Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Mahalia Thomas - Trinidad & Tobago

“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 Mahalia Thomas 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

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WST - “Tell us about Mahalia Thomas?”

Mahalia T. - “I am a kind, cheerful, diligent, ambitious and committed individual from Arima who continues to strive for excellence. It’s been approximately over 14 years since I have been involved in the pan industry as a panist. I have played with various bands within the eastern corridor such as Melodians, Arima Angel Harps and my home band Arima All Stars Steel Orchestra. Currently, I am captain of Arima All Stars Steel Orchestra and hold several certificates in music. These include Grades 1 to 4 from the Royal School Board of Music and Grades 1-2 in Graded Examination in Solo Steelpan Performance with my music teacher Mrs. Merle Albino-De Coteau. Also Panorama Arranging from the Pan In Schools Coordinating Council. At present I am doing a M.Sc. in Occupational and Environmental Safety and Health at UWI.

“In my spare time outside of school and pan activities (sometimes playing/teaching pan music, learning new songs, etc.) I usually watch anime, YouTube videos or probably play some games.

“As a solo panist I have played in several events across the country. Functions held by the United Nations Association of Trinidad and Tobago (UNATT) as musical ambassador, Mayor of Arima, Trinidad and Tobago Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA), Trinidad and Tobago Electricity Commission (T&TEC), Trinidad & Tobago Association of Retired Persons (TTARP) and much more. At some of my events newspaper outlets such the Express and even UNATT described my performance as lively.

“I aim to live by my motto to create beautiful music with the steelpan. Making people happy through music. I want to extend this passion and love for steelpan to the world. Performing is so exciting. It is especially so when the music is “sweet.” There are times when you are really into the music, you get warped into another world and then when the song is finished you are left like, “Wait, it done?” - to only realise your hands were unconsciously moving while you are playing. Isn’t that amazing? Pan people, you all know what I am talking about.

“I love seeing people enjoy themselves when they hear pan music. It can be clapping, dancing, foot tapping or the occasional person tapping the bottle along with the music. As well as players dancing to the own sound of their music. Isn’t that a nice sight to see?

“Some of the things I admire or like to see more of within the steelpan movement are camaraderie, respect, integrity and appreciation. I believe through that, we can carry our steelpan that was created in our country very far.

“To see some of my performances and for support you can follow my Facebook and Instagram pages at Mahalia Thomas. Thank you When Steel Talks for interviewing me.”

WST - “How were you introduced to the steelpan instrument; what pan do you play?”

Mahalia T. - “To be honest I did not want to play pan at first, but my mother told me to play pan when I attended Arima Girls’ R.C. Primary School. It’s funny now because I ended up loving the instrument; I guess Mom knew I would love it eventually. This was my first steel orchestra which was conducted by Mr. Betaudier. I started playing the cello, followed by the bass pan and spent approximately 7 years on the double tenor. Now the main pan I play is the tenor.”

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

Mahalia T. - “The sound the instrument makes, the joy one gets from playing it. It’s almost as if it can take you away in another world when you are really into the music and that’s what makes the steelpan attractive.”

Mahalia Thomas - Carifesta
Mahalia Thomas

WST - “How long have you been playing?”

Mahalia T. - “I have been playing for approximately over 14 years.”

WST - “Does anyone else in your family play Pan?”

Mahalia T. - “My little sister at one point in time but now it is mainly me.”

WST - “How do they relate to the long hours of practice?”

Mahalia Thomas
Mahalia Thomas

Mahalia T. - “They don’t have a problem with it at all.”

WST - “As a woman in Pan, have you ever been discouraged from being involved in the art form?”

Mahalia T. - “I don’t think anyone had openly come out to me to try to discourage me. However, the people that I surround myself with are supportive and positive. I love what I do therefore negativity won’t phase me.”

WST - “What are your favorite songs? What types of music do you enjoy playing on pan?”

Mahalia T. - “I play and listen to all genres of songs, but I do enjoy the music more if I am into the song.”

WST - “What advice would you give to young girls and women who are part of Trinidad & Tobago’s present-day steelband community?”

Mahalia T. - “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 you focus on yourself, focus on positivity and find ways to better yourself and others you will truly enjoy life/the steelpan.”

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

Mahalia T. - “I think that all arrangers have different styles of arrangement so it’s hard to pick.”

WST - “Who are your musical influences?”

Mahalia T. - “Outside of pan I always enjoy watching performances from Michael Jackson and Beyoncé. I know it may be controversial at this time but one cannot deny the fact that they can perform on stage and [I] enjoy their music. It’s like “Wow.” In the pan world it will be Duvone Stewart, Liam Teague, Dane Gulston and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe and others.”

Mahalia Thomas playing Bereau of Standards - TUTTA

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steelband musicians from your perspective, that of a player/performing artist?”

Mahalia T. - “I would say support and appreciation for steelpan music. Although there are some organizations and people that do, there aren’t many. This does not only apply to steelpan, but for other local artists as well.”

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

Mahalia T. - “I would say support and appreciation as well. Although the steelpan was created in Trinidad and Tobago some may say it is more appreciated and supported outside.”

WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument, the music and culture going?”

Mahalia T. - “Truth is I just love playing pan and performing. Is it just something about pan that makes me happy?”

WST - “Are there any other instruments you play?”

Mahalia T. - “I just know the basics in piano.”

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

Mahalia T. - “I would try to make it more appreciated and respected as an artform not only for steelbands but for solo panists as well. I would like the steelpan to not only be known for Panorama season but throughout the year.”

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

Mahalia T. - “That it is used in different academic fields; for instance Music therapist Jamal Glynn is using steelpan for promoting rehabilitation and restoration of the mentally ill. I am currently working on research in relation to the steelpan.”

Mahalia Thomas
Mahalia Thomas

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

Mahalia T. - “Lack of support.”

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

Mahalia T. - “As compared to the earlies I do. Today you see more women involved in steelbands. However, compared to female soloists there isn’t as much compared to men.”

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female panists all over the world who are dreaming of becoming involved with the steelpan instrument as a career move?”

Mahalia T. - “I think that any career that one chooses to do, it must be what they truly want to do. Market yourself and ensure you truly enjoy it so it can be successful.”

WST - “Is Trinidad & Tobago doing enough to recognize its steelpan greats? What is the responsibility of the young people in this regard, if any?”

Mahalia T. - “I think more can be done to recognize steelpan greats.”

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Mahalia T. - “It is the greatest pan showcase around the carnival period. Arrangers put down their interpretations for their composition pieces for the band. Steelband members spends endless hours in the pan tent drilling their music. Even though you think you are tired you do sometimes forget because the music [is] sweet. Band management ensure things are in place for competition such as uniforms, banners, food and drinks, etc. Finally, when it’s the day of competition bands would be practicing on the track, people will come out and listen [to] the bands, even dancing and hitting a bottle going along with the music. When it’s almost time to hit the stage the band huddles together to pray and the pan supporters come help push a rack or help get the equipment to stage. It’s just an amazing and exciting experience.”

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

Mahalia T. - “I think it is a blessing because it is the one time in the year where mostly all bands, including the dormant ones prepare for the greatest pan competition.”

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

Mahalia T. - “For it to be extremely prosperous for steelbands and panists.”

WST - “In 2018 you received an award from the United Nations Association of Trinidad and Tobago Youth. Describe what that was about, and the overall experience.”

Mahalia T. - “For at least the last three years I have been performing for the United Nations Association of Trinidad and Tobago events. In 2018 UNATT celebrated International Youth Day and it was here I received my award. I was extremely happy and grateful. The experience from this event was educating and insightful because they had a forum with people of different backgrounds, such as an attorney, physiotherapist, human resource practitioner and a manager to speak about the theme of safe spaces for youth.”

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

Mahalia T. - “I would like to see more events hosted towards steelpan throughout the year.”

photos provided by Mahalia Thomas

   Mahalia Thomas performing at Bloom Concert

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