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Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant - Massachusetts, USA

“...People are just amazed at what comes out of the pan, they want to know if you can play all types of musical keys, they check underneath to see where is all that sound is coming from...”  -- Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant

Her path and journey were essentially sealed from birth - what with her being Denzil Botus’ daughter, and her godfather being the iconic Rudolph Charles.  A veteran in the game, her life journey has been for the love of Pan; performing artist, arranger, producer, educator, and more - all these describe this illustrious woman in Pan.  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Boston’s Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant shares a snapshot of what has brought her to this point in Pan.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant?”

Debra S. - “My Name is Debra Sarjeant AKA “Sista Dee.” I was born in Trinidad and Tobago.  I consider myself a “Despers baby,” daughter of Denzil “Belt” Botus and goddaughter of Rudolph Charles. I am a steel panist, arranger, producer, educator, audio engineer, entertainer, wife and mother.”

WST - “How and when did you first become involved with Pan?”

Debra S. - “I feel like pan has been around all my life! I can’t remember a time not being around pan but I first formally got involved playing with my father’s band Real Steel.”

WST - “You are one of the ‘veteran’ musicians on the New England/Boston Pan scene - performing most recently with the Dis-N-Dat band.  What is going on with this project?”

Debra S. - Dis-N-Dat band has been around for 21 years led by myself and my husband. We have won a few; N.E.U.M.A. best Caribbean group, Joe Higgs music award best Caribbean performer. Recently we were the first Caribbean-led band to be nominated for the Boston music awards. We have released eight albums. We play very frequently, toured, backed many major artists, and are currently working on another album.  We just recently released two tracks digitally.”

WST - “You are a performing musician, arranger, band leader and educator. Do you have a preference in roles?”

Debra S. - “It’s a tough call between performing and arranging/producing, but I would have to say performing.”

Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant
Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant

WST - “Given that you’ve been a steelband musician for many years, what is most notably different - in your opinion - from when you were a very young player, to now as an adult?”

Debra S. - “I notice now many people of different cultures embracing the pan, and also a lot more women in leading roles in bands and as arrangers.”

WST - “If you had the chance, what would you as a veteran musician, counsel/tell her much younger self in her first year or two just getting into the steelband movement?”

Debra S. - “I would tell young me to do a lot more research on the instrument and studying while still young, I would say take more advice from elders that have been around.”

WST - “How was it growing up, involved in the steelband movement, yourself the daughter of a well-known champion arranger?”

Debra S. - “It was great but also challenging as I felt that I had really big shoes to fill. I was also treated very well by all the elders that knew him especially when I went to New York to play with then-Metro Steel band.”

WST - “You are also the Mom of a son who’s career path, is also in the steelband art form. Talk about this, from your point of view?”

Debra S. - “Charleston, my son, was born to be a musician.  I am very proud of the fact that he embraces the steel pan culture and calypso music.”

WST - “Some people are still vague about the steelpan instrument, what it is, and even more so, the concept of a full-size Panorama orchestra. Over the years, did you encounter co-workers or friends, people in general - to whom you have to explain the steel band art form?”

Debra S. - “Yes, many times. People are just amazed at what comes out of the pan, they want to know if you can play all types of musical keys, they check underneath to see where is all that sound is coming from, and I’m always eager and proud to explain.”

WST - “What has kept your passion for the instrument and art form going?”

Debra S. - “The love for the instrument. I love to see the response of the people when I perform; I love to bring a smile to their face or remind them of a time, or event. The sound, the tone, the movement; I love it all. It gives me energy, and just a good feeling.”

Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant
Debra “Sista Dee” Sarjeant

WST - “Who are your music inspirations and influences - not only relative to Pan, but also in wider music genres.”

Debra S. - “Well, number one - my father Denzil ’Belt’ Botus, Clive Bradley“Boogsie”, “Professor”, Parliament-Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, Calypso Rose, Lord Kitchener, Bob Marley, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, Nina Simone, Babyface.”

WST - “What is your favorite Panorama arrangement, and what about it makes it so?”

Debra S. - Rebecca - Bradley. Every time I hear that song I get goose bumps.  He incorporated the melody perfectly in other parts, the chord changes and bass lines, top in my book.”

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

Debra S. - “Besides my father I’d say Bradley. His music had feeling, bounce, vibes, it was just right in every way.”

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

Debra S. - “Yes, but not from my family; they have always supported me in pan.”

WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female players all over the world who are dreaming of becoming ace pan musicians?”

Debra S. - “Practice practice, play other genres. Don’t be afraid to go out of the box and study the older pan players and arrangers. Take their advice, and do not ever feel intimidated or feel like you can only go but so far. The sky is the limit; it’s up to you.”

WST - “What is your opinion on the current state of Pan - to date - in the USA?”

Debra S. - “As everywhere there is good and bad, but it is definitely growing.  It’s in many schools, colleges, and there are many, many players, even a couple of festivals.”

WST - “And how do you see the steelband movement going forward - post COVID-19?”

Debra S. - “It will be challenging for large bands; I think also that the internet will play a big part in keeping it going while we await what is to comes next. I have actually met quite a few panists all over the world, just because of the now-popular live streams with panists. So there have been setbacks as a lot of us full time musicians have lost work, but also gains as we have been able to network more, and meet other pan players and hear their music and sound.”

WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steel orchestras - specifically in Boston?”

Debra S. - “Well in Boston it’s all political. The steelband movement is a victim of politics, money, etc.  Boston Carnival used to be great.  Many people, even bands from New York and elsewhere, would come. We had Panorama, J’Ouvert, Jamboree - it was a great scene.  Sad to see the state of it now:  one steelband on the road. But I have hope that the youths will step up and bring it back to where it was.”

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

Debra S. - “All the politics, bias.  If someone sounds good, it’s good regardless of if it’s your band or not; it’s about the music.”

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

Debra S. - “My most proud moment was doing a Midwest tour, my first tour, 1982. We  shared the stage with Woody Herman and placed second in the international music festival with ‘Real Steel.’  That was the moment I knew I could never do anything else.  The band comprised of my father, Kenneth Charles (Rudolph Charles’ brother), Coco (long-time Desperadoes player) and Gerald Joseph, the first man to play the 9-bass - so you know the music was stellar!”

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

Debra S. - “A lot of the panyard drama and all the politics that get involved; sometimes we think about everything else but the music.”

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

Debra S. - “Definitely! It’s great to see so many female arrangers, soloists, educators. This past Panorama I felt especially proud of what Vanessa Headley was able to accomplish.”

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

Debra S. - “Panorama is a blessing! So much great music, much passion by young and old, it brings many together.”

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

Debra S. - “I would like to see it in more mainstream music, I would like for it to be thought of as another instrument. I want to hear it on mainstream radio on a larger scale.”

WST - “What is next for Debra Sarjeant?”

Debra S. - “Well I’m always working on new music, but one project that I’m working on that I’m very excited about  is a full album, all instrumental pan, original music. I also want to do some more arranging for steel band.”

photos provided by Debra Sarjeant

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