates and he took very good care of us. And we also learned a lot from their Captain, Chanel Pouchet, she was very supportive, and it was good to see a woman in that role. Having people like them believing in us has given us a lot of encouragement.”

WST - “Do you have any advice for women now coming into the steel pan art form and are thinking of engaging in a leadership role in Pan?”

Quill B. - “I know that I have received a lot of encouragements and praise for my work, but I know this is not about me. It’s about the kids, the music, the community. If you intend to go into a leadership role, make sure that your members and other people respect you, be aware that it will take a lot of hard work, and that there is still prejudice against women in pan out there. In fact, it’s really us, the women, who can give pan the respect and the place it deserves in society.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you? Is Panorama a curse or blessing from your perspective?”

Quill B. - “It can be a curse, it can be a blessing, it depends on how you take it. It becomes a curse if you allow preparations and rehearsals for Panorama to distract you from your core mission as a music educator and a community leader, if you compromise on the quality of the music. Panorama is only one event in the annual calendar. It can be a blessing because it raises the profile of pan in society, it motivates players and it brings resources into pan music. In our case, Panorama has also connected us with Birdsong, with Silver Stars, with musicians from the US, and that’s very important.”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge the steelpan music artform faces in St. Lucia today?”

Quill B. - “The stigma and the tensions between bands. We need to respect each other as pan players, the older ones need to contribute more to the art form, we need to bring young people into the music. That’s what matters, the pan, the music, the players, not the competition between bands and winning or losing.”

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

Quill B. - “It’s our mentality that needs to change.”

Summit Steel - Quill Barthelmy
Quill Barthelmy

WST - “What is your vision for Pan in St. Lucia in the near future?”

Quill B. - “More young people involved, with pan giving them the opportunity to develop musically and academically, more international exchanges, with Trinidad, with the UK. I would like to see pan creating employment and experience opportunities for as many people as possible.”

WST - “What is next for Laborie Steel?”

Quill B. - “We are very fortunate to have Mr. Narell guiding us, encouraging us and teaching us. We have many plans for the future, we need more instruments, our current arranger Andrius Edwide needs equipment and software, we have at least one other member (a young woman) who wants to go seriously into arranging, we are continuously bringing in new kids in the band, we want to perform more often at different venues, and we are of course preparing actively for Junior and Senior Panorama 2017.”

photos provided by Q. Barthelmy

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