Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Jeanelle Alexander - Trinidad & Tobago

“I would urge them to remain passionate and remember the reason they first wanted to play pan; childhood memories especially, I feel, affects this futuristic decision to move forward and be a pan player. Always strive for excellence and knowledge to go further than just playing the steelpan. Be a musician and be knowledgeable in all the aspects of your instrument and reach for the stars. “Don’t see where pan can take you - see where you can take pan.””  ---- Jeanelle Alexander

Her love affair with Pan and Exodus began in childhood. And as is her expectation, this affair will last forever and a day.  She is one of the recognized pillars of the iconic  Exodus Steel Orchestra. Beyond being a veteran advocate for all things good about pan, she has indeed lived the experience.  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - panist Jeanelle Alexander shares her love and unrestrained passion for  the steelpan instrument, its music, the art form and more.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Who is Jeanelle Alexander - tell us about yourself?”

Jeanelle A. - “I am a mother first of all. I have two sons whom I adore - Israel and Joel. I love music deep within my soul. I write songs together with an artist whom I manage and currently have two releases on YouTube. I love all things domestic e.g. cooking, washing, cleaning, decorating... Last but not least I am a Tenor Bass player with the ability to also play the 6 bass with the Exodus Steel Orchestra for the past 27 years. I have won all four National Panorama titles and all Music Festival titles with the band and have functioned actively on the stage side to present, though to a lesser extent now.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “I became associated with the steelpan at the tender age of nine when the music teacher at my church first decided to introduce pan to church. Of course at that time it was pretty brave as there was a stigma attached to pan and pan yards. My first pan was a cello. I was pretty good and I felt a sense of achievement and a love for this sound and type of instrument. Pretty soon after my music teacher became ill and discontinued the introduction to pan. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I was again introduced to pan, this time at secondary level. However my aunt was totally against it, and eventually my music teacher came home and asked on my behalf for her to allow me to play and she reluctantly agreed. I played in my first school Panorama at Curepe Junior Secondary and then on to the St. Augustine Senior Comprehensive school. After that I was in love, but my aunt was adamant that until I turned eighteen I could not play with a big band.”

WST - “Tell us about being a woman player in the world-famous Exodus Steel Orchestra.”

Jeanelle A. - “It requires a lot of sacrifice. Family time, birthdays, anniversaries all those limes I had to cut short because of commitments at the pan yard. When you have love for the art form you don’t mind the dedication and commitment required. Being a player and affiliated with Exodus Steel Orchestra means a lot to me, though, and my family has always supported me throughout my time up to present in the band.”

Jeanelle Alexander
Jeanelle Alexander

WST - “In your opinion, what makes the mighty Exodus different from other steel orchestras? And what are the similarities with other bands?”

Jeanelle A. - “Exodus is not afraid of change. We are innovative. We have determination to persevere in spite of and in the face of adversity. We are visionaries. We don’t enter Panorama competition just to win; it’s about being the best that Exodus can be at all times and always hopeful, never giving up or relaxing our hold on preserving the quality of our performance and what we offer. We always strive for excellence.

“Exodus in my opinion stands head and shoulders above others. We are more than a steel band. We are ambassadors, promoting the art of the steel band. We are beyond what a normal steel band is considered to be. We want to evolve to whatever the next level is in steel band music and performances.”

WST - “Years ago, steel orchestra preliminaries were held at the Queen’s Park Savannah. For the last few years, that has changed to the panyards of the respective bands. What are your thoughts, how do you feel about this? Pros, cons?”

Jeanelle A. - “I do not agree with the preliminary judging of the bands being moved from the Queen’s Park Savannah (QPS). The reason being: 1/ I think it is important for both judges and the public to hear the same thing at the same time. 2/ The judges are flesh and blood and may be weary from continuous moving from pan yard to pan yard and I feel that this could negatively influence their decisions. Whilst it is saving money in terms of transport costs for bands to the QPS, it takes away from the overall atmosphere of the Panorama. In spite of the way the original preliminary round was arranged, and was a bit taxing on the judges - it was done as a one-shot event instead of spreading over a number of days. I think that maybe there should be different judges for the different categories, therefore reducing the level of stress on the judging panel. On a positive note it generates revenue for the respective pan yards.”

WST - “Exodus Steel Orchestra is the only band performing without canopies in competition; in your opinion, do you miss that overall and/or sonic experience?”

Jeanelle Alexander

Jeanelle A. - “No I do not miss the canopies, as I said earlier it is part of our innovative thrust to be unique. Canopies were originally designed for weather conditions. However, Exodus has moved beyond that by the use of engineers who designed the structure of the band to enhance and maintain the quality of power and overall sound. Maybe we are beyond our time and the pan fraternity is not ready to accept the innovating and futuristic vision of the Exodus Steel Orchestra.”

WST - “You are a valued veteran member, and perform with the stage side of Exodus. Talk about some of your global travel and performances through Pan over the years.”

Jeanelle A. - “Exodus has certainly afforded me opportunities that I would never have dreamed to attain. I performed for the Queen of England and His Highness Prince Charles many years ago. I have performed in most Caribbean countries. I performed in Europe and North America. Most memorably, the World Trade Fair 2010 in Shanghai, China. We stayed at the Radisson Hotel. It was enlightening to speak and meet people of a different culture and language. The people that I have met in my various travels with the Exodus Steel Orchestra will be forever etched in my mind. Even my fellow Exodus family who go on tour with me have become so close and forged a lifetime of friendships and bonds - these people might as well be my blood relatives. Our manager Mr. Ainsworth Mohammed is truly like a father to us all.”

WST - “Being female, were you ever cautioned or perhaps even dissuaded in any way, from becoming involved in the steelband art form?”

Jeanelle A. - “Yes, I was. When I expressed my interest in pan my aunt was adamant that pan yard life was inappropriate for a young lady. It was not seen as a place for a young woman. However, I would avidly watch it on television and soak in the experience via that medium. I lived not too far away from the Exodus Steel Orchestra and could stay up and listen to the sweet sounds of steel way into the night. In the end she agreed and reminded me of her decision that when I turned eighteen I could finally play for that big band Exodus that I had loved from small.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “Many years ago pan was a love of the art form, the instruments, the vibes and the atmosphere of being in the pan yard. A chance to be part of a community that shares common interests. In recent years it has become more commercial. Whilst I support the recognition of pan players with monetary incentives, a part of me thinks that it has taken away from the genuine love of the instruments and art form - whereby some people no longer play with a passion for the instrument/band, love and commitment - but rather for what they are getting paid after.”

WST - “The contributions of women to the steelpan movement are undeniable. Do you believe women are finally getting that acknowledgment?”

Jeanelle A. - “Yes, I believe that they are getting their acknowledgement. There are so many women captains now, the captain of our Exodus Steel Orchestra is a woman, even the head of Pan Trinbago the World Governing Body of pan is a woman. We are making strides in the pan world; however there is always room and opportunity for more women to take leading roles in the Steelband movement.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “The thirst and hunger to win another national Panorama title keeps my passion fuelled. I refuse to allow negativity or circumstances to dissuade my hopes and dreams for this. I always believe in looking forward to the next title, the next sweet taste of victory - and for that I am always passionate.”

Jeanelle Alexander

WST - “Do any of your family members play pan? If so, tell us about them.”

Jeanelle A. - “My uncles and my father all used to play pan for the ‘father’ of Exodus - the Gay Flamingos Steel Orchestra. One of my uncles moved forward with the Exodus Steel Orchestra and though now retired, all are active supporters of the band. However I am the only person now in my family who expresses the interest and passion to carry on the tradition that they had started.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “I would change the antiquated judging system i.e. the same people judging year after year with the same judges. Each step of the competition should be judged by new adjudicators, thus allowing a fair decision to each band each time. I would like to see more world-class musicians/adjudicators coming to judge the Panorama competition. People who have a fresh ear and perspective.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “I have been proud to achieve winning all four National Panorama titles, as well as winning numerous music festival titles - including World Steelband Music Festival champions in Madison Square Garden with the band I love, the Exodus Steel Orchestra. It is a feeling I would never forget as I can recall from my first win in 1992, to my last - as if it were yesterday. The events surrounding it, the hard work, commitment and love for the instrument, music and the band. The dedication required to stay behind an instrument all night knowing I have two small kids at home, knowing you have work in the next couple hours. It takes a mentality of steel to ground yourself and stay until the end.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “The lack of unity amongst pan players and pan sides, the fact that we are the inventors of this instrument and we are not doing more to market the instrument worldwide. We are supposed to be the World governing body of pan. We are supposed to be a self-sufficient entity that comes together and makes decisions that could thrust us further onto the global market to expand and broaden us.”

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?”

Jeanelle A. - “I would urge them to remain passionate and remember the reason they first wanted to play pan; childhood memories especially, I feel, affects this futuristic decision to move forward and be a pan player. Always strive for excellence and knowledge to go further than just playing the steelpan. Be a musician and be knowledgeable in all the aspects of your instrument and reach for the stars. “Don’t see where pan can take you - see where you can take pan.””

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

Jeanelle A. - Pelham Goddard has greatly influenced my decisions in music. His articulate and keen ear for sound I have always admired. Road March hits he created from years gone by when I was a child left a resounding impact on my musical ability. I became interested in learning how to recognize/identify sound/notes before I actually learned to read music. I have always strongly loved bass lines. My natural intonation of my voice is deep and the power of the bass makes me in turn feel powerful and a force to be reckoned with.”

Jeanelle Alexander

WST - “What is Panorama to you, personally?”

Jeanelle A. - “Panorama is the opportunity to showcase your band’s ability to the world forum. To be hopeful to reap benefits of hard work and long nights throughout the Panorama season by winning this coveted title. The opportunity to connect with other members of the pan fraternity whom you have not seen in years.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “From my perspective it is a curse. Every year every single steelband comes to town in hopes of winning the title only to be disappointed year after year. Exodus has been fortunate to win four titles, but there are bands who are around a lot longer than Exodus and have not won even one title. It must be hard for the loyal players and supporters of such bands.”

WST - “What is your vision for Pan in Trinidad and Tobago a decade from now?”

Jeanelle A. - “My vision for pan is that the instrument and the art form will be a force to be reckoned with. They will eventually disband the Panorama competition and showcase pan to the world as a united front where all bands receive the same remunerations. Whilst I understand that Pan Trinbago must make decisions in the best interest of the Pan fraternity, it is my sincere hope that they take our wishes and concerns to heart so that we can all come together and continue building the country, and by extension other countries, with this musical instrument that is capable of doing so much.”

WST - “What do you know now about Pan that you wished you had known years ago?”

Jeanelle A. - “I wish I had known that pan had the potential to do so much for individuals instead of just playing pan seasonally for Carnival. Long ago the steel pan was treated like a Caribbean instrument, always being showcased on television on the beach drinking a cocktail. Pan is so much more now where it is being showcased via all kinds of music - Rock, Pop, Reggae, Classical. There is no type of music that the steel pan cannot replicate. It is international.”

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

Jeanelle A. - “There is no other pan-related issues I would like to discuss. I think I have covered all my concerns.”

WST - “What is next for Ms. Jeanelle Alexander?”

Jeanelle A. - “What’s next for me is winning Panorama 2020. This will be an EPIC year with another opportunity for us to win the title once again. I have some more Soca songs writing and a Zouk rhythm I am currently working on - so let us see how that goes. Looking forward to victory in all aspects of my life.”

photos provided by Jeanelle Alexander

   Jeanelle Alexander performing with Exodus Steel Orchestra at Moods of Pan

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