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Meet Devon Cumberbatch - Maryland, USA

“I would love for the instrument to be as mainstream as the piano, guitar or violin. It may have a ways to go, being a fairly young creation, but I believe pan can progress, develop and infiltrate music of all cultures. I would love to see it as an instrument for all peoples, and universally accepted. The history of the pan is just as important as the future where it can potentially end up and blossom.” 

Pan is a significant part of her heritage and her story. And within the steelpan artform she experiences her yesterday, today and tomorrow in a real and tangible way.  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  writer and panist Devon Cumberbatch shares her cross-continental experiences and insight into the Steelband music art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself; who is Devon Cumberbatch?”

Devon C. - “I was born and raised in Montgomery County, Maryland and I am the youngest of three first-generation born in the US to my parents. Both my parents migrated from Trinidad and Tobago in the 70s. My dad is from D’Abadie, and my mother is from Sainte Madeleine.

“They raised all of us as if they had never left the island. From the food and music, to family gatherings and parties; I grew up with the culture. I graduated from Towson University and the University of Maryland with a degree in Health Administration, where I currently work in the field of public health. Along with music, I enjoy running, writing, travelling, and of course playing a bass pan.”

WST - “How were you first introduced to the steelpan?”

Devon C. - “As a child riding to the soccer field with my dad, he used to play in a league where they would have these fete matches. I would hear steelpan play on the cassette tapes that he had in the car. I always loved it. My curiosity was sparked. But it wasn’t until I saw the Panorama competition on the VHS tapes that my aunt used to send my mom of Carnival in Trinidad every year, that I remember being intrigued and wanting to play. I always knew that I wanted to play a bass, but it would be quite some time before I would get the opportunity.”

WST - “You are a member of Skiffle Steel Orchestra in Trinidad; give us some glimpses into your years with the band?”

Devon C. - “My first Panorama with Skiffle was in 2005, and we played the late Lord Kitchener’s ‘Pan Night and Day’, which was arranged by Liam Teague. That Panorama was memorable for me, as it was my first, and it granted me more confidence in my playing ability. I played many Panoramas with the band thereafter, building upon my experiences, and was exposed to many different arranging styles. I’ve also watched many of the players grow up in the band, who have also become good friends.”

WST - “You've traveled abroad with Skiffle; discuss some of the preparation involved, those journeys, the reception to performances, etc.”

Devon C. - “Well, I was able to support the band and view many of their international performances while they were in the US, which included: The World Steelband Festival in 2005, when it was at Madison Square Garden in New York; a show for the Conference of the Caribbean in Washington DC where they performed with David Rudder in 2007, and their collaborative performance at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 2014, led by Jeff Jones.”

Devon Cumberbatch performs with Endurance Steel Orchestra in London
Devon Cumberbatch performs with Endurance Steel Orchestra in London

WST - “With reference to Panorama - you've been in New York with Pan Evolution for the 2017 Panorama season, and in 2016 in London with Endurance. How have you found the overall experiences abroad - both preparation and competitions - in comparison to the Panorama seasons in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Devon C. - “I was actually quite nervous to play in both Panoramas, because for London, I was asked if I could play a seven-bass – which I had never played before – and in New York, I had to go back to playing tenor, which is not my forte.

“In London, I had three days to get 10 minutes of music on an instrument I had never played before. That experience was exhilarating. The captain and arranger for Endurance, Marlon Hibbert, was very welcoming, and the other players were especially helpful in teaching me the music. In New York with PESO (Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra), I believe I played the hardest arrangement of my life on tenor which was ‘Full Extreme,’ arranged by André White. The intricacies of the melody and the amount of line and phrasing; the entire song was like a musical novel! I think I had three days to get that song as well.

“The drilling and practices in New York were a little more intense than what I had experienced in Trinidad and Tobago. The amount of discipline and the attention to detail in the song during drilling and section practices really make a difference in how clean a band can sound. Though, in 2012, I played in a Panorama final with Invaders and I remember a few nights before, having to nearly solo the entire Panorama song in front of the section leader. I was on the dreaded tenor, but that experience definitely matured me as a player.”

WST - “What are those eight/ten minutes like on stage for you, performing in a Panorama - talk about the experience?”

Devon C. - “It’s amazing, and two extra minutes of music is a lot of music! As New York and London Panoramas require 10-minute pieces, those extra minutes can feel like a workout. Even though I’ve played longer pieces, it was the limited time I had to learn the songs that was stressful. I think I literally felt the burn! I delighted in the rush and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards. Nothing beats playing on the big stage in Trinidad with friends and family, though.”

WST - “Being female, were you ever cautioned or perhaps dissuaded in any way, from becoming involved in the steelband art form?”

Devon C. - “I was never discouraged from playing pan, and my father played a lot of pan music in the house, from ‘Du Du Yemi’ by Catelli Trinidad All Stars to ‘Guitar Pan’ by Amoco Renegades. I’ve heard numerous arrangements, my favorite arranger being the late Clive Bradley of Desperadoes; I love his style. My family fully supported me playing pan. It was evident too after that same aunt who used to send the VHS tapes to my mom, gifted me with a tenor pan as a high school graduation gift. That was when I made the switch to tenor, as I originally started playing pan at the age of 15 on double seconds. That was my first pan. I learned the seconds from going to the Cultural Academy for Excellence (CAFE), and then continued playing tenor with Pan Masters Steel Orchestra for a number of years afterwards. It was also my late grandfather’s wish for me to continue playing.”

WST - “Are any of your family members involved with Pan?”

Devon C. - “Not my immediate family, but I have cousins who play pan. Interestingly, most of them can play bass as well, and I have a cousin who plays nine-bass.”

WST - “What keeps your passion for pan going?”

Devon C. - “Pan for me is an outlet, and a place for me to express and enjoy being in the moment with music. Growing up hearing pan music in the house has made it nostalgic for me. The music is like a trigger of fond childhood memories and it feels like home.”

WST - “In your estimation, are there any notable changes relative to steelband in general - from when you first started to play - to current day?”

Devon C. - “Aside from the development of the E-pan and G-pan, there is definitely more youth and female involvement, than from the days when I merely observed pan and Panorama as a youth. The instrument has definitely received more exposure and recognition in the international community than from its early days.”

WST - “Tell us about Maryland-based Pan Lara Steel Orchestra, and your involvement with the organization.”

Devon C. - “PanLara is a youth steelband that was founded by Debbie Lara and her three daughters Niara, Maya and Kenya Lara. They do many community events to promote and demonstrate the nature of the steelband and to teach its rich history and culture. In 2016 I was asked to provide support on six-bass when the group was preparing for a jazz concert to perform alongside Ken “Professor” Philmore. It was great to collaborate with him and he remembered me from my younger days playing pan in South Trinidad. The band also went on to open for International King of Comedy, Majah Hype at the Howard Theatre that year. I was pretty much a mainstay after that, especially after learning the band’s diverse repertoire, arranged by Sheldon Thwaites and Khandeya Sheppard. I generally share my time between two bands in Glenn Dale, Maryland, though: PanLara and Panquility Steel, from where I was called from to assist.”

WST - “You may have possibly come across, people who did not understand what you mean when you say you ‘play pan’ - if this has ever been the case, talk about how you shared your steelband experiences, and their reactions.”

Devon C. - “When I say I ‘play pan’ to someone unfamiliar with West Indian and Caribbean culture, it usually requires me explaining the history of steelpan and classifying the instrument – i.e., it being a percussive idiophonic instrument – and then explaining how the pan makes its sound, and how it is played. Most people are generally surprised and fascinated by the instrument.”

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

Devon C. - “The instrument’s uniqueness. It is unlike many mainstream instruments today.”

Devon Cumberbatch at center, demonstrating the Tenor Pan for Girl Scout Troop 6747 in Dulles, Virginia
Devon Cumberbatch at center, demonstrating the Tenor Pan for Girl Scout Troop 6747 in Dulles, Virginia

WST - “What about the Pan fraternity and movement do you find most disappointing?”

Devon C. - “Growing up playing pan I’ve always noticed a pull and tug between the ‘old school’ mindset regarding pan, and the younger generation of panists. While I do believe part of this stems from the history which pan came up from, it’s all almost akin to a growing pain. There may be many reasons why there is division or lack of unity, though, I wish the community would continue to strive to overcome this. The instrument itself is an ambassador for where it came from, and we should not inadvertently confine pan from growing, evolving or transforming into the musical force that it can be.”

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

Devon C. - “I definitely think pan men and pan women can be respected more in Trinidad and Tobago. Hearing first-hand experiences from fellow panists there is disheartening. The root of a lot of disrespect for the instrument comes from the lack of support for pan as an artform. The greatest support and lifeline for steelpan should be in the place where it was birthed. Trinidad and Tobago is blessed with creating the standard for pan, and many countries would love to take that and run with it.”

WST - “And what have you observed in this same regard, but abroad?”

Devon C. - “Pan generally appears to be accepted and welcomed more abroad. The enthusiasm, I think, is stemmed from people’s curiosity to learn more about the instrument, the beauty of its sound and its remarkability. I know some schools and universities in the U.S. and the U.K. have their own steelbands. These players from around the world come to appreciate the artform; they study the history of the instrument and learn it, as if it were their own, and go on teaching it to others as well. That is why I think the participation of foreign players in Panorama has grown over the years.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Devon C. - “It is one big musical expression on so many levels. It might have started out as a competition in the 1960s, but it is so much more now. For me, it’s like embarking on a musical adventure. Having played many Panoramas, no two Panoramas feel the same. They’ve all been an electrifying experience.”

WST - “What is your opinion of the steelband art form in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Devon C. - “I think it is beautiful. It is part of my heritage and part of my story. From the creation of the instrument, to the biggest display of the instrument’s capacity at Panorama; the compositions heard over the years tell a story about the country, the culture and the times. You can hear how the artform and the music have evolved through the generations.”

WST - “What is your vision for Pan a decade from now?”

Devon Cumberbatch: Monday Night on the road with then TCL Group Skiffle Bunch, 2006
Devon Cumberbatch: Monday Night on the road with then TCL Group Skiffle Bunch, 2006

Devon C. - “I would love for the instrument to be as mainstream as the piano, guitar or violin. It may have a ways to go, being a fairly young creation, but I believe pan can progress, develop and infiltrate music of all cultures. I would love to see it as an instrument for all peoples, and universally accepted. The history of the pan is just as important as the future where it can potentially end up and blossom.”

WST - “If you could change one thing about pan what would that be?”

Devon C. - “About the instrument? Nothing. About the way it is understood? …I try my best to always create an atmosphere and environment where individuals from all walks can identify with the instrument and better understand it.”

WST - “Do you see yourself having a career in Pan in the future?”

Devon C. - “Well, I see pan as always being a part of my life, whether I’m standing behind one or supporting fellow panists. It is my musical pastime, but it has also created a lot of memorable experiences and opportunities for me, that I wouldn’t have had otherwise if I wasn’t playing.”

WST - “What advice would you give to young and upcoming females who would like to follow in your footsteps as a female steelpan musician?”

Devon C. - “Just take the chance and try it, and go unafraid. Learn about the instrument as best as you can and master it. Don’t be afraid to hear yourself play either. I was very shy growing up and being forced to break out of comfort zones and perform in front of various audience types really helped me personally. You never know what innovation or contribution you can make to the artform if you don’t try.”

WST - “After playing Pan for some time, several youngsters who become adults eventually cease playing. Do you have any plans in this regard?”

Devon C. - “I do know that life happens, so for many, I know having a family or pursuing a career may affect many panists from continuing as they have. For me, I would try to keep pan in my life as much as possible. As I’ve stated before, I would always want to be in a position to support the artform whether I am playing the instrument or not.”

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

Devon C. - “None really - though, I’d really like to see more encouragement given to young up-and-coming arrangers. We shouldn’t stifle the generation burdened with carrying steel band as an artform into the future. I’m really proud of Marc, Odie and Kendall for making history and showing that it is possible, and that there can be change.”

WST - “What is next for Devon Cumberbatch?”

Devon C. - “Just trying to improve as a steel pan player, as I’ve always been and working hard, working smart and working with compassion at what I do. Hopefully, God will afford me many more opportunities to enjoy pan, as He has already blessed me with. I hope to encourage others in the progression of the instrument.”

photos provided by Devon Cumberbatch

  Devon Cumberbatch performs with Pan Evolution during the orchestra’s 2017 Panorama Pan Yard Recording Performance

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