Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan


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Meet Etsuko Tajima - New York/Japan

“...It is a magical instrument. Especially when you play as a band, I can’t even describe how my spirit is lifted. The only way is to experience it.” 

She was simply walking along a Brooklyn street one Summer night with friends when the sound and spirit of the pan beckoned, enticed and enveloped her in an inexorable musical relationship -  that resulted in her becoming a performing Pan Woman in a historical Brooklyn steel orchestra. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks -  educator, performing and recording artist Etsuko Tajima shares her feelings, experiences, and love for the Steelband music art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself. Who is Etsuko Tajima?”

Etsuko T. - “I am originally from Tokyo, Japan, and moved to New York in 2003.  I spent a significant amount of time learning English, and music. I graduated Brooklyn-Queens Conservatory of Music as a Jazz piano performance major in 2008. Since then I’ve performed with various artists and bands. In 2016 July, I released my first full album “Infinite Possibilities,” and did my album release tour in Japan in the same year.  I also performed at BRIC Jazz Festival in 2017 with my band. Currently I’ve continued to perform, write some music, and teach private piano lessons predominately to children.”

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

Etsuko T. - “One night in Summer 2015, I was strolling with my friend in Crown Heights looking for places to have some drinks. As we were walking to Friends and Lovers we heard drum sounds from around the corner. We decided to check out what was going on. That’s when I met and fell in love with Despers USA.”

WST - “What is it about Pan that has so captivated you, made you so passionate overall?”

Etsuko T. - “I still clearly remember when I first heard Despers USA playing. There were about 30-40 people playing the piece. What moved me was the melody, harmony, the rhythms, dynamics of the phrasing, arrangement, groove, how the players were into the music, everything blew me away. Especially when you hear the “live” music outside - it’s an amazing feeling.”

Etsuko Tajima with Despers USA Steel Orchestra during the Basement Recordings Panyard recordings session in 2017
Etsuko Tajima with Despers USA Steel Orchestra during the Basement Recordings Panyard recordings session in 2017

WST - “Describe your experience with Despers USA Steel Orchestra in New York?”

Etsuko T. - “It is just an extremely amazing experience. I got to learn such a magical instrument every night. When I first walked in to ask to join the band, I hesitated to ask because I had zero experience with this instrument, and was the only Asian. Luckily they told me to come join the practice, but I was still afraid if I bothered them because of my [lack of] skills, and especially as they were already playing half of the piece. But everybody in the band was super helpful, and willing to teach me always.”

WST - “Legendary jazz drummer Max Roach called the Pan “a magical instrument.” Have you felt its magic?”

Etsuko T. - “Yes. It is a magical instrument. Especially when you play as a band, I can’t even describe how my spirit is lifted. The only way is to experience it.”

WST - “Last Summer you experienced firsthand some of the difficulties and daily challenges a New York steel orchestra faces - when a “newcomer” to the Brooklyn community single-handedly stalked and tried to get NYPD to shut down Despers USA, an organization that has existed almost 40 years in the neighborhood, as they prepared for the New York Panorama. How did this make you feel, nightly? And what did you learn from that experience, if anything?”

Etsuko T. - “I think people who move to new places, they need to recognize that they move to the culture which is there already.”
Read more of Etsuko Tajima’s thoughts on this issue.

WST - “What does your family think of you playing pan?”

Etsuko T. - “They are excited about my experience playing steel drums. All my family live in Japan, and the steel drum is not a common instrument there.”

WST - “What is your most memorable moment in pan so far?”

Etsuko T. - “To join the J’Ouvert with Despers USA in 2015 was the most unforgettable experience.”

WST - “Who are your music influences?”

Etsuko T. - “Robert Glasper, Meshell Ndegeocello, Brad Mehldau, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu.”

WST - “In what ways has your Despers USA experience impacted on your music perspective?”

Etsuko T. - “As I am a performer and an educator, new learning experiences are crucial. I play jazz, hip hop, R&B, reggae, Brazilian, and more... What I’ve learned from Odie was especially how important the dynamics, articulations, and phrasing in music [were]. As an educator, it is extremely important to remember how the learning process is like, and how to approach to practice part to part.”

WST - “Have you interacted with fellow Japanese who play pan, in Japan, and perhaps those who travel to Trinidad & Tobago to play for Panorama there?  If so, tell us about these interactions?”

Etsuko T. - “No.”

WST - “What other musical projects are you involved in?”

Etsuko T. - “I currently play with a couple of the bands mainly.”

WST - “Tell us about ‘Infinite Possibilities’?”

Etsuko T. - “It’s my first full album released in 2016. It’s an acoustic jazz/pop album.  It consists of bass, drums, and trumpet, and myself playing piano and singing. There are 9 tracks, and 4 of the tracks are my originals.”

WST - “Has Pan been part of your musical path outside of Panorama?”

Etsuko T. - “I get together with the stage side here and there.”

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

Etsuko T. - “No.”

Etsuko Tajima
Etsuko Tajima at BRIC (Brooklyn Information & Culture)

   Etsuko Tajima performs with Despers USA during the orchestra’s 2017 Basement Recordings Panyard recording session

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