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Meet Demri Pelle - Antigua and Barbuda

“So many bonds are formed in the panyard between people of all ages. There’s a deep sense of love each person shares for the artform, and that love is carried on stage. Those 8-10 minutes mean everything to me. Panorama is an experience  like no other.” 

Demri Pelle embodies the spirit of Pan. Far more than just an instrument to her it is an experience and life. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - she shares her love,  passion and ongoing adventure with the steelpan instrument, its music, the art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

WST - “Tell us about Demri Pelle?”

Demri P. - “I am a fun-loving twenty-year-old creative with a zestful spirit. I love to play pan, write songs, compose and arrange music. I could come off as quiet and standoffish at first - however; once you get to know me I’ll always be ready and willing to lend a joke and hold a good conversation. I’m heavily motivated by my faith in God, my family, and my Antiguan culture.”

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

Demri P. - “I began playing steelpan at the age of seven at my father’s church, The St. Mary’s Reformed Episcopal Church in the Bronx. The congregation is comprised of 99% Antiguans, so when the steelband was introduced to the church it was a way for members to get a taste of home. My best friend  and I were always so intrigued at how much fun the kids who played in the band were having while they performed. The response from the congregation usually resulted in a line of people chipping around the church to the sweet melodies. I got to witness first-hand the power of the instrument and because of this, I like to believe the steelpan chose me. I couldn’t resist.”

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

Demri P. - “My pan-related musical influences  include Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Khan Cordice, Andy Narell, André White, Duvone Stewart, Kendall Williams, Zahra Lake, Vanessa Headley and Aubrey “Lacu” Samuel. My non-pan-related musical influences include Roy Hargrove, Quincy Jones, Lin Manuel Miranda, Hans  Zimmer, and Johann Sebastian Bach.”

Demri Pelle performs with Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra

Demri Pelle performs with Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra at Pan Is Sweet 2018

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

Demri P. - “My passion for the steelpan really comes from the love of my culture. I have grown tremendously in my culture through this instrument. It has allowed me to travel into spaces that I would not have otherwise dreamt of. In traveling into these spaces, I’ve been able to share so much about the history of the steelpan and the direct correlation it has to Antigua. Antigua boasts of having some of the earliest accolades in respects to the steelpan, and still has the oldest steelband in the world - The Hells Gate Steel Orchestra which I am a proud  member of. To be able to share a portion of where I’m from with the audience or anyone willing to listen is an amazing opportunity that I will continue to take advantage of.”

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?”

Demri P. - “I would tell the thousands  of young women across the world to be yourself. There are a plethora of female pan players, arrangers, and composers, however; they are not you. Only you can bring your zeal and light to a panyard, a stage side, or a studio session. No one can quite replicate  exactly who you are. So, it is important to be you in your truest form in every aspect of this industry. Be patient with yourself and trust that God has already made a place for you.”

WST - “Do any of your family members play pan?”

Demri P. - “Yes, my sister also plays  pan, and it has been such a great experience to share this passion with her. My father teaches pan, however does not play the instrument. I have cousins who play pan as well.”

WST - “What does your family think of your involvement with the steelband art form?”

Demri Pelle
Demri Pelle

Demri P. - “I come from a very musical  family. My father is an organist and pianist, my brother is a pianist and percussionist, and as I’ve previously mentioned, my sister plays pan as well. Growing up, we’ve always supported each other in our musical endeavors, and the steelpan is no different.  My grandfather would often ask me “Ya going to beat pan tonight?” I would respond to him with a “Yes, Daddy. Panorama soon come!”

“To know that my family is not only aware of my musical talent, but also so encouraging in the smallest of ways brings me great joy. My mother took up the daunting task of driving close to two hours a night to transport my siblings and me to and from Panorama practice in Brooklyn. Despite the long drive, she always loved to mingle with the other parents in the panyard, and would help prepare meals for breaks. To this day, she is very involved in the behind-the-scenes preparations of countless steelband concerts. My father, too, is responsible for transporting my sister and me to and from Panorama practice in Antigua. He loves to lime in the panyard and often catches up with old friends during our rehearsals. It’s safe to say that steelpan has become a family affair.”

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

Demri P. - “I would change the lack of funding that the art form is characteristic of. It pains me to know that some bands can’t function due to financial hardships. I believe that this issue is an impediment on how far the artform can really go.”

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

Demri P. - “Being able to pass on my knowledge of the instrument and teach the upcoming generations of pan players has always been something I’m most proud of. It’s imperative that panists do not only hone their ideas and understanding of the instrument, but rather pass it on to the younger people.  I’ve always said that you don’t know when someone is watching you. Being a panist, people take note of how you move, if it looks like you’re having a good time while you play; and even if who you are and what you stand for could be recognized in your compositions and arrangements. I believe we all have a personal duty to pass on something different to the next generation of panists.”

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

Demri P. - “What disappoints me the most about the steelpan movement is the abundance of pride and greed, and the lack of unity. I’ve seen countless bands disintegrate due to people not being able to come to a financial agreement, nor make educated decisions as adults. As ambassadors of this instrument, we must think about not what’s better for ourselves as individuals, but what’s best for the collective good of the community. Sometimes you will have to put yourself on the back burner, and true selflessness brings great reward in the end. We will get to where we need to be if we go together in a uniformed fashion.”

WST - “Some people are still vague about the steelpan instrument, what it is, and far less, the concept of a full-size Panorama steel orchestra. Are there still times you encounter people to whom you have to explain the steel band art form?”

Demri P. - “Yes! Being a music major, the ice breakers in all of my classes usually consist of saying your name, the instrument you play, and one fun fact about you. The steelpan always ends up making a double appearance in this introduction, as I not only play the instrument but have countless fun facts I could share with people about my involvement with the instrument. Many times, people would not know exactly what I’m talking about, so I find myself having no choice but to relate it to The Little Mermaid, and end up singing the pan part for them to hear. It’s like clockwork by now, however I’d do it three million more times if I have to.”

WST - “Tells about Pan in Antigua & Barbuda?”

Demri P. - “Pan in Antigua and Barbuda is alive and well. We’ve seen an increase in attendance at both the National Panorama and Junior Panorama. Over the years, the number of bands participating in the National Panorama has steadily increased. I vividly remember when the National Panorama consisted  of five and six bands. Now we have nine bands participating and it’s really been a wonderful sight to witness. The youth are very involved in the steelpan artform, as they make up the majority of most bands. Many young arrangers under the age of 27 continue to showcase their talent every year in the National Panorama and the Junior Panorama. Stageside bands host events of great caliber more frequently throughout the year, therefore pan is not limited to our carnival season alone. I’m extremely excited to partake in the National Panorama in Antigua again this year.”

Demri Pelle performs with Hells Gate Steel Orchestra in Antigua
Demri Pelle (left) performs with Hells Gate Steel Orchestra in Antigua

WST - “What makes being a member of New York’s PESO (Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra) so special?”

Demri P. - “I absolutely love PESO!  I joined PESO in 2017, and they have welcomed me with open arms ever since. I’ve been a fan of the band since their debut Panorama performance in 2016, with their rendition of Cheers To Life. I knew there was something special about the band when they were able to place 2nd their first year in the competition. PESO consists of many young people with a love for pan and the willingness to see it transcend boundaries. André White has been one of my favorite arrangers since his arrangement of ‘Do Something For Pan,’ and to be able to play his music is truly a dream come true. PESO is like a breath of fresh air, and I’m grateful to be a part of the movement.”

WST - “Compare your Panorama experiences in Antigua, with those in New York - similarities, differences, overall thoughts?”

Demri P. - “Panorama in Antigua is a  bit smaller than New York Panorama. You can really feel the intimacy amongst the bands and players on Panorama night. The pan community in Antigua is a close-knit family. Another difference would be in the song selections. Songs being played in Antigua Panorama  must be sung by an Antiguan artist. Many bands play songs released years prior to the competition as well. Panorama in New York has a very heavy Trinidadian influence, so the tune of choice for most bands derives from what was popular for Trinidad Carnival that year.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Demri P. - “To me, Panorama is a journey worth the bumps and bruises. It’s kind of like a really long hike. You start off with high hopes and anticipation for the best. Then the ground beneath you starts to incline, but you don’t give up. Despite the long trod to the finish line, Panorama is something I look forward to every year. So many bonds are formed in the panyard between people of all ages. There’s a deep sense of love each person shares for the artform, and that love is carried on stage. Those 8-10 minutes mean everything to me. Panorama is an experience  like no other.”

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

Demri Pelle performs with Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra
Demri Pelle performs with Pan Evolution Steel Orchestra

Demri P. - “I believe Panorama is a blessing because it is our own musical production. Panorama has expanded outside of the Caribbean, however - it is indigenous to the people of this culture. The opportunities it presents panists are extraordinary. Not many day-to-day musicians can say they’ve ever played in an orchestra of 100-plus people, or even arranged music to be heard by such a large audience. Those are among some of their wildest dreams, and we as panists are able to partake in a competition and event such as this. Many young panists have grown and mustered their own love for the instrument through those moments in the panyard and on stage. Though many people desire to take advantage of a good thing due to selfish motives, this doesn’t change the fact that Panorama has had a positive impact  on many panists and the artform.”

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

Demri P. - “I’ve noticed the increased difficulty in finding yard space and sponsors. Both of these things are essential to make sure a band has a successful season, so it can be difficult to bring out a band without them.”

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

Demri P. - “I do believe that women are getting the recognition they deserve now more than ever within the art form. There are women such as Zahra Lake and Vanessa Headley, who have made their mark in steelpan history at an extremely young age. I’ve been grateful enough to surround myself with  other female panists that I can proudly call friends. I’m proud to say that there is no shortage of women in the art form.”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge the steelband music art form faces in general, from your perspective?”

Demri P. - “As I previously stated, I believe that the lack of funding is a large impediment to the art form.”

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

Demri P. - “My vision for the steelpan is to diminish the sense of unfamiliarity throughout the world. Steelpan is not and should not be confined to only calypso, or soca music. It has the ability to fit into any orchestra, any production, any musical, and any genre. I know the steelpan can become as mainstream as the trumpet or saxophone, it is only a matter of time.”

photos provided by Demri Pelle

   Demri Pelle performs with Hells Gate Steel Orchestra for Antigua-Barbuda Panorama 2017

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