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Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Gay Magnus - Jamaica

“Don’t be afraid to do what you love. There will always be the percentage that has something negative to say about what you do, but once focus on yourself, focus on positivity and find ways to better yourself and others you will truly enjoy life/the steelpan.” 

A focused, determined, disciplined and extremely talented, musical director of UWI Panoridim, Gay Magnus brings it all to the table. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - the panist shares her love and unconcealed passion for  the steelpan instrument, its music, the art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

WST - “Tell us about Gay Magnus?”

Gay M. - “Gay Magnus is a musician passionate about playing and exploring Caribbean music.”

WST - “How were you introduced to the steelpan instrument; which pan(s) do you play?”

Gay M. - “My first memory of steelpan was hearing my parents play the Sing Out My Soul record from the 1970s by the Goretti Group of Trinidad, in particular the song Hear, O Lord which was accompanied by Dixieland Steel Orchestra. I was immediately attracted to the warm tone of the Dixieland pans and that record got me hooked on the sound of steelpan. My next big steelpan moment was when I was in high school and I attended a University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona Carnival. I heard the UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra playing Kitchener’s Pan in A Minor and I was mesmerized not just by the arrangement, but by the fact the pan players seemed to be having the time of their life. To this day, that arrangement of Pan in A Minor by Richard Quarless is my favourite UWI Panoridim arrangement. I swore then, that if I ever attended UWI I would join the steelband.”

WST - “What is it about steelband that attracts you so?”

Gay M. - “So said, so done. When I went to UWI Mona to pursue a degree in Botany, I joined the UWI Panoridim and this was the start of my love affair with steelpan. I started on six bass but moved to double seconds and then tenor. I have played all the pans and go where I’m needed but I have a special love for the warmth of the double seconds and of course the six bass which I consider my ‘home pan.’ Playing all the pans helped me a lot with my arranging. I learned from experience the best range and what works for each section. I recommend anyone who is interested in arranging for steelpan to spend time playing a pan from each section.”

Gay Magnus
Gay Magnus

WST - “You are the musical director of UWI Panoridim. Tell us about the organization. What has made it so successful?”

Gay M. - “UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra provided me with a complete musical experience and is one of the things that attracted me to steelpan and kept me hooked. We played a wide variety of genres, and at a variety of functions from soca parties to classical concerts and for world leaders at official UWI functions. The band is a student organization and the administrative roles are student-run, so being a member meant you learned leadership skills in addition to musical skills. The band was tight-knit and became my second family. Some of my longest friendships were formed in UWI Panoridim.”

WST - “You are an organizer, performing artist, arranger, manager, steelpan player and administrator. Which role do you cherish the most, and how do they complement each other?”

Gay M. - “I have been PRO, band Captain and Musical Director, but the role I treasure the most is that of arranger. UWI Panoridim has always encouraged its members to arrange, especially if, like me, you had previous musical experience. My years of playing piano gave me the musical foundation while the steelband provided the range and technical possibilities that I could not get playing the piano.

“On any given Panoridim playout, the band will perform arrangements by four or five different in-house arrangers. Each with their own style. There was no one way to arrange. Arrangers were given the freedom to express themselves and this includes sometimes making up their own strum patterns or using the pans in unusual ways. There was no formula for arranging for steelpan and arrangements, even done by the same arranger, often sound different. Variety is the spice of life.

“Despite spending most of my time at UWI in the panyard, I actually managed to graduate with a degree in Botany and worked for a few years in agricultural research. However, I never found it as satisfying as what I was doing in the panyard. Eventually I decided to get more serious about the instrument and get formal training. And what better place to do this, than in Trinidad, the birthplace of steelpan.”

WST - “Were you ever dissuaded from becoming involved with the steelband art form?”

Gay M. - “My decision to study music at UWI St. Augustine and to get another Bachelors degree, was the only time I was dissuaded from pan. Many people at the time did not appreciate the complexities and possibilities of the instrument and questioned why I had to go to university to learn how to ‘lick pan.’ Imagine their consternation when I went for a masters degree in steelpan at Northern Illinois University (NIU).”

WST - “What does your family think about your love for Pan and music? And what were their initial reactions when you were switching careers to Music - specifically Pan?”

Gay M. - “My family had recognized my discontent with working in agriculture and were not surprised when I left. Most people thought me brave for following my dream and confessed to wanting to do similar things. My parents were however concerned about my ability to earn a living being a full-time musician, with good reason. However, they felt comfortable as I already had a degree in Botany to fall back on if the musician ‘thing’ did not work out. I have not had to ‘fall back’ to date. Being in music education, I have the best of two worlds. I have the option of performing as well as teaching which I enjoy immensely.”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steelband musicians in Jamaica from your perspective?”

Gay M. - “Despite the ups and downs of being a full-time musician in a developing country, I have not regretted this decision and am proud to know that I contributed to the acceptance of steelpan as a ‘serious’ instrument. Now students who want to study steelpan at the tertiary level don’t face as much disapproval. Being a full-time musician in a developing country is difficult, no matter what instrument you play. But it can also be rewarding. I would recommend anyone interested, to just go for it! However, I would also encourage them to have multiple sources of income such as selling arrangements, teaching, online businesses. Don’t depend on performing alone.”

WST - “Tell us about your Exodus Steel Orchestra and World Steelband Music Festival 2000 experiences.”

Gay M. - “While at UWI St. Augustine, I was welcomed into the Exodus steelband family. I call them family because that’s what they are. There I had the privilege of musical leadership of Pelham Goddard, Desmond Waithe, and Pat Bishop who was drill master for a steelband festival. I always say I learned as much about pan in the Exodus panyard as I did at UWI. Different types of knowledge, but just as valuable. Every time I played with Exodus in Panorama, my technique improved significantly. I also played with them on the road Carnival Monday, in several Steelpan Festivals, and because of them, got a chance to see different parts of Trinidad and even got a chance to visit Tobago (on the nauseating ferry). Exodus is my Trinidadian steelpan family. My time in Trinidad was very enjoyable both on a personal level and from a steelpan point of view. I left with many good memories and experiences.”

Gay Magnus
Gay Magnus  -  (picture courtesy EMCVPA)

WST - “What is the overall impact of Pan in your life? Share some of your most memorable experiences while performing abroad.”

Gay M. - “After Trinidad I went to study at Northern Illinois University with Liam Teague and the late Cliff Alexis. That was another eye-opening experience. There I fine-tuned my skills, got exposed to the American pan scene and saw pan being played in different settings.

“Steelpan has carried me around the world. I’ve been to England and France with the Stella Maris Steelband, to South Korea with the NIU Steelband, the United States with the Northern Caribbean University Steelband and to Trinidad and Cuba with the UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra.

“Performing overseas has been quite rewarding. I enjoy watching the audience’s curiosity turn to joy when we start to play, especially when it is music they recognize. The trip to the Seoul Drum Festival in South Korea with the NIU Steelband was especially enjoyable, as we participated in a combined piece with percussion ensembles from all over the planet. For many of them it was the first time they were seeing a steelpan. We couldn’t understand what each other was saying but when we began to play together, it was a phenomenal experience.”

WST - “In 2015 you participated in the International Panorama in Trinidad and Tobago; describe that experience?”

Gay M. - “The 2015 international Panorama was also another memorable experience. I had already experienced Panorama with Exodus, but for most of the other members of the UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra, it was their first Panorama experience and they returned to Jamaica on fire and hungry for a Jamaican Panorama. The difficulty level of Panoridim’s arrangements increased and even some of the arrangements of church bands began to take on a very distinct Panorama flavour.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Gay M. - “Panorama has many benefits. Personally, my technique improved with every Panorama. As nice as Panorama music is, there are other styles of arranging for pan which need more exploration. I don’t think we have seen the full possibilities of steelpan, which is why I enjoy watching experimental panists such as Andy Akiho who really push the boundaries of the instrument. Panorama is important to the steelband movement, but there needs to be more outlets of similar importance if the instrument and panists are to reach their full potential.”

WST - “Who is your favorite arranger?”

Gay M. - “I have several ‘favourite’ steelpan arrangers but Jit Samaroo has an edge. I enjoy his musical storytelling and find his arrangements logical and satisfying. I like his original compositions for steelpan, especially ‘Utsav-Ki-Awaz’ which I’ve played many times, and his chutney fusion arrangements appeal to a wide cross-section of the Jamaican public, even those who are not into pan.”

WST - “Who are your musical influences?”

Gay M. - “My musical influences are varied. I grew up in the Methodist church and my earliest influences were traditional hymns, cantatas and the classical music of my piano lessons. Of course, growing up in Jamaica, reggae and dancehall were strong influences as well. But it was not until I joined the UWI Panoridim that my listening really broadened to include calypso, bossa nova, jazz and other genres. Now there is very little that I do not listen to and get inspired by.”

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

Gay M. - “My three proudest achievements are all connected in some way to steelpan education. Getting reliable information on the steelpan can be difficult if you live outside of Trinidad and Tobago and I was constantly being asked questions about a wide range of topics regarding the steelpan. So, I created the website steelpan-steeldrums-information.com and uploaded the answers to my most frequently asked questions. The site became much more successful than I anticipated, and it still gets hits from people all over the world.

“Another reason for the website, was to help solve challenges I was having with distributing another of my proudest achievements, my steelpan method books The Art of Steelpan: Low Tenor (Lead) Beginner Book 1 and The Art of Steelpan: Double Seconds (Alto) Beginner Book 1. Like the website, these books came out of a need for information. I could not find method books that suited my needs as a teacher, so I wrote them.

“My third proudest achievement was the steelpan theatre concert series I started in 2009, also called the Art of Steel. It combines steelpan performances with other art forms such as photography, dance and film. The music played in these recitals was designed to challenge people’s expectations of the types of music steelpan can play.”

   UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra, Jamaica - Panfest 2019: Alicia in Panland  --  “All We Ask” arranged by Samantha Williams

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

Gay M. - “I find it very annoying that some people still believe steelpan can only play calypso and soca music. I look forward to the day when steelpan is no longer seen as a novelty, used only when an ‘island’ flavour is needed, but as an instrument suitable for any genre and for any time of year.

“I also look forward to improvements in steelpan mic technology, where amplified pan is the same or close to the sound of acoustic pan. I use mics only when it is absolutely necessary, as I find the pans sound harsh when they are amplified electronically.

“Until then, I continue to enjoy my position as Music Tutor at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and Musical Director of the Stella Maris Steelband.”

WST - “What, if any, is the government’s involvement with the steelband art form in Jamaica?”

Gay M. - “The Jamaican government sponsors annual music competitions which have categories for steelpan but there is no direct involvement with the steelpan movement.”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steelband musicians in Jamaica from your perspective?”

Gay M. - “One of the greatest challenges for Jamaican panists is access to quality steelpan instruments and pan tuning. There aren’t many Jamaican panmakers or tuners and many panists import steelpans from Trinidad and sometimes the USA, which can be quite costly. In addition to local tuners, visiting pan tuners come to the island at least once per year. Mario Joseph has been a regular visiting tuner for a number of years.”


by Gay Magnus

© Gay Magnus

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

The earliest record of steelpan in Jamaica was in 1954. Arden Williams, a student from Trinidad carried his ping pong with him when he attended the University of the West Indies, Mona campus (then the University College of the West Indies). Soon after, he and other Trinidadian students and one Jamaican started the first-ever steelband on Jamaican soil. Over time, different steelbands have come and gone but the Mona campus has never been without a steelband since its arrival in the 1950s. In 1973 the steelbands from two halls of residence merged and became known as UWI Steel (You-We Steel). In 1976 this band was re-branded UWI Panoridim and is still in existence today.

Steelpan has always been generally well received in Jamaica. Because the pan movement started at the University, it never had the stigma of violence or any major struggle for acceptance compared to other islands. The main source of friction was and still is, that some members of the public find the sounds of the steelband’s rehearsals irritating.

By the 1960s, steelpan spread from the UWI into neighbouring communities and across Jamaica. In 1962 McDonald ‘Mackie’ Burnette of Trinidad came to Jamaica as an entertainer and was instrumental in galvanizing the formation and development of new steelbands which gave fierce competition to the UWI steelbands. There was even a steelband competition and this was the closest the Jamaican pan movement came to having a Panorama culture.

The UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra has benefited from the over sixty years of pan culture on the Mona campus. Like most steelbands in the Caribbean, music, playing technique and band administrative skills were handed down from generation to generation by rote. The band functions much like other Caribbean steelbands with one exception. In the 1990s, Richard Quarless, longstanding UWI Panoridim arranger, captain and musical director, encouraged Panoridim’s arrangers to notate their arrangements using computer notation software. This is now standard and music is dispersed to players via musical scores and audio in MIDI format. This has forced most band members to have basic music reading skills.

Up until the early 1990s, UWI Panoridim was a major part of the annual UWI Mona Carnival, but when the band could no longer compete with electronic music on the music trucks, they were forced to find another creative outlet. On the recommendation of Professor Rex Nettleford of the UWI, the band began catering to concert audiences and began presenting concert seasons now branded Panfest. Having concerts meant the band’s repertoire expanded from mostly calypsos and socas and other dance music, to include classical and jazz genres. The technical demands of the arrangements also increased.

However the association of steelpan with the debauchery of Carnival and the belief that steelpans can only play calypso and soca persisted and caused an initial resistance to steelpans being used in churches.

The first known Jamaican church steelband was Bethel Baptist Steelband which was formed with the help of UWI Panoridim in 1992. UWI Panoridim can be considered a ‘mother steelband’ as the development of many Jamaican steelbands past and present, have been influenced by its members. Bethel Baptist Steelband’s religious repertoire and Panfest concert seasons helped expose the Jamaican audience to another side of steelpan and eventually more schools and churches expressed an interest in having steelbands.

Now the steelband movement in Jamaica is driven by the needs of churches, schools and the tourist industry. Most church and school steelbands have concert seasons and these are usually the creative highpoint for that band.

There is a close relationship between the bands in Kingston, especially the church bands, with members playing in several bands and borrowing equipment when needed. This closeness makes competition such as a Panorama more difficult. Also competitions are of no immediate benefit to the hotel bands which are sometimes mixed with non-pan instruments. There is however a growing a desire for a Jamaican Panorama, especially from the panists who participated in the International Panorama in Trinidad in 2015.

Since the 1990s UWI Panoridim has made conscious efforts to participate in Trinidadian steelband festivals and Panoramas as a means of inspiring its members and exposing them to higher levels of steelband performance. This participation has had positive effects as on their return from each festival, there has been a noticeable improvement in playing technique and arrangements.”

photos provided by Gay Magnus

  UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra - ‘Ten Commandments of Pan’

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