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Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Yasmin Brito - Ontario, Canada

“Time waits on no one. If you enjoy the musical instrument, find a band and become a member. Don’t keep saying “I always wanted to... Just Do It! .....”  - Yasmin Brito

At 12 years old she was playing pan in a steelband. And while the neighbors had less than kind things to say about this - she had fun. Much fun -  made history by becoming one of the first of the firsts in the annals of pan -  an unwitting trailblazer with memories and experiences that have lasted a lifetime. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - panist, mom and  former corporate Yasmin Brito shares her joys of her remarkable life long story with Pan, and the steelpan art form.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Yasmin Brito/Yasmin Armstrong (aka Yayee)”?

Yasmin B. - “Born in Vistabella, San Fernando, Trinidad & Tobago; grew up in Vistabella until my teenage years, living in Canada since 1974. Married and mother of three sons with six grandchildren.  Retired from the corporate world after 30 years (retail & chemical companies). I am now keeping my brain active as a home-based Travel agent while volunteering in the community for non-profit organizations - St. Benedict’s Past Students Associate, Toronto Chapter, HUTTers (Hibiscus United of Trinidad & Tobago, Canada). I am a tenor player with Worship In Steel, based in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada.”

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

Yasmin B. - “Living very close to the Vistabella Community Centre and hearing the band (Schlumberger Sundowners) practicing nightly piqued my interest. With hammer in hand and a little fire I began experimenting on some orange juice and Esso oil cans in the back yard. I tuned each pan to the musical scale then began picking out familiar songs. All of this began at the age of 12. For the record, the tuning of the cans was done when my dad was at work. Mother knew but kept it a secret until she could hold it no longer, when I kept asking to go to the pan yard. I then joined the band and was drawn to the 5-bass.”

WST - “How did your family feel about you playing Pan?”

Yasmin B. - “My mother, an active member of the Village Council and a mas player, was very supportive. My dad – another story; knowing his daughter was playing pan amongst all these men – he was not impressed, but came around when I was the centre of attention. He eventually did so much as to make the stand, so I could comfortably reach the pan and gave me his large leather belt to strap me in when playing on the road.”

WST - “Were there any other females in Schlumberger Sundowners in 1965?”

Yasmin B. - “No.  A young girl playing the pan then was taboo. I was the talk of the neighbourhood.”

Yasmin Brito
Yasmin Brito

WST - “Were you accepted by your other band mates?”

Yasmin B. - “Yes - I was spoiled and very protected. Deceased Oswald Joseph (aka Asgat) had me under his wings and no one could mess with me. He made a promise to my parents that he would be my bodyguard, and that he was.”

WST - “Back then, what was it like for you as a female playing pan in Sundowners?”

Yasmin B. - “I can smile now but back then I was called every derogatory name in the book by the villagers, especially the elders. They would say “Girls should not be playing pan and especially with a band of only men.”  One neighbor would always tell my mother... “Look at her long fingers, she should be playing the piano and not a pan”.”

WST - “Have you been back to your old neighborhood? And have the views of the people who initially gave you a very hard time, changed over the years?”

Yasmin B. - “I return very often; our home is still in the neighbourhood.  Funny you asked.  Most of those who said terrible things are now deceased. Their grandchildren (females) are now playing and I am sure they are rolling in their graves.  Many of the band members are also deceased or no longer living in the neighbourhood.  There is always ‘rum shop” discussion on “Who is the woman on the bass?” I’d see people in the market or on the streets who would say “This is the first woman on the bass.”  I don’t have documented records, but believe I may have been the first woman on a 5-bass.”

WST - “How long did you play Pan in Trinidad?”

Yasmin B. - “I played for two years, 1966 & 1967 .”

WST - “Have you ever played in Panorama? And if so, when? Please describe that experience?”

Yasmin B. - “I played in South Panorama (Skinner’s Park) and North Panorama (de Savannah). Honestly, too young to recall how I felt.  All I cared about was... playing the pan and enjoying the rhythms. Don’t recall being nervous either.  I remember having so many young boys wanting to ‘push’ my pan around the savannah. I have one female friend, who always reminds me of the ‘licks’ she got for being in the band and pushing my pan. Another young man constantly reminds me that I owe him a ‘pro kegs’ because his brand new red pro kegs [Pro-Keds] got ripped because he was pushing my pan.  For the band members and arranger (Mr. Ray Henry), it was an exciting moment for them.

“Because of my presence as a young girl on a 5-bass, Calypso Rose and the Lord Kitchener came around the band and picked me up, on separate occasions at the end of playing their tune. One regret... I have no photos of these... that would have been a ‘Polaroid’ moment. I knew of children who cried seeing me playing the pan, and a young boy telling his mother “If she could play the pan” why he could not?”

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, decades later, as an adult?”

Yasmin B. - “The fact that the steelpan is now accepted in many areas:  church, school, sport events etc. - and to see the youths embracing the steelpan brings me great joy.  Looking at the bands today, I see a great percentage of women in the forefront... those who are also arranging music.  Hats off to this growth.”

Yasmin Brito, second from left.
Yasmin Brito, second from left

WST - “Given that you still play Pan today - what keeps your passion for the instrument and art form going?”

Yasmin B. - “The love for the pan always remains close in my heart. There is a magnetic feeling when I hear the instrument being played. I always promised myself that I would play again and was always looking to join a band - my favourite band, Pan Fantasy. Because of their location/travel, late night practice and juggling work, I found it difficult to get started. When my friend asked me to join Worship in Steel, led by Leonard Noel (Mississauga, Canada), I never hesitated (practice time and days just perfect). I felt I was getting the best of both worlds... being able to play, and praise our God on this beautiful instrument. It is a way to de-stress and relax after a long day.”

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

Yasmin B. - “My musical influence came from singing in the school Music Festival. If I had to name someone, that would be Miss Harris, our music teacher; San Fernando Girls EC.  Another influence was my father who played records every evening until around 11:00 p.m.”

WST - “Do you have a favorite Panorama arrangement?”

Yasmin B. - “Wow!  I have a few but would stick to my most favorite... “Woman on De Bass” and “Curry Tabanca,” All Stars version.  When I hear it, no matter where I am, the volume is never enough.”

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

Yasmin B. - “Because of my response in the above question, I would lean towards Leon “Smooth” Edwards.  I love how the music is interpreted... you feel it from start to finish. If I am allowed to add another... Duvone Stewart. His arrangements make me feel as though the pans are talking to me... I can almost hear the words of the song. To all arrangers, you are each unique and do a fantastic job - you are appreciated.”

Yasmin Brito
Yasmin Brito (second from right), with Worship in Steel

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. Are there still times you encounter co-workers or friends, people in general - to whom you have to explain the steel band art form?”

Yasmin B. - “Honestly, there are some people, including Trinbagonians, who look at the instrument as being noisy oil drums. Yes, I’ve had to explain the steelband art form; but not very often.  Folks just don’t understand how a drum with circles could bring such a rich sound. Having to explain the various sections, using a choir as an analogy; play the scale on the tenor... they then begin to understand and appreciate. The fact that I tell them I don’t read music but learn from memory, they are then more in shock.”

WST - “What is your opinion on the current state of Pan overall?”

Yasmin B. - “Pan overall is in good hands.  The younger generation are learning the instruments and learning music theory at the same time.  Having pan in the schools is where the culture will continue to grow. I’d like to see it as one of the mandatory classes.  I went to St. Gabriel’s once a week for Home Economics classes; children should be going to a pan yard to learn how to play the pan, once a week... I believe this has started.”

WST - “Do you think nowadays, that the steelband community and its musicians are generally well regarded/respected?”

Yasmin B. - “There is still some ways to go to be regarded/respected. Players need to respect the instrument, respect the pan yard, respect the practice start times etc. Let’s move away from the pan yard mentality - a place to hang out/lime; and people must not look at the instrument as “It’s only an oil drum.”  Treat the instrument like a grand piano.  The steelband men and women work extremely hard and should be paid for the entertainment they give to the public. It’s sad to listen to the issues regarding not getting paid, year in and year out.”

A young Yasmin Brito
A young Yasmin Brito

WST - “Also - your thoughts, presently, if comparing Pan in Canada, to Pan in Trinidad & Tobago?”

Yasmin B. - “I am proud to see the many bands in Toronto, Montreal etc. As an immigrant, you feel as though you did not leave your birthplace when in the pan yard or going to a steelpan performance. The atmosphere is very similar, electrifying and exciting. Canada has many arrangers who are from many other Caribbean islands and they are doing just as great a job as those who are Trinbagonians.”

WST - “When you visit Trinidad do you go to Panorama?”

Yasmin B. - “Yes, I try to attend Panorama but missed a few.  If I don’t attend, I am sure to watch it on Television and must purchase my CDs. I was fortunate to have attended the first Panorama Medium Band competition in Tobago and certainly enjoyed it.”

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

Yasmin B. - “I’d love to have a magic wand. The judging process can step up and be more transparent. With technology, judging should be computerized. The scores to be immediately input into a computerized database where calculation is automatic, and the scores made public on a big screen immediately after, for all to see.  Businesses should be more involved in giving back to the communities where there is a steelband. It is a community effort to keep the pan alive and for growth... maybe, the government should make the contribution a taxable deduction. This is outside of any sponsorship... every band should have a sponsor.  South [Trinidad] should have a Panorama... all competitions should not happen in the North. Spread the wealth around.”

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

Yasmin B. - “As mentioned earlier, the proud moments - seeing the pan being played in churches, at opening events like baseball, basketball games etc.  Also, seeing the instrument being played around the world and being incorporated with other brass instruments.”

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

Yasmin B. - “It disappoints me to see that bands are still struggling to have permanent homes.  When I played (moons ago), we moved from the village community centre to the play ground (the savannah) without lights. Today, I know of bands who still don’t have a permanent home. This is a disrespect to the national instrument. Mind you – this is also happening in Canada, there are some bands also struggling to have a permanent home. The steelband movement should be run as a business where there is accountability, responsibility and transparency in the way funds are generated and managed.”

A young Yasmin Brito

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

Yasmin B. - “To me, it is a blessing for some bands and a curse for others. Panorama has been around far too long for it to be struggling in these times. By now there should be a workable blueprint that requires minimum tweaking from one year to the next.”

WST - “What would be your advice to young (and not-so-young) female players all over the world who are dreaming of following in footsteps such as yours?”

Yasmin B. - “Time waits on no one. If you enjoy the musical instrument, find a band and become a member. Don’t keep saying “I always wanted to... Just Do It!”

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

Yasmin B. - “I’d love to see a music program in the schools and pan be one, where students can obtain their music accreditation. Id like to see scholarships given and the national instrument respected like the grand piano.”

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

Yasmin B. - “Oh how I wish there was a steelband in Vistabella. Pan lovers must support the events a lot more – pay something to attend and not expect it to be free admission. Sweet sounding pans need maintenance – tuning, etc. There is a cost associated. Also, don’t expect a band to travel to your event and not be paid. To transport pans, there is a cost. I thank you for this opportunity to share my story and I love this forum.”

photos provided by Yasmin Brito

Their Story, Their Voice, Their Life, Their Dreams - click for more stories

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