Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan


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Meet Carla Robinson - Illinois, USA

“The steelpan has proved its versatility, by being able to shine through classical music, jazz music and other genres of music that many feel the steelpan would not be ideal for. The steel pan can do what many other instruments can do and even what some cannot.” 

She is a multi-talented musician and scholar, an educator, writer and performing artist. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  panist Carla Robinson shares her thoughts, experiences, outlook and viewpoints on the Steel Pan music art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Carla Robinson?”

Carla R. - “I am 22 years old and currently play piano, electric bass and bass pan. I am also an educator. I teach privately as well as at the Fox Valley YMCA in Plano, Illinois.”

WST - “How and when were you first introduced to the steelband art form?”

Carla R. - “When I first arrived in Illinois I was fortunate enough to be acquainted with and later befriended by Khan Cordice, Akua Leith and T.J. King. They were all pan majors and just from watching them play I became interested and in love with the sound. They encouraged me to join “NIU USteel” which is a class for students who have little to no experience with the steelpan but want to learn. I originally wanted to play double seconds but unfortunately that pan was not available. Since I was playing electric bass at the time everyone felt bass pan would be a good fit for me, and it was! Needless to say I fell in love with the instrument and joined the NIU steel orchestra the next year.”

Carla Robinson on Bass Guitar
Carla Robinson

WST - “Tell us about being a student at NIU who plays in a steel orchestra? ”

Carla R. - “Being a student in the NIU (Northern Illinois University) steel orchestra is amazing. We literally have a legend of pan (Dr. Cliff Alexis) and the Paganini of pan himself Professor Liam Teague. In just a short class period of fifty minutes we learn pieces of pan history from the many stories and nuggets Dr. Alexis feeds us, and Professor Teague always teaches us something about the music we are playing that day. For instance, and I think he does this on purpose especially in his own music, he isolates parts and then explains to us how all of the moving parts work together and he really does a great job of opening our ears and making us aware of not only what we are playing, but what the band is playing as well. We play so many awesome gigs and performances that challenge us to be professional, and [we] learn to meet new people and with all the Information we are fed about the steelpan it’s not surprising to find a steelband member talking to an audience member about the different pans and its role in the orchestra. Being a member of the NIU steel orchestra is a 10/10 experience.”

WST - “You play multiple instruments; is there any overlapping in your approach to the bass pan in the steel orchestra, to the electric bass, and acoustic bass?”

Carla R. - “I would say the biggest overlap is just always having in mind the true role of the bass and knowing how it should feel in different scenarios.”

WST - “Overall, what fuels and keeps your passion for the ‘Bass’?”

Carla R. - “I like the role of the bass. It’s the glue that holds everything together and it is the real reason why people dance, they just don’t know it.”

WST - “Is it challenging for you to navigate through the music cultures of Funk, Jazz, Gospel and Pan?”

Carla R. - “It was very challenging to me at first especially since I was new to a lot of it, but it gets easier when you start to understand they all have a connection.”

WST - “You are a player, instructor, researcher, writer and musician – which role do you like best? And how do they complement each other?”

Carla R. - “That’s a tough one, but I have to say being a musician is my favorite part. Just having that outlet and the ability to paint on different canvases using different instruments is a beautiful thing. Being a teacher allows me to have a deeper understanding of music in general and being a writer helps with improv as I am able to see and hear where musical puzzle pieces fit since writing music is literally taking ideas and piecing them together to make something magical.”

WST - “As an educator what do you want your students to leave with for a lifetime?”

Carla R. - “I want my students to leave with the thirst to learn more and the ability to pass on that which they have learned.”

WST - “What stands out as your most memorable steelpan experience so far?”

Carla R. - “My most memorable Steelpan experience hands down is when the NIU steelband headlined a “Panfest” in Virginia Beach. It was my first time playing bass-pan outside of Illinois and it was exciting to further demonstrate the versatility of the Steelpan worldwide, so to speak. Not to mention hearing other great music like the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra.”

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?”

Carla R. - “This may be a man’s world, but like James brown told us, “It ain’t nothin’ without a woman or a girl”. Your place in music is exactly where you want it to be; always work harder than everyone else and believe in yourself no matter what.”

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

Carla R. - “The Isley Brothers, Earth Wind and Fire, Parliament, Ray Brown, Bootsy Collins, Lord Kitchener.”

Carla Robinson on Bass Pan at NIU
Carla Robinson on bass at NIU

WST - “What is Panorama to you, personally?”

Carla R. - “Personally it is something I want to one day experience firsthand, but besides that I feel it is a way to showcase sweet arrangements and pan players of all ages, and to celebrate the steelpan itself.”

WST - “Do you have a favorite arranger?”

Carla R. - “Sammy Nestico.”

WST - “From Brick’s “Dazz” to Miles Davis’s “So What” - that is a wide spectrum, varied musical tastes. Do you have a preference?”

Carla R. - “I can’t say I truly have a preference, honestly anything with a really hip bass line gets my vote.”

WST - “What type of music is ‘Carla Robinson music’?”

Carla R. - “Well it depends on what you mean. If you are speaking of music I have personally created it would be music that allows for inward reflection and/or generally eases one’s mind.”

WST - “You are progressive and socially conscious. Does this play any significant role in your approach to your music?”

Carla R. - “Not at the moment.”

WST - “What brand of bass guitar is your main axe? Do you ever play a four-string bass?”

Carla R. - “My main axe is a five-string Ibanez, I have yet to pick up a four-string since I fell in love with the sound of a low ‘B’.”

WST - “We saw a picture of you and Jonathan Scales together. What do think about Jonathan Scales Fourchestra and Jonathan’s approach to playing, and writing for the steelpan instrument?”

Carla R. - “I was fortunate to meet Jonathan Scales on a trip to Virginia Beach where we (the NIU Steel Band and the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra) performed at “Panfest.” He’s a super humble and down-to-earth guy. I would say his approach to playing and composing for the steelpan is that of someone who has a very deep love of music and an understanding that the steel pan can truly do anything. His Fourchestra is made up of unbelievable players who share his passion and beliefs. Jonathan Scales plays an important role of bringing the steelpan to the front of the room where it belongs.”

Carla Robinson on keyboards
Carla Robinson on keyboards

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

Carla R. - “I think grade schools should push to incorporate steelpan into their studies. I feel that if we can talk about other instruments and encourage students to play instruments like the trumpet and the guitar we can also encourage them to learn steelpan. The steelpan has proved its versatility, by being able to shine through classical music, jazz music and other genres of music that many feel the steelpan would not be ideal for. The steel pan can do what many other instruments can do and even what some cannot.”

WST - “What is next for Ms. Carla Robinson?”

Carla R. - “I am currently working on learning music for a recording session in April (I am the keyboardist) as well as devoting a large chunk of time to music production. My band ‘The Full Monte Project’ (where I am the bassist) will be performing this Summer at The Driftless Music Festival in Wisconsin, USA.”


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