Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Shareen Gray - London, UK

“....It is my life and livelihood. Everyday I feel blessed that my whole world revolves around steelpan music. Both my business and charity give me so much enjoyment I sometimes feel very spoiled by my ‘fun pan lifestyle’.”

In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Shareen Gray, president of Steel Pan Agency, shares her commitment to the forward progress and passion for the steelpan art form  & culture as a promoter, player, entrepreneur, and educator.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about Shareen Gray?”

Shareen G. - “My weakness is great Pan Players. Since I was a young girl a pan played excellently could subject me to leave a room, go to the toilet and shed a few tears. I have no idea why my love for pan runs so, so, deep - as I have Jamaican and Nigerian parents; but they say pan is a “jumbie” and if so it got me from when I was just 11 years old. This passion I believe inevitably has led me to lead a life of pan.

“My main income is through Steel Pan Agency, which 80% is delivering steelpan workshops at schools across the UK as well as performances and workshops for private and corporate events. I formed the agency in 2010. I had been hosting ‘Pan Clash,’ an annual steelpan soloist competition since 2007. In 2012 the British MOBO (Music of Black Origin) Awards endorsed the event, growing its audience size, which lead me to form Steel Pan Trust charity in 2013, mostly known now for Pan Clash and Classorama. Classorama is a School Steelband Competition in its 4th year.”

WST - “How were you introduced to the steelpan instrument; what pans do you play?”

Shareen G. - “I lived very close to where the UK Panorama takes place on Kensal Road. I had never heard of the event. One day walking to a relative’s house I bumped into the event. Honestly I thought it was a load of rubbish but stood and watched for a while. Then a phenomenal steelband came on and I was emotional about the music, their dress code and especially how their dancing made the float rock. I told my mum that very evening—at 11 years old—I have got to play steelpan. Within weeks she brought me to the most local steelband [near] our home.

“After learning to play with this band for a few months, one day they put up some framed photographs on the wall. I recognised the pictures as the steelband that had inspired me to learn to play pan. It was the Ebony Steelband. From age 12 into my 20s I was a part of the Ebony Steelband, I performed and won several UK Panoramas, went to Trinidad Festival Competition in 2000, performed at different events all over Europe and did a countless amount of gigs on a regular basis for over a decade.

“I have always played the Tenor Steelpan but my passion is the Double Tenor and 4 Pan Cello; both have a tone that I love. I played Double Tenor for one Panorama with Ebony Steelband and it is still one of my favourite Panoramas just because I played that pan.”

WST - “What is it about steelpan that attracts you so?”

Shareen G. - “The sound, the vibe, the electric rehearsals, the discipline to perfect music and an audience’s reaction to a good steelband. I appreciate the unique quality that groups of people can learn music fairly easily and quickly to get a sense of achievement during a steelpan workshop. The latter is a big part of Steel Pan Agency’s unique selling point but I always stress, regardless of this fact, it still takes several years like any other instrument to become a professional steelpan musician.

“I can be quite a slow learner generally, and through learning the steelpan I very early on in life adopted a method to how I learn new things in general, and this method through steelpan was applied to my studies and produced outstanding results. I have a First Class degree in Business Publishing that I don’t believe was achievable without understanding my complex way of learning. I most likely have a form of dyslexia but have never cared to find [out].”

WST - “You are the manager of Steel Pan Agency and director of Steel Pan Trust. Tell us about these organizations; what has made them so successful?”

Shareen Gray
Shareen Gray

Shareen G. - “Steel Pan Agency’s (since 2010) success I believe is due to my passion of teaching people about the steelpan. My personal talent with the instrument is teaching its history that can engage even a 3-year-old, and giving a person that has never played before - a really great experience with the steelpan. A person cannot even touch a steelpan around me if they do not know the fundamentals of the instrument; where it is from, its heritage and the era in which it was born. This passion has led to the agency visiting over 400 schools, and performances for private and corporate functions continue to grow annually.

“Steel Pan Trust (since 2013) - a charity, has experienced success on the back of the agency already endorsed heavily by schools. This made Classorama, the school steelband competition, easy to sell as UK schools are familiar with our brand. This event is great with 22 school steelbands participating annually.

“The charity cares about all steelbands and musicians generally, advertises the works they do aggressively, and all this has led to its success. To be honest I feel the charity has much more to do before I can personally consider it to be a success. Until I see all quality steelbands’ in the UK basic financial needs covered (a panyard, Panorama costs, tutoring fees for weekly sessions in their community, quality steelpans and steelpan maintenance) there is no real success. I believe that bands that participate in the Notting Hill Carnival should have these basic needs covered for the services they provide at the event and throughout the year for thousands of children and young people.

“Steel Pan Trust also manages a very successful Fundraising Busking Tour that helps to contribute towards our activities and promotes steelpan music all over the UK.”

WST - “You are an organizer, performing artist, manager, steelpan player and administrator. Which role do you cherish the most?”

Shareen G. - “This is a good question, LOL! I would love to be a performing artist as my fundamental [role], but I am nowhere close in talent to the steelpan musicians that I employ. I believe in following your talent and not your passion. My talents lie in organising, managing and administration so these have to be the roles that I continue to develop and cherish despite my passion to want to play pan like Len “Boogsie” Sharpe!”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steelpan musicians in the United Kingdom?”

Shareen G. - “It was a lot easier to recruit young people to play steelpan in my younger years. I realise some bands struggle with recruiting players now. But I would say our biggest problem is having our own panyards which really stops the growth and development of pan players without the freedom that I had growing up to play pan at will. Funding streams will change the face of pan for the UK, and I believe this funding stream should come through activities at the Notting Hill Carnival as a starting point, as currently the Carnival does not give back to the Carnival arts at all!”

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

Shareen G. - “It is my life and livelihood. Everyday I feel blessed that my whole world revolves around steelpan music. Both my business and charity give me so much enjoyment I sometimes feel very spoiled by my ‘fun pan lifestyle’.”

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

Shareen G. - “That all active UK steelbands have their fundamental costs and needs covered; panyard, tutoring fees, quality steelpans and steelpan maintenance. Then these steelbands could concentrate on bigger things such as putting on concerts (we need many more concerts), promoting their brand, taking outstanding steelband music all over and creating recording artists out of their most outstanding musicians.

“Steelpan Tutors also need qualifications for their own dignity, and to stop music teachers from believing they can teach the instrument without any steelpan experience.

“I am not so fussed about the standardization of steelpans because the instruments have a very long life span and changing this is a lot of unnecessary fuss. It isn’t that hard to adjust to a different layout when you are an experienced steelpan musician. For schools and qualification however I understand that it is needed so it can be adopted in the academic sense.”

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

Shareen G. - “I believe this moment is still yet to come. It will be seeing Pan in the mainstream. My ambition is to see the theatre production I have written called ‘STEELPAN’ in mainstream theatre. It is a comical production that walks you through the history of steelpan and the average UK steelpan person’s lifestyle. It is for a cast of 9 people and we showcased 3 scenes at Pan Clash (soloist competition) in 2014 and 2015. The crowd’s enthusiastic reaction to this production was most definitely one of my most proud moments, and the demand to see the full production is ever-ongoing from the public but it is currently stagnated due to limited funds.”

Shareen Gray - Steel Pan Agency
Shareen Gray

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

Shareen G. - “That we have not yet ensured qualifications for our Pan Tutors, and steelpan musicians/bands are not paid for their participation in the Notting Hill Carnival (including Panorama). Steelpan Tutor fees are sometimes debated because of this reason, yet for all of us that have been playing and learning the instrument for over a decade we have developed skills in the art form that can only be achieved from our informal yet highly formal study of the instrument.

“The lack of funding for UK steelbands to have ongoing tuition, to take part in events and the availability of panyards are all disappointing. Steelbands benefit a large number of the population through enjoying and achieving, improving quality of life and well-being, and keeping children and young people active. It also provides a great source of economical income for those who pursue the instrument as a profession.

“At Steel Pan Trust we aim to resolve some of these issues and I also hope that an aspect of our work goes mainstream so we can afford to resolve the above.”

WST - “How has Pan changed over the years for you?”

Shareen G. - “The amount of steelbands that take part in Panorama has reduced massively. When I first started participating in 1995 there were 9-11 steelbands each year. Most recently as little as 6 steelbands have taken part. This I am sure is because of the massive expense to participate as well as the ongoing problems of a having a panyard to rehearse, affording the arranger to do the music, cost of buying steelpans and steelpan maintenance fees.”

Shareen Gray
Shareen Gray

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female panists all over the world who are considering becoming involved with the steelpan instrument as a career move?”

Shareen G. - “Advice that I have generally is to share your skills and talent initially for free. Give it away in abundance - it will eventually come back to you and support you financially; but start with the love of just sharing your talent. Before I was successful in any of my current ventures it all began with first giving myself away. Fundraising for steelbands and bringing in funds to support their needs, I self-funded Pan Clash costing me approximately 2K a year for a few years. I often provide steelpan soloist services all over my local community for free which always results in other paid bookings.

“I am not encouraging musician free labour; my point is: do not hold onto your skill; if you are a female who is gifted as an Arranger, do so for as many bands as will permit you, and if your work is good the call for your services is not far away. If you are a Drill Master, offer to drill steelbands for Panorama. I bet the following year your services will be requested if you do a great job. This applies to whatever skills you have in pan, male or female – share it to earn from it!”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Shareen G. - “Panorama is a time to free-up and enjoy your pan. You see Pan Players, especially those with less experience, reach a new level of improving their technique and becoming all-round better players and a bigger asset for their steelband. I also love the atmosphere during rehearsals, getting dressed up on the day and the buzz of the performance on the day. It is a great event to take part in and to watch young or old.”

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

Shareen G. - “In the UK it is easily both. A band that goes Panorama could spend the rest of the year in debt as a result. The financial support is small and it is really only accessible to bands that have found funding streams to take part in the event. To me this is backwards, it is a part of the Notting Hill Carnival, costs should obviously be covered for the service being provided by hundreds of performers/entertainers. However our event in the UK is flawed in that it lacks promotion (few have heard of the event), our current location undermines the event and we need to charge for people to attend to add value to the event and to generate funds.”

WST - “Who is your favorite arranger?”

Shareen G. - “I am a big fan of Kyron Akal from the UK as he has the ability to turn any song into a steelpan song, as if the song was created just for the steelpan, this is a unique quality. Panorama arrangers I have always been a fan of include Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, I enjoy several of Duvone Stewart’s songs and I am a big fan of Leon “Smooth” Edwards.”

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

Shareen G. - “‘Matters’ no - but ‘comment,’ yes - I LOVE PAN!!!”

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

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