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Meet Zahra Lake - Antigua & Barbuda

“At age 25 I will be a first time, female arranger on a National Panorama stage and I want that to inspire other women to take that leap….it is humbling and a great burden at the same time. I am ready for the challenge.” 

She is an educator, performing artist and the first female Panorama arranger in the history of Antigua & Barbuda. In  an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - multitalented arranger, instructor and musician Zahra Lake shares her intellect, optimism, expectations and views on the Steel Pan music art form in Antigua & Barbuda and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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

Zahra L. - “In a nutshell I love music and it encompasses a significant portion of my daily life...inclusive of teaching music at the Princess Margaret Secondary School, Le Chateau D’or Music Academy, arranging for PMS Serenaders, Golden Sticks Steel Ensemble and Panache Steel Orchestra. I began my pan journey at the Le Chateau D’or Music Academy at the tender age of 12. My brother and I were essentially encouraged by my mother to become more well-rounded individuals by learning music. Our foray at the academy included learning the violin, piano, steel pan and music theory.”

WST - “And share on your journey from being a pan musician in school, and now as an adult playing Pan?”

Zahra L. - “From Le Chateau D’Or Music Academy the next step on my journey was being appointed the first Captain of the Antigua Girls High School Steel Orchestra. This helped me become a better-rounded pan musician and a leader. Not long after I joined the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra and played in my first Panorama at the age of 15 and have been playing ever since. I attended Midwestern State University where I focused on music education with a concentration in percussion instruments. While attending MSU I was afforded the opportunity to direct the MSU Caribbean Pan Ensemble. I currently teach at various entities as mentioned before. The latest step on my journey was being a featured performer at GemonitesMoods of Pan in 2016. I was extremely humbled as a female panist to share a stage that has been graced by legends like Andy Narell, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Jit Samaroo & Samaroo Jets, Victor “Babu” Samuel, Ken “Professor” Philmore, Roland Prince and Monty Alexander.”

Zahra Lake
Zahra Lake

WST - “You are part of Panache Steel Orchestra in Antigua. How did you become a member of the band?”

Zahra L. - “I was actually approached by the captain Robin Margetson to arrange for the Panache Steel Orchestra and assist in the development of the band.”

WST - “You participate in Panorama, what is that experience like for you?”

Zahra L. - “I have played in ten Panoramas with the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra and so far every experience has been different. In my early years I did not take it as seriously as I do now….I was more focused on enjoying the vibe at the panyard and the night of the show. Within the past five years I have taken a more vested interest in the entire process particularly from a theoretical standpoint. Every night at the panyard I try to analyse why certain decisions were made in regards to the arrangement and use that as a guide to make me a better musician….and I’m still having fun while I’m at it.”

WST - “You’ve participated in Trinidad & Tobago’s Panorama; share that experience, and compare with Antigua & Barbuda’s Panorama?”

Zahra L. - “In Trinidad & Tobago the environment is a bit different from here in Antigua. I’ve noticed in TNT every night the panyard is a lime all to itself for onlookers. Pan enthusiasts would visit the panyard nightly with their cooler filled with drinks. It was really nice to see the community supporting the panists and enjoying the music. In Antigua the equivalent to this usually happens the week before the actual show. However, on panorama night in Antigua it is a more intimate experience due to of course the smaller numbers in attendance and the participating bands. Everyone feels like family in a sense…..a lot of the persons in attendance have some connection to the bands whether they be former panists or some attachment to the players on stage. Quite a few of the pan players perform and compete against their friends or even family in other bands which adds to the sense of intimacy and familiarity.”

WST - “In the steelband family, there are generally bands where females outnumber males; presently, this appears to be the reverse in Panache. Talk about your interactions within this dynamic in Panache?”

Zahra L. - “Before I joined Panache there was only one female member. However, since I’ve joined the band has been increasing in numbers, both male and female, and I find our interactions to be no different than bands that I’ve experienced that are predominantly female.”

WST - “Describe the pan scene, year round, in Antigua & Barbuda?”

Zahra L. - “I am happy to say that pan is definitely alive in Antigua & Barbuda, and has grown in leaps and bounds over the years. Community and School bands hosting Blockoramas, Independence Junior Panorama, various Community Band concerts, and Church bands are an example of the year round pan related activities. I look forward to attending and being a part of this and more as pan continues to rise in Antigua & Barbuda.”

WST - “What sustains your love and passion for the steelpan instrument?”

Zahra L. - “As a child I was not very social and when I discovered pan it felt like something awoke inside of me...music in general has always been something that I gravitated to from ever since I can remember but this was something different. Pan literally feels like an extension of me and without pan I wouldn’t be Zahra. It has helped me to communicate better and contributed to my self-development. My drive to be a better panist sustains me as I try to always learn.”

WST - “You’ve majored in Music - what role is steelpan going to play in your path moving forward - and do you play any other instruments?”

Zahra L. - “I plan to arrange and compose more and improve my skills in both regards. In terms of other instruments I’m fairly competent in regards to the piano and other percussion instruments but my main focus has always been the steel pan and lately the drum set.”

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

Zahra L. - “I have been influenced and inspired by the likes of Anthony Hampson, Cleo-Antoinette Hampson-Cordice, Khan Cordice, Andy Narell, Stevie Wonder, John Williams, Hans Zimmer and by my students whose daily drive to learn more makes me a better musician.”

WST - “What do your family members think of your involvement in the steelband art form?”

Zahra L. - “My family is extremely supportive of my involvement in the art form and attend almost every music related activity that I do. For example with my older sister Aziza I can sit and have various music discussions with as it relates to pan. My parents, Cynthia & Patrick, are my biggest fans and love attending any pan related event that I am involved in.”

Zahra Lake
Zahra Lake

WST - “What would you say to young women who are thinking about becoming pan musicians?”

Zahra L. - “Always push to become better than you were yesterday. The journey may be difficult at times but the end result far outweighs any roadblocks you may stumble across.”

WST - “What is the biggest challenge regarding the steelband art form, from your perspective?”

Zahra L. - “I think the biggest challenge would be the lack of respect...it is not seen as being on equal footing to the genres of Soca/Calypso. A Soca show will have thousands of patrons while that would not be the case with pan. Financial remuneration is a major concern as well….to perfect one’s craft countless hours are dedicated to the process and musicians need to be rewarded in a manner that reflects that.”

WST - “Do you think the steelband community and its musicians are regarded/respected in Antigua & Barbuda?”

Zahra L. - “As I previously stated the steelband community is not respected as it should be. Hopefully as the art form develops that will eventually change.”

WST - “Is there any social stigmatization for pan players in Antigua & Barbuda, and for women in particular?”

Zahra L. - “In my experience there is no social stigmatization for pan players currently. When pan first developed it came out of the communities that had negative perceptions attached to them. Currently pan is very much youth focused and touches various social strata….you find pan at public and private schools as well as in the church.

In terms of women….more and more are participating however there is still a level of surprise when the general public hears that a woman is performing, arranging or leading a band.”

WST - “Is there anything that causes you concern/disappoints you about the steelpan movement?”

Zahra L. - “Generally that it is not appreciated as much as it should be. I hope that as time passes we as a society learn to love and support the movement as we do other instruments. It is as important as any other instrument….for example we should encourage children to learn the pan as much as we encourage them to learn the piano.”

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

Zahra L. - “As I said before I played with Hells Gate Steel Orchestra for ten years on the Panorama stage and I am now taking that scary leap to arrange for a competing band against a band I consider family. The pride I feel isn’t a selfish one…. At age 25 I will be a first time, female arranger on a National Panorama stage and I want that to inspire other women to take that leap….it is humbling and a great burden at the same time. I am ready for the challenge.”

WST - “Where would you like to see the art form, a decade from now?”

Zahra L. - “I would like to see the art form respected outside of the carnival season, to see it thrive with various community bands and the primary introductory music instrument for all music students especially at the primary level. I want to see it youth driven for that is the only way that the art form can survive.”

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

Zahra L. - “No I think I covered most of the issues that are relevant to the art form namely youth, respect and remuneration.”

photos provided by Zahra Lake

Editor’s note:  In 2018 Zahra Lake became the first champion woman arranger in the National Antigua and Barbuda Panorama, with Panache Steel Orchestra. See more

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