Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Danica Livingston - Trinidad & Tobago

“I remember one year we had a performance in South on Mother’s Day and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe stopped the bus to buy flowers for every female player on the bus, whether or not you were a mother. It’s little things like those that go a long way within an organization.” 

A pan-lifer she is, beginning from day one. Her DNA spells PAN from front to back and back to front. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Danica Livingston shares thoughts for the way forward from both a philosophical and practical perspective, along with her insight, passion for the life and culture.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks ‘Celebration of Women in Pan’ logo

WST - “Tell us about Danica Livingston.”

Danica L. - “I’m originally from a small village on the outskirts of Couva, central Trinidad, and pan has always been a part of my life. I am a bookworm at heart and a lover of music in just about any form. I graduated with a B.Sc in Psychology and an M.Sc in Human Resource Management and I look forward to one day pursuing a PhD geared towards helping people as much as I possibly can.”

WST - “When and how did you first become associated with the steel pan instrument?”

Danica L. - “Honestly, I cannot remember how old I was when I started playing pan. However, if my father is to be believed, I was five years old. My first memory of playing this wonderful instrument was at the Pan Adoption Competition playing with the California Government Primary School, in which we won the first prize for the Primary Category with “Jahaji Bhai” by Brother Marvin. I wasn’t even a student of that school and I had only been in first year but my father was the arranger and he wanted me to get some experience with playing the national instrument. Needless to say I have yet to stop. At that time my father, David Sylvester, was the captain of the Couva Joylanders Steel Orchestra so it was only natural that pan would have been an integral part of my childhood. I basically grew up in that panyard. I truly believe that if you take a survey of all of the pan players from Couva and environs, they would tell you that Mr. Sylvester taught them how to play pan and I guess I was the only one of his children to follow in his footsteps.”

WST - “Tell us about being a woman player in the renowned Phase II Pan Groove.”

Danica L. - “I first knew I wanted to play with Phase II Pan Groove in 2007. That year I played with Tropical Angel Harps but I told my father that we had to stay until Phase II played. That year they played ‘Sharing Licks’ and placed second (one of the biggest robberies in Panorama after ‘Pan By Storm’ in my opinion) and I was hooked. That night I said “Somehow or the other I have to play with Phase II” and four years later there I was playing a double seconds in the front line of Phase II, handpicked by Mr. Len “Boogsie” Sharpe himself.

“During the Panorama season women dominate the band. We are prominent in just about every section except the percussion, with quite a few being in leadership roles. However, on the stage side we are few in numbers but that doesn’t mean that our opinions aren’t valued. In fact I think that as a result of that, we are given preferential treatment in some, if not most aspects of the organization. I remember one year we had a performance in South on Mother’s Day and Sharpe stopped the bus to buy flowers for every female player on the bus, whether or not you were a mother. It’s little things like those that go a long way within an organization.”

Danica Livingston (center)
Danica Livingston (center)

WST - “Were you ever dissuaded relative to, or encounter push-back for, pursuing your passion for pan?”

Danica L. - “As I mentioned before, my father taught me how to play pan and I believe as a result of this if I ever decided to stop, it would be of my own volition. As a child growing up and even now, my house has always filled with pan music, whether it was my father randomly playing on an afternoon or the radio just playing loudly. I have heard so many stories about people being banned from going into panyards but it was never like that for me. The panyard was my home away from home and as an added bonus my aunt lived right next door. We were never forced but rather encouraged to learn to play and if you didn’t like it, that was fine too. While I was at the height of my studies, every year I would tell my mother I don’t think I would be able to play but come January, there I was at the panyard. It’s like a magnet that you just can’t resist.”

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

Danica L. - “Friedrich Nietzsche said “Without music, life would be a mistake” and everything about that statement is true. Music is everything. Music is life. As Sharpe said ‘Music In We Blood.’ I love pan. I love the sound. I love to hear the voices in harmony. I love that just about anything can be adapted to it. I remember Ray Holman once saying to us at Joylanders that you don’t beat pan, you have to caress that pan and quite frankly, to me, nothing sounds sweeter than a pan played properly. If for some reason I am unable to play, I feel as if I’m going through withdrawal. I listen to it at work, in the car, at home. I just love it and I also love that it’s Ours.”

Danica Livingston
Danica Livingston

WST - “What do you find most challenging being in a leadership position within a steel orchestra?”

Danica L. - “As with any organization, it is difficult to be able to please everyone at any given time. In a steel orchestra in particular, there are a lot of older people who swear by the way things were and are quite resistant to change. This is where that HR degree comes into play as you have to find a way to motivate, create positivity and effectively communicate with the players to ensure that we are all on the same [page] and have the same goal in mind. It is always important to listen to your players, to understand their issues and see how best they can be resolved in a manner pleasing to all parties involved.”

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

Danica L. - “That would definitely be the way some people treat and regard the instrument. As far as I know, one steel pan takes so much time and energy to produce. That process from taking an oil drum and making it into what we play is not an easy one. Yet, we have people who disrespect the instrument so blatantly that it’s quite upsetting. My father has had the same tenor pan for twenty years and it still looks and sounds brand new (and trust me when I say that this is not due to lack of use). From as simple as the quality of the pans that are given to the schools, as well as the struggle some schools go through just to get proper tuning for said instruments, a steel pan at the end of the day begins its life as an oil drum and improper maintenance of the instruments results in the poor quality of the sound we sometimes get.”

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

Danica L. - “I’m very proud to see that pan has infiltrated almost every part of the world. For something that came out of slavery as a medium to express oneself through music, to eventually become the national instrument of our twin-island republic, that is indeed a major feat. Steelpan came from the people of the grassroots, the only non-electronic musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century and in 1992 it was proclaimed as the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. Today, steel pan is a part of the curriculum in some of the major universities worldwide. It is played from Australia to Japan to London to New York, Eastern and Western Europe alike. Our instrument is now all over the globe.”

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

Danica L. - “It’s quite disappointing to know that pan came from here, yet it is being mass-produced all over the world and we as a country do not reap the benefits, nor are we anywhere as close to producing such quantities of quality steelpans on such a large scale. I recently saw an ad for Panyard Inc., a company out of the USA and I was amazed both by the amount of pans they produce at a time and by the fact that they have yet to even mention it being a product of Trinidad and Tobago in the ad. Additionally, the frequent discord within the local pan fraternity is quite frustrating. How can we be expected to move forward as an entity if there is always some quarrel between bands? A bit of rivalry may be good to encourage competitiveness, however after Panorama the bands still have to survive. In order to be taken seriously by the relevant stakeholders, the Pan fraternity needs to show a united front. It’s the only way that we can be able to prosper in the not too distant future.”

WST - “What changes, if any, have you noticed since you first started in Pan years ago, and present day?”

Danica L. - “The most noticeable change is that pan is no longer being ostracized by the wider population. My best friend’s grandmother stays up to see me play on final night. The demographic of the people frequenting the panyards during and outside of the Panorama season has changed drastically. Pan is no longer being seen as something for the ghetto youths. Pans are now in classrooms across the nation. Random passersby on the street would hail me out by saying “Phase II” or tell me that they saw my on TV with pride in their voice. To be a frontline panist in one of the major steel bands in the country is seen as a huge accomplishment. Decades ago, a young lady like myself would have been called God alone knows how many different names because of my love for pan. My mother has often told us about how her grandmother used to share licks from a side whenever she heard her granddaughters were down by All Stars or Harmonites. Today however, young people are being encouraged to learn and master our national instrument.”

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?”

Danica L. - “In the words of Walt Disney “If you can dream it you can do it.” It’s as simple as that. Just as you are the future, so is pan. However, it’s important to remember that not everything in life comes easy, so you have to work hard and do your best every time and if at first you don’t succeed, it wouldn’t hurt to try a different approach. Always remember to practice because that is the key to mastering your craft. Practice, practice, practice until it becomes as natural to you as breathing, but most of all, enjoy and take pride in your instrument and your music.”

Danica Livingston
Danica Livingston

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

Danica L. - “Honestly, I will listen to anything with a pleasing melody. I love classical music! From Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, Waltz of the Flowers - in fact the entire Nutcracker ballet to Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Bach... The list goes on and on! Then we have vocalists such as Andrea Bocelli, Selena, Whitney, Prince, Michael Bolton, Ray Charles, Dionne Warwick, Beyoncé, Donnie McClurkin, Luther Vandross, etc. I also love soul music, those songs that carry so much meaning it’s as if the music is telling a story. The song writers/singers such as Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, India Arie, John Legend, Stevie Wonder, Sade. Their music just speaks to your soul. And of course calypso music is probably coded in my DNA. Just hearing David Rudder sing has a pore raising effect and on any given day you can catch me listening to Lord Kitchener sing about how rain washed out mas in May or the Mighty Sparrow singing on just about any topic that was relevant at the time. If as a population we really wanted to learn about our history, all we have to do is listen to those long-time calypsos. Sometimes I feel as if I was born in the wrong musical era. To be able to play under Jit, or Bradley would have been a dream but at least I was able to get both Ray Holman and of course the great “Boogsie.””

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Danica L. - “Panorama is an opportunity for arrangers and players alike to showcase their best. Whether it is in terms of arrangement, showmanship, production - it’s basically our time to shine but not just for the eight minutes on stage. Someone recently told me that Panorama is first won in the panyard, and the more I pondered that statement, the more it made sense to me. You have to first win that Panorama in your mind and in your heart before you can convince others of your victory on the stage. Ultimately, Panorama is our chance to showcase pan to the world.”

WST - “Is Panorama a curse or a blessing from your perspective?”

Danica L. - “To me it can be a bit of both. Firstly, you have arrangers trying to produce their best to win not just the title, but bragging rights for the rest of year; however the flip side of this is that you are going before a panel of judges who can be (but hopefully aren’t) plagued by personal biases or favoritism, individual moods, burnout, fatigue etc. There’s also the problem of music being recorded and copied and even in some instances shared before the actual competition, which can place bands at a disadvantage depending on the ability of the arranger. Also, realistically speaking, even with the addition of the foreign-based players, we do not have enough players to facilitate every steel band within the country, yet still every year Pan Trinbago warns about players registering with more than one band. If the competition is to continue in the current format, I would suggest that the organization can perhaps implement a system for the players, similar to the one in place for arrangers in that you can register with one band from each category. Nonetheless, Panorama, if marketed properly, can generate so much revenue for not just the steel bands but the country as whole.”

WST - “Do you believe women are finally getting the acknowledgment and opportunities they deserve in the art form?”

Danica L. - “There’s still a long way to go but for the most part I would have to say ‘yes.’ We have a woman at the head of Pan Trinbago, there are female band leaders, managers, captains, steelpan ambassadors of course so many accomplished female players. I always feel proud when I see young girls playing with their bands at the various levels. The future is female after all and as such I know it’s in good hands.”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge the steelpan music art form faces in Trinidad and Tobago today?”

Danica L. - “I feel as though pan is being lost on the carnival days for which it was initially created. It is almost impossible for bands to effectively compete with those mega music trucks on the road for the two days of mas. However I must say that most turn off their music out of respect for the steelbands when they happen to meet on the road but perhaps Pan Trinbago and the NCC (National Carnival Commission) can look into reintroducing Monday night mas or at least a ‘last-lap’ where steelbands can be allowed to showcase our music for our carnival.”

WST - “With women in many key positions of leadership in Pan in Trinidad and Tobago, what changes would you expect to see happen shortly and in the long-term?”

Danica L. - “I would like to see a greater sense of financial accountability and transparency within the organization and from its members. Additionally, I hope that they can be more nurturing especially towards the young and upcoming players. In the past, a lot of pan players including myself were discouraged by the irresponsible and dismissive attitude of the previous executive.”

Danica Livingston with Phase II Pan Groove - Panorama finals 2013
Danica Livingston with Phase II Pan Groove - Panorama finals 2013

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

Danica L. - “My hope is that one day the steelpan as well as pan players would receive the respect that we deserve, not just as musicians but as cultural ambassadors of our country.”

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

Danica L. - “It is my hope that going forward, Pan Trinbago would move away from the political games within the organization and start as a business. It is past time that pan and its governing body become independent and self-sufficient. We cannot keep looking towards the government as our main source of revenue, especially with the current economic downturn. Likewise, steelbands should also aspire to be more than just a ‘panside.’ The goal should be to establish your band as a brand, attain assets, develop the younger generation to ensure continuity. I can foresee so many great things for steel pan in the future.”

   Danica Livingston performing with Phase II Pan Groove - Panorama 2019

photos provided by D. Livingston

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