Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Justina Ploeger - Germany

“I’m lucky to be born in a city, which can by now be called, “The steel pan stronghold of Germany.” The first steel pan association in Dortmund was founded in 1995 and a pan-round-the-neck band was part of it. They used to play at almost every city festival, which is why I got in contact with pan at an early age. By the end of the 90s they had started several groups for adults. My mum joined one of the bands and in 1999 my parents also signed me and my twin brother Jonas up. The group we played in was the first ever, possibly, for kids in Germany to play pan. We were taught by Werner M. Weidensdorfer, who invented a special, small pan for kids.” 

She is young in age but no doubt a talented veteran panist with skills. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Justina Ploeger 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 Justina Ploeger?”

Justina P. - “I am a 25-year-old from Germany. I was born and raised in Dortmund but I have been living in Dresden for almost four years now. Music has always been part of my life. I enjoyed early musical education from the age of three and started playing Pan at the age of six. I did an apprenticeship as an event manager and now work for a local promoter, organizing concerts of various genres and in different cities. Both music and traveling play a major role in my life.”

WST - “How and when did you first become involved with Pan?”

Justina P. - “I’m lucky to be born in a city, which can by now be called, “The steel pan stronghold of Germany.” The first steel pan association in Dortmund was founded in 1995 and a pan-round-the-neck band was part of it. They used to play at almost every city festival, which is why I got in contact with pan at an early age. By the end of the 90s they had started several groups for adults. My mum joined one of the bands and in 1999 my parents also signed me and my twin brother Jonas up. The group we played in was the first ever, possibly, for kids in Germany to play pan. We were taught by Werner M. Weidensdorfer, who invented a special, small pan for kids.  

A young Justina Ploeger
A young Justina Ploeger

“I owe so much to that teacher, even though we parted ways about five years ago. Not only did he start the first steel pan class for kids and taught us a lot about music theory, he also was the one, who first told us about Panorama and took us to London in 2010. Thanks to him we are now part of the Real Steel family.”

WST - “You are a valued panist with Calypsonic Steel Orchestra - please share your experiences with the band.”

Justina P. - “Being part of Calypsonic Steel Orchestra has been a long and exciting journey. We started off as a youth orchestra called PanGanG. In 2010 we decided to finally found our own association called “Calypsonic e.V. - Institute for Steel Pan and Calypso.” During that year we not only changed our name and found ourselves a new pan yard, we also equipped the whole band with pans built by Toussaint Clarke and went to London to play our first Panorama ever.

“Experiences that will always stay in my mind are the many weekend workshops we did when we were kids, the competitions we played (especially the first one we ever played and won in 2006), the hours we spent at the pan yard for practice (with our parents impatiently waiting outside to finally take us home) and of course loads of fun and sometimes challenging gigs.

“We’ve picked up a lot of new and talented players over the years but we’ve lost just as many by now. We’ve had a hard time keeping the band together since most of our senior members moved to different cities for studies or work.

“Of course we do have our ups and downs, harmony and arguments, but this band is like a second family to me. Every time I am back in the pan yard and behind my double second it always feels like coming home.”

Justina Ploeger (at left) busking with “Calypsonic e.V. - Institute for Steel Pan and Calypso”
Justina Ploeger (at left) busking with “Calypsonic e.V. - Institute 
			for Steel Pan and Calypso”

WST - “What has been the overall reception for steelband in Germany?”

Justina P. - “As I said before Dortmund has the highest density of panists in all over Germany and is home for two steel pan associations. Since we do play a lot of gigs or busk in Dortmund and the surrounding cities, steel pan is relatively well-known in this part of Germany and we also have quite a lot supporters by now. Still, most people never heard of Pan before, but those who have love the sound and find it very fascinating. I’ve never made any negative experience regarding steel pan, except from some people complaining about the noise.”

Justina Ploeger (at left) with fellow Real Steel players
Justina Ploeger (at left) with fellow Real Steel players

WST - “You have played in UK Panorama with Real Steel and Metronomes.  What are those eight/ten minutes like on stage for you, performing in Panorama - how do you feel?”

Justina P. - “Before you go on stage you’ve heard the whole tune evolving over weeks and months. Last-minute changes might be made on the day of Panorama. When you are on stage playing the final version of the tune, all the effort you put into practice or traveling to London suddenly falls off. I can’t really describe that feeling. Those ten minutes feel like an eternity but at the same time everything is over so quickly. The music, the people, the groove, the vibes... It’s pure power and adrenaline!”

WST - “In your opinion, what are the similarities and differences you’ve observed/experienced regarding steelband in Germany, and in London?”

Justina P. - “Comparing the UK to Germany and London to Dortmund I’ll definitely find more differences than similarities: Obviously London has a very vibrant Caribbean culture. We simply don’t have that in Germany. There are so many bands, players and tuners in the UK, whereas there are so few bands here, I could count them on both my hands.

“In the UK a lot of young adults first get involved with Pan in school. This is a rarity in Germany. In Germany kids and young adults mostly visit music schools if they want to learn an instrument and I personally don’t know of any offering classes for Pan. There are only a few, very ambitious people who teach Pan in social clubs and in a few schools.

“Apart from that there are numerous events in the UK to connect with other panists and bands both nationally and internationally. The association I previously was a part of used to organize events called “Caribbean Week” and “Caribbean Summer,” bringing various German steel bands and bands such as Ebony, Nostalgia, Calypsociation (France), Delaware Steel (USA) or Steely Wonder (Finland) to Dortmund. This was almost ten years ago and we never really had any sort of networking event ever since. We don’t have anything like the BAS (British Association of Steelbands). But one thing both countries got in common: The ones who are a part of a steelband truly love to play Pan. You’ll find supporters in both the UK and Germany and of course - some people will always complain about the noise.”

WST - “Tell us about the album ‘Life on Planet Pan’.”

Justina P. - “Two years ago we decided it was time to finally record some songs of our repertoire. We locked ourselves up with a sound technician for a few days. The result is a great cross-section of the genres and music we love to play. Unfortunately, due to some legal restrictions, we weren’t able to put all the recorded songs on the album.

“You’ll find all-time classics such as ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan, ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles or ‘I Shot The Sheriff’ and ‘No Woman, No Cry’ by Bob Marley, next to current and more modern music such as ‘Ordinary People’ by John Legend or ‘Carnival Tabanca’ by Bunji Garlin. I guess the song that stands out most is our version of Bach’s ‘Violin Concerto in A Minor.’ Otherwise we musically mostly move between reggae and soca beats. All songs are cover versions and for the most part arranged by my brother Jonas Ploeger, Lovis B. Suchmann and Y. Leon Lorenz. Marlon Hibbert and Sam Ouissellat from Endurance Steel Orchestra joined our engine room for the recording.  

“The artwork is a painting by Flora Nieva from Real Steel in Plymouth. We told her our ideas of how the cover should look, and she created this amazing piece perfectly matching the title.  

“In July last year we played the release show for the album. It was an amazing experience to play a sold-out show in front of 300 people, who even bought tickets to see us play. The concert was filmed and we’ll put up some more videos on our Facebook page soon. By the way: We are now on Spotify and iTunes, in case you want to check out the album.”

Justina Ploeger
Justina Ploeger

WST - “Given that you’ve been a steelband musician for some time, what is most notably different in your opinion - from when you first started, to now several years later?”

Justina P. - “Regarding myself, it’s simply my skills on pan. Generally speaking: it has become very difficult to get kids and young adults involved with pan since school and its programs are taking more and more time. Especially full-time day schools are a major problem. Of course, music lessons are part of the curriculum and some schools also offer an additional program called “JeKi” which is meant to enable every single child in primary school to learn to play a musical instrument. The basic idea is great but due to long hours at school, kids simply have no time to practice at home. This program will expire by the end of this summer. How are they going to get involved with musical instruments then? It is up to their parents! Another problem is the technical innovation. Young adults are more interested in their phones and the newest games than in socializing and discovering new talents.

“Pan has received more attention though, and the sound of it is now better known than fifteen or twenty years ago. During the last years I’ve noticed more and more producers and artists using the original sound of Pan - not just the synthesizer.”

WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument and art form going?”

Justina P. - “Every time I hear the sound of pan I just feel home. I couldn’t imagine to ever stop playing. This instrument is so young, there is still a lot to expect. And of course it’s the sound, the people and the vibes!

“Living so far away from our pan yard sometimes makes it hard for me. I used to practice at least twice a week, but right now I can only make it to the most important gigs and some final rehearsals. I still make sure to at least make it to London for Panorama and Carnival!”

WST - “Many genres of music are played on pan. Do you have a preference for any one genre over another, as a musician?”

Justina P. - “I don’t really have any preferences. I listen to a wide range of genres and I’d also like to keep our own repertoire as diverse as possible. Classical pieces are challenging but you can take a lot from other genres, too. I usually don’t really like pop music, but playing modern songs on Pan is fun and the best way to make young people stop and listen when we are busking. ;-)”

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

Justina P. - “Music has always been part of my life. My parents own heaps of LPs and CDs and we grew up listening to whatever they put on: Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, Sting and The Police, Bob Marley, Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, loads of jazz, some funk and blues and in general everything you can consider as world music. I still love that music but thanks to getting involved with Pan and due to my job, the list of artists and genres influencing me is still growing.”

WST - “What is your favorite steelband arrangement?”

Justina P. - “I couldn’t name just one arrangement, so here’s a few: ‘Ben Lion’ and ‘Stranger’ by Pantonic, ‘Bandoleros’ by Despers USA, ‘We Kinda Music’ by birdsong, ‘Year For Love’ and of course ‘Pan In A Minor’ by Renegades. Looking to non-Panorama tunes - I’ve always loved ‘Dulahin’ by Pan Masters and ‘Sea Of Stories’ by Andy Narell. I’ll leave it at this for now.”

WST - “Who is your favorite arranger and why?”

Justina P. - “There are so many great and talented arrangers out there, I wouldn’t pick one. But if you remember my favorite arrangements, you’ll already know that Clive Bradley and Duvone Stewart are two of my favorite arrangers. Their arrangements just have the little ‘something’ that totally appeals to me; some lines just keep getting stuck in my head and giving me goosebumps, no matter how often I listen to it.”

Justina Ploeger, left
Justina Ploeger, left

WST - “What do friends, extended family think of your involvement with the steelband art form?”

Justina P. - “Thanks to my parents I actually got involved with Pan and they have been supportive ever since! We were so dependent on them when we were kids: they dropped us of for practice, picked us up and took us to gigs around town or even further. They still drop by when we are out on the streets busking and never mind driving long hours to get to gigs. Same goes for the rest of our family.

“In 2016 I wasn’t able to play Panorama because I simply had no time to practice. I still went to London with two friends of mine. As soon as we arrived at Kensal Road I told them all about the bands and the competition itself and one of them said “I just love how happy you look right now!” So even if they don’t know what it’s like to play Pan and will never feel the same way about Panorama, they can still see what it means to me and how passionate I am about it. By now, most of my friends don’t live in the city where our pan yard is based so they have actually never seen me play with my band. They’d all love to see Calypsonic live in Dresden, so I need to make that happen soon I guess.”

WST - “What is your opinion on the current state of Pan in the Germany?”

Justina P. - “Pan in Germany is nothing compared to Pan in the UK and as I said before there are only a few, very ambitious people who teach Pan in social clubs. Most of them are now in their 50s and 60s and I wonder who will follow in their footsteps once they retire. Most of them are professional musicians and need to do both teaching and playing gigs with their own bands to make ends meet.

“It definitely takes a lot of work to keep the steelband art form alive, but who’s gonna keep on doing that job? Even the most ambitious people of my band are now in business studies, communication science or study to be a teacher for primary school. Yet they are arranging for our band and teaching the younger ones, but once they have finished studies there will be less time to find new kids and young adults to join in, to teach them, to arrange, to organize practice and gigs and to actually take the time to go to different places to play gigs. Establishing Pan in music schools and finally treating it like any other instrument such as drums or saxophone might help to keep Pan going in Germany over the long term.”

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

Justina P. - “Regarding Pan in Germany I’d wish for a better network and community. There only are a few bands, players and tuners. We all have to work together and be aware of our responsibility to keep the art form going.

“I’m not even sure if you can actually study “Pan” as a major in musical studies in Germany by now. You would probably be listed as a pianist or drummer. This needs to change!”

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

Justina P. - “I’m proud to be part of such a big and vibrant community. I think I am most proud about the friends I’ve made within the Pan family and the people and great musicians I’ve met along the way. It almost doesn’t matter which country or continent you are going to, you’ll always find someone playing Pan and who will make you feel [at] home.

“Besides Real Steel and Metronomes we (Calypsonic) also played with several different bands from all around the world. We played with Endurance and Nostalgia from London, we joined Panergy from Austria, I played with Rivercity Steelband from Brisbane in the context of the very first Australian Steelband Festival, Jonas played with Bijlmer Steelband from the Netherlands and Leon joined Renegades for Panorama in 2016. We also had players from overseas join our band.

“Though, we can also be proud of the prizes we have won in various competitions all over Germany within the last decade. And even though I didn’t play Panorama in 2012 it was an overwhelming experience to complete the hat-trick in 2014!”

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

Justina P. - “There definitely is a lack of recognition.”

WST - “Some people are still vague about the steelpan instrument, what it is, and even more so, the concept of a full-size Panorama orchestra. Are there still times you encounter co-workers or friends, people in general - to whom you have to explain the steel band art form?”

Justina P. - “Yes, it definitely still happens a lot. By now most of my co-workers and friends know about the instrument and Panorama. I do offer a lot of lifts for visiting friends and family all over Germany. No ride goes without someone asking about what Pan is, especially if I do carry my double second cases in the trunk of my car. I must have spent more than a dozen hours explaining what it sounds like, how it’s built and a how a steelband is structured.”

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?”

Justina P. - “Just go for it! And this is for young female AND male players. It is no matter of gender! It might not always be easy but it’s definitely worth it. As long as you love what you do, you should keep on doing it.”

Justina Ploeger, extreme right, with Calypsonic Steel Orchestra
Justina Ploeger, extreme right, with Calypsonic Steel Orchestra

WST - “What is your vision for the steelpan instrument?”

Justina P. - “I’d like to see the steelpan instrument being established in music schools - just like drums, piano or saxophone. Since it is the only instrument invented in the 20th century and has such a significant history, it should also be discussed in both music and history classes. 

“It would be great to see steelbands perform not just at Pan-Festivals. But the mainstream isn’t ready for it, or rather they just don’t know it yet. Soca beats can already be found in the mainstream after all.”

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

Justina P. - “It would be amazing if people were less prejudiced about pan. Before they hear the first tune, they often seem to disbelieve this could be regarded as an ‘actual’ instrument. When busking, people passing by randomly put their hands on the pans, attempting to create a sound. They wouldn’t do it without asking if it was a violin or saxophone, though. In addition it often appears as if pan is appreciated due to its ‘exoticness’ and not (primarily) due to its musical expressiveness itself.   

“Finally I can only say, this instrument is special and so are the people who play it. Just keep on the good work and never stop supporting one another!”

WST - “What is next for Justina Ploeger?”

Justina P. - “I think I’ll challenge myself in summer by not playing double second again at the UK Panorama. I might go for Triple Guitar or Six-Bass. Besides I finally want to realize my dream of going to Trinidad and play Panorama. So far it has always been a matter of time and money. Hopefully I’ll make it come true soon.

“Right now I am looking forward to see Renegades perform at The Panyard Music and Culture Club in Bern, Switzerland, this May.”

   Justina Ploeger performs with Calypsonic Steel Orchestra

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