WST - “Tell us about yourself; who is Mary Genis?”
Mary G. - “Hi, I am Mary Genis. I am the proud founder and leader of Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra (RASPO) named in commemoration of TASPO. RASPO is the cornerstone of CultureMix Arts Ltd, a music and carnival arts company of which I am the founding artistic director.
“With my team I devise and deliver projects and activities that celebrate the arts drawing inspiration from different cultures. I started out as a fashion and theatre costume designer and toured Europe as a freelance musician. I am a visual and performance artist, a musician, writer, designer and producer.
“CultureMix specialises in producing events that showcase Caribbean and African culture, we provide a steel pan music education programme to schools teaching hundreds of children each week. We support the development of young talented artists so they can fulfill their dream of working in the music and arts industry inspiring others to do the same.
“My practice is around performance, music, costume and visuals used to create cultural events that promote positivity. As a dancer I took part in the London 2012 Paralympics opening ceremony. As a steel pan musician I perform with my orchestra RASPO at places like Notting Hill Carnival, Womad festival and The Royal Albert Hall.
“I am obsessed with music and so proud to originate from the birthplace of steel pan. Sometimes I almost collapse with bliss when I hear a steel orchestra. I cry and my heart feels full of joy. This is my pan fever!
WST - “How were you first introduced to the steel pan?”
Mary G. - “My parents are from Trinidad and Tobago; they came to Britain in the mid 1950s during the Windrush era. I was born in London and became fascinated by the culture of Trinidad. I was given a set of double guitars by a friend and this is where it started. I joined a small band in London, learned tenor pan and was hooked.
“I went to Trinidad to see my father and was hugely inspired by the richness of the carnival and steelband culture. I returned home determined to find out more about steelband in the UK and discovered UK Panorama and Mangrove Steel Band who helped me set up RASPO.”
WST - “When you created RASPO Steel Orchestra back in 1997, what was your vision?”
Mary G. - “My vision has always been to share the joy of being creative with like-minded people. With pan I wanted to share the experience of playing in an orchestra on an accessible street instrument that had all the qualities of conventional musical instruments, and to create employment for musicians so music is their day job. I wanted to create a large orchestra that would amaze and inspire people as I am. To this day I feel full of joy when I hear any steel band especially RASPO.”
WST - “Being female, were you ever cautioned or perhaps dissuaded in any way, from becoming involved in the steelband art form?”
Mary G. - “I started my professional musical life as a singer but decided I wanted to be a musician in a band. I could already play cello and piano so I learned bass guitar, drums and percussion and set up my own reggae band and steel band as I worked as a tour manager for music festivals in Europe.
“Being a Black woman musician was never a disadvantage, there were always plenty of bookings and collaborations here in the UK and abroad. I had the support of people like Matthew Phillip from Mangrove and Pax Nindi who worked at the Arts Council at the time. Along with Bubbles they encouraged me to set up RASPO and helped me to see it was possible. They inspired me to succeed.”
Mary (right) at UK Panorama 2018 with RASPO - image by Pan Podium
WST - “Why did you create CultureMix?”
Mary G. - “I first set up CultureMix in the mid 1980s. I was working as a tour manager for festivals in Europe and needed a sole trader company to manage the transactions. I then added fashion, theatre and costume design followed by magazine production and editing. I was inspired by the broadness of the ‘arts.’ CultureMix was an ideal way to capture my eclectic portfolio of creative activities in one place and to develop new ideas under one umbrella.
“I set myself a challenge to develop the business so I and others, would have the freedom to earn a living as full-time musicians and to create employment within the vagaries of the music industry. In 2003 CultureMix became an employer, we are now a team of six.
About the nurturing ethos of CultureMix Arts and RASPO - YouTube.”
WST - “CultureMix focuses on carnival arts and Caribbean culture through the music of the steelpan. Why the steelpan?”
Mary G. - “Throughout my musical career I have been involved in a range of musical styles from hip hop, reggae, pop and folk, to blues, rock, funk and ‘world music’. The contemporary mainstream music genres were very competitive with many jostling for a place in the already saturated market. I wanted to do something different and steel pan was ideal. So many people are curious and did not know about the steel pan, its history and origins, the culture, the music and the positive benefits. My Trinidadian heritage enabled me to proudly adopt the steel pan and share my culture with thousands of children and adults.”
WST - “RASPO has performed at The Royal Albert Hall, WOMAD festival, Glastonbury, for the London 2012 Olympics, live on BBC and ITV, and annually at London’s Notting Hill Carnival. What is it about your management of RASPO that has made it so successful?”
Mary G. - “I am a great believer in taking opportunities when they arise. Once people knew about the steel band the demand to play at functions and events increased quickly. I am organised and enjoy communicating and sharing information - education through music is an effective way to break down barriers and increase knowledge.”
WST - “Do any of your family members play pan?”
Mary G. - “My son, daughter and grand daughter have all played with RASPO at Panorama and for major events like Notting Hill Carnival and TV shows. I always encouraged my children to explore the range of music, and now my grandchildren.”
WST - “What have you been most proud about as it relates to Pan and RASPO?”
Mary G. - “There are so many proud moments. In 2017 I received a British Association of Steelbands (BAS) Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. One of the most memorable was conducting a fifty-piece steel orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall in front of five thousand people. I am also proud of RASPO’s appearance on the BBC Sports Personality of the Year event seen by millions of television viewers with the top sports stars as part of the ten-thousand live arena audience.”
WST - “As the leader of RASPO what are the greatest challenges you face?”
Mary G. - “The greatest challenge is finding somewhere permanent to rehearse. We are based in the royal county of Berkshire so the culture of pan is not so widespread as it is in London. Much work has been done in schools and with the band to raise awareness that helps people to understand and appreciate the complexity and beauty of the instrument. I have accumulated a lot of pans over the years so we can play at Panorama and present our own outdoor events. But space is a constant issue and I dream of our own space where we can settle, run CultureMix, make pans and have a permanent home for RASPO.”
WST - “Can you share some of your more memorable moments regarding RASPO?”
Mary G. - “The first time I played at Panorama was in 2007 with Mangrove Steel Band. With eight teenagers from RASPO we rehearsed each weeknight with Mangrove to learn “Boogsie” Sharpe’s own arrangement of ‘Sharin’ Licks’ and it was an unforgettable experience for all of us. RASPO entered Panorama in its own right in 2010 with Bubbles arranging ‘Pan on Fire.’ This was a turning point and hugely exciting, setting us on the road to a larger and better orchestra.”
WST - “What about the Pan and/or the fraternity do you find most disappointing?”
Mary G. - “I am disappointed that the steel pan isn’t generally respected as a musical instrument. It does not get the recognition it deserves in the mainstream media. Pan is a fairly small industry in the UK and it is thanks to Mangrove Steel Band that RASPO exists.”
Mary Genis with RASPO teens and Matthew Phillip of Mangrove Steel Band in 2006
WST - “And what excites you the most, and/or makes you most proud about being affiliated with the art form?”
Mary G. - “It is different, unusual, unique, and the potential is huge. People are mesmerised when they hear the steel percussion orchestra. Each young person you see gain confidence through playing is more than enough of a reward for being connected with steelband as an art form.”
CultureMix Steel Band Festival at The Hexagon Theatre 2018
WST - “Do you think the steelband community and its musicians are well regarded/respected in the UK?”
Mary G. - “Not enough in my view.”
WST - “What is Panorama to you?”
Mary G. - “A concentration of pan and an opportunity for RASPO to meet other pan musicians, to take part in a national event and hopefully to be inspired to be the best they can.”
WST - “Overall, is it (Panorama) a curse or blessing from your perspective?”
Mary G. - “A blessing as it brings people together; our young players love it and are excited to be part of the bigger picture. Panorama is very costly for a band, we are fortunate as CultureMix is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation (ACE NPO) which means we receive investment for four years enabling us to afford to do expensive projects like Panorama. I will always see Panorama as a blessing, it is an event you can choose to take part in, or at the very least go to and see all the bands at their best.”
WST - “Do you have a favorite Panorama arrangement - and if so - what is it about that piece that endeared itself to your soul?”
Mary G. - “My favourite Panorama arrangement is ‘Mad Man.’ 2018 was my fifth time taking part and the first time we arranged the song for RASPO ourselves. Dani Richardson and Paul Watson are two extraordinarily talented musicians who joined CultureMix in 2006 to manage the repertoire development for RASPO and teach steel pan in school. They created the ‘Mad Man’ arrangement especially for RASPO, working tirelessly to ensure the band learned the complex arrangement supported by our international guests - Brazilian Afoxé percussionists Ylé de Egbâ who joined RASPO for an experience of a lifetime at Panorama and Notting Hill Carnival.
“For me this was a dream come true and I felt honoured to be working with such exceptionally talented musicians. Dani became unwell during August and Paul completed the challenging process, conducting the orchestra at Panorama without his musical partner. Dani insisted the band should not know the gravity of his illness as he wanted them to fully concentrate on preparing for the competition.
“On Tuesday 28 August the day after the Notting Hill Carnival weekend, Dani passed away. He was just 42. We were absolutely devastated and now dedicate our work with RASPO in honour of his musical contribution with RASPO.
WST - “Have you ever participated in the Trinidad & Tobago Panorama - if so, how was it; or if not - would you like to do so?”
Mary G. - “I have not participated in Trinidad & Tobago Panorama. Although I have been a musician from an early age I didn’t learn to play steel pan until in my thirties. I have been to Trinidad to watch Panorama and would love to go again, with RASPO.”
WST - “Who, and what are your musical influences?”
Mary G. - “My mother and father were very musical, singing, dancing, listening to records and playing the piano. I have been hugely inspired by all kinds of artists - from Bach and Beyoncé to Bob Marley. I love classical music as steel pan is ideal for those popular dramatic classical arrangements like Bizet’s Carmen or Greig’s In the Hall of the Mountain King.” CultureMix presents ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ with a fifty-piece steel percussion orchestra at The Royal Albert Hall
WST - “What is your vision for Pan in the UK a decade from now?”
Mary G. - “In ten years I see pan as an integral part of the education system and communities in the UK as it offers a unique opportunity for ALL children, young people and adults to experience playing in an orchestra without needing to read music. Pan is a perfect gateway instrument opening up possibilities for many to learn other instruments. I also see more young pan makers and tuners developing in the UK working with current tuners to create a healthy competitive industry that services the education sector and demands excellence and high quality.
“I have spent the last twenty years studying the impact of steel pan music on the British education system, gathering data and feedback and presenting evidence of its benefits to school children, students and communities alike. This has been my only job since 2003 and I devote myself full time to CultureMix, proving it can be done not just for me but for others who share a passion for music and [are] prepared to fight for the right to be creative and live.”
WST - “If you could change one thing about pan what would that be?”
Mary G. - “To encourage the education system to include more steel pan music in schools by making the instruments more accessible. Children really benefit from learning music in an ensemble or orchestra and steel pan is ideal as it enables children of all abilities to take part whether they can read music or not. We promote pan in the UK with our annual CultureMix Steel Band Festival that annually brings hundreds of children together for a joint performance.”
Mary Genis (in silver headdress) playing steel pan with RASPO at CultureMix Carnival of the World 2017 in Reading - image by Wilf Springer
WST - “What advice would you give to young and upcoming females who would like to follow in your footsteps as a female steelpan musician and administrator?”
Mary G. - “Follow your dreams, be professional, organised and pleasant at all times. Be the best you can be and surround yourself with talented people who share and understand your vision. Always have a plan and a champion or a mentor who has connections and can help turn your vision into a reality. Collaborate with all the art forms to gain knowledge and experience.
“Running a steel band is a business, you need to sell your products and services for more than your costs, make a profit, re-invest, grow and be sustainable. The best advice I got when setting up was to always agree in advance what you will pay the people who help you deliver your business, and always pay them on time.
“RASPO is the cornerstone of CultureMix as a business as this is what people see and hear. The steel band inspires people to know more so they find out about our music education programme, we sell and tune steel pans, provide steel bands for functions and corporate events, and much more. These activities generate income enabling us to maintain RASPO so children, young people and adults can learn to play pan free of charge.”
WST - “What is next for Ms. Genis?”
Mary G. - “RASPO goes from strength to strength and it is thanks to the dedication of the talented people in CultureMix at its heart. Talented people like Dani Richardson RIP, and Paul Watson whose skills, enthusiasm and dedication to RASPO helped to develop the orchestra and the company to where it is today. Grammy award-winning music producer Don Chandler who coaches teenage talent to achieve their dreams as music industry professionals.
“Nathifa Jordan who arrived twelve years ago as a fifteen-year-old teenager on work experience and is now our full-time business manager. All the children and young people who joined RASPO throughout the years and are now adults advocating pan and inspiring the next generation. I thank all the tutors, arrangers and the many people along the way who helped me with the band, most of all my supportive family.
“My ambitions to take steel pan into the mainstream will be realised. I have the best team, the drive and the support. I know we make a difference.”
photos provided by Mary Genis
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