Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

Tribute To Women In Pan

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Meet Angela Howard - Brooklyn, New York

“Aside from my love of the instrument,  I think it is important to preserve our culture in perpetuity.  All too often, we are so overly influenced by ʽwestern culture’ that we are willing to leave our own ways behind.  I don’t want Pan or Caribbean culture to be like those extinct languages lamented only after they are lost altogether.  We bring our stories and history to life through our culture.  It is our responsibility to document and preserve in our own voices, as opposed to having someone else interpret it for us.”  -- Angela Howard

She is indeed a woman in pan -  Pan daughter, wife, mother and fan.  In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - panist and veteran pan mom Angela Howard shares her experiences, views, reflections and expectations on Pan, culture, and the steelpan art form overall.

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks Women Logo

WST - “Tell us about yourself - who is Angela Howard, and how and when did you first become involved with Pan?”

Angela H. - “In 1995, having resettled back in NYC a few years prior and living in Brooklyn, I started visiting panyards every night.  I had always been drawn to the sound of pan, but never had an opportunity to play.  I would go from Pan Rebels in the hole back by Sears to Metro on Woodruff [Avenue].  Moods was under the 3 train and Silhouettes was on Church [Avenue],  as I recall, Despers USA was on Classon [Avenue] (and closest to where I was living at the time, so I would end my night there).  I attended that year’s Panorama and vowed to play the following year.”

WST - “What made you fall in love with the steelpan instrument and its music?”

Angela H. - “I always loved the sound of the instrument.  My father was instrumental in the formation of Angel Harps in Grenada in his day, but I never had an opportunity to pursue the fascination until I was an adult.  Instead, I was continually haunted by the sound so that any time I heard a pan play, it was mesmerizing for me.”

WST - “Is there anything else that is, comparable - like Pan, for you?”

Angela H. - “Nothing is like pan.  The idea of having that many different people of all ages collaborate towards one thing is unique.  We sometimes don’t know what we have nor an understanding of how precious it is.”

WST - “What keeps your passion for Pan and its culture going?”

Angela H. - “Aside from my love of the instrument,  I think it is important to preserve our culture in perpetuity.  All too often, we are so overly influenced by ʽwestern culture’ that we are willing to leave our own ways behind.  I don’t want Pan or Caribbean culture to be like those extinct languages lamented only after they are lost altogether.  We bring our stories and history to life through our culture.  It is our responsibility to document and preserve in our own voices, as opposed to having someone else interpret it for us.”

Steelpan Mom Angela Howard and Daughter
Angela Howard (photo by R. Pope)

WST - “Have you encountered people unfamiliar with Pan, and what is that interaction like; how do you explain it to them?”

Angela H. - “Most people I encounter who think they know ʽpan’ relate it to a cruise they might have been to or a party with a Caribbean theme.  This has allowed non-Caribbean people to shape pan in their own image and conflate the islands so that they think of it as something synonymous with reggae.”

WST - “What, if anything, do you dislike about Pan, and why?”

Angela H. - “I think that while we have a certain pride in the instrument, we sometimes behave as if we are ashamed of the origins.  We think that to ʽelevate’ it we have to constantly shape it in a western context.  A good example of this is the disdain around not reading music.  I can read music and encourage everyone to learn, but no one says that the Suzuki Method is a bad thing. 

“We almost seem ashamed that we have players who don’t read music instead of celebrating the fact that people are able to learn intricate pieces of music by heart for a performance.  There is room for both and we should embrace all types of players.”

Shinichi Suzuki
Shinichi Suzuki

The Suzuki method is an internationally-known music curriculum and teaching philosophy dating from the mid-20th century, created by Japanese violinist and pedagogue Shinichi Suzuki. The method aims to create an environment for learning music which parallels the linguistic environment of acquiring a native language.

Suzuki based his approach on the belief that “Musical ability is not an inborn talent but an ability which can be developed. Any child who is properly trained can develop musical ability, just as all children develop the ability to speak their mother tongue. The potential of every child is unlimited.”

WST - “If you could have a major ʽsay’ in the issue - what would be your vision for the future of the steelpan instrument? And the artform overall?”

Angela H. - “I would love to see our cultural mediums join together using the instrument as a backdrop. I would love to see dramatic and dance performances with steel bands as a ʽpit’ orchestra. Poetry readings with pan in the background. I would also love to see us create small ensembles with other traditional instruments from around the world.  Let’s bypass America and collaborate with and for a world-wide audience.”

WST - “What is your favorite genre of music to play on steelpan?”

Angela H. - “I have always dreamed of playing classical music on pan but haven’t had the opportunity yet. Love playing calypso / soca. I have also enjoyed playing some popular tunes as well on the stage-side.”

WST - “What is it about the double tenor pan that is so special to you?”

Angela H. - “The ʽmad-man pan’ is my heart. I love playing interesting harmonies that go along with the melody of a song. For many arrangers the instrument is just a humbug and they make us play the melody with the occasional chord, but when an arranger likes a double tenor, they fill in our chord structures and make us key in the harmonies. Not everyone is able to do that.”

WST - “What made Pan Rebels Steel Orchestra so exceptional?”

Angela H. - “Pan Rebels was wonderful to play for. It was really a ton of young people who had unbounded energy and love for the instrument and playing. Having “Boogsie” as an arranger didn’t hurt, but I also thoroughly enjoyed playing the music that Anthony Trebuse arranged, because he is a really talented musician. I left Pan Rebels because Nutones was starting up and I wanted to support some younger arrangers. In doing this, we had a band that had young people and a really lovely atmosphere. In the three years I played, we had a ton of tribulation, but Lyndon and Collins were really talented musicians and it was nice to see them make a go of it.”

WST - “What has made D’Radoes Steel Orchestra so unique?”

Angela H. - “I love playing in D’Radoes. It’s unapologetic about pan and loving the instrument. When I first went into the band it was because Nutones wasn’t going to come out and Lyndon said we should go into D’Radoes. Bradley was arranging ʽPassion.’ The band has a heart and soul that was irresistible to me, so I remained in the band and have watched it transform over the years. Radoes is constantly changing players, but the Captain and his wife are the ones who make that band happen and I have lots of love and respect for them.”

WST - “How has pan in New York changed over the years?”

Angela H. - “It has changed in several ways, I would say largely due to the economics.  There are lots of people who think it’s foolish to consistently lose money merely to preserve the culture, but I eschew the constant emphasis on capitalism. Gentrification has made it difficult to find practice space, people have pressing time constraints, yet pan still pushes itself forward and tries to give our children a little insight into our history. We have largely become preservationists.”

WST - “What would be your advice to young women who would like to become involved with the steelpan art form?”

Angela H. - “Don’t think of yourself as anything but a player.”

WST - “What is your favorite Panorama piece?”

Angela H. - “To listen to? WITCO DesperadoesRebecca. That I have played? Tie between BJ’s arrangement of ʽFantastic Friday’ and Boogsie’s ʽIn My House.’ That feeling of hearing the bass howling like wolves and having my pores raise when the music is given is amazing.”

ʽIn My House’ - Pan Rebels Steel Orchestra - 1999 - Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, arranger

ʽFantastic Friday’ - D’Radoes Steel Orchestra - 2013 - Terrance “BJ” Marcelle, arranger

WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Angela H. - “Panorama season for me is liberating. I love practicing more than I like the performance. It feels like a sacred act to try to have 100 people play the same piece of music - it requires discipline and some form of togetherness.”

WST - “Is Panorama a blessing or a curse?”

Angela H. - “Panorama is neither a blessing nor a curse. It’s an event. Of course it can be seen as a distraction, but all the players who play for Panorama are not necessarily going to be professional musicians. Panorama gives them a platform to enjoy the season and the music. Let’s face it, in and of itself, Panorama is an amazing phenomenon. We have 100 people on a stage performing a piece of music learned by heart and played in synch. Let’s not act like this is not an accomplishment.”

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

Angela H. - “I used to think I would change the sleep deprivation and scheduling, but I see more rhyme and reason to it in a weird way, and although I lead a pretty structured life, the lack of structure is probably good for me to experience.”

WST - “What are your fondest memories with Pan?”

Angela H. - “My fondest memories have everything to do with the blood, sweat and tears and sheer heartbreak of pan, but the year Radoes first won has to have been the all-time high.”

WST - “What is your global vision for Pan?”

Angela H. - “I want to see pan played in places that are far-flung. I have always wanted to see collaborations with the kora and the sitar; I want to see more pan-jazz clubs. I want to see us play anyplace you see music played.”

WST - “There is the saying -- “You don’t know - what you don’t know - till you know it.” What do you wish this generation of panists would learn now?”

Angela H. - “I would love for them to learn some of the history; not to scold them about ʽhow easy they have it’, but to emphasize the amount of sacrifice made to preserve the artform, so that they might be willing to make sacrifices themselves.”

D’Radoes Steel Orchestras - ʽLike Ah Boss’ - Tempo Mix - Terrance “BJ” Marcelle, arranger - 2015

WST - “There are now more women in positions of control, influence and decision-making in Pan than ever before. Have things panned out the way you would have expected they would, with more women involvement at all levels?”

Angela H. - “It’s interesting because I work in a male-dominated field. I always expect that as women make their inroads into anything they will put a stamp on it, but that it takes time to shape anything.”

WST - “What is the future of Pan in New York from your perspective?”

Angela H. - “I struggle with this. Gentrification and distractions like cell phones are big problems. The shorter the season gets, the less likely we are to be cohesive - pan then becomes more transactional. I would still love to see more small shows put on so that we can engender year-round interest in performances. Most of all, we have to support one another. I have seen some of our young players strike out and become solo artists. This has to continue to happen so that we can expand the reach of the instrument beyond a single event.”

WST - “How has the reality of COVID-19 impacted on your thought-process for the steelband in the near future?”

Angela H. - “I know we have figured out virtual performances, but there is something about being in the presence of one another that is irreplaceable. I can’t wait until we can be in Radoes yard again together.”

WST - “You have a daughter, who has been a ʽpanist’ since the womb, literally. Jona was a babe on your back, in her carrier, while you practiced with NUTONES more than eighteen years ago. WST’s photos of you two from that time remain popular in the pan world to this day. Talk about how your decision to have her with you at such a young age came about?”

Angela H. - “The decision to have Jona with me was simple and selfish. I didn’t want to leave her with anyone and I couldn’t stop playing pan. It seemed at the time that I could just put her in a hiking child-carrier which would allow her to be with me throughout practice until she dropped to sleep - at which point she would be dead weight on my back.”

WST - “What were the various reactions to you with her in on your back, behind your pan, practicing?”

Angela H. - “At first, there was a bit of astonishment from people. It was definitely an unusual thing to see, but people eventually got used to it. The funny thing is that it was my new normal, but as recently as last year, a stranger recognized me at JFK as the woman who used to play with the baby on her back. It must have made a long lasting impression, and I saw that another mother was doing it in Trinidad. Not a trend yet, but someday...”

WST - “What was it like for Jona - what did you observe, as her Mom?”

Angela H. - “I have watched her grow into a player. Hard work and discipline that didn’t always result in a win. Jona is lucky enough to have played with Radoes when we weren’t in the top three, and stuck together and didn’t give up until we won. Those victories are sweet.”

WST - “As Jona grew, she was your constant companion in panyard, eventually beginning to play [tenor bass] herself. From your own personal perspective, talk about some aspects that you would share about your experience with other mothers with very young children who themselves are panists?”

Angela H. - “Let the children find their own way and instrument. Jona never wanted to play in the front line and I never forced her to pick an instrument because of me, (although my section could always use some help, cough, cough). She ended up on the quadro because she liked the sound and wanted a challenge.”

WST - “And - your final thoughts, overall, now that Jona is a young adult, a panist by choice, in her own right?”

Angela H. - “Don’t take pan for granted. We have now lived through a season without it, so enjoy it as much as we can, because it might not always be here. She also knows the importance of patience and cooperation in teaching others the music. We are only as good as we all make each other.”

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

Angela H. - “We will only be able to push forward together if we capitalize on the talents and skill sets of everyone within the community. Let’s identify capable people and deploy them to help stabilize then transform.”

WST - “What is next for Angela Howard?”

Angela H. - “I have been working on a documentary about Clive Bradley VERY slowly, but I am determined to complete this project. I think we have to tell our stories to one another and film is a good medium for this. As a player, I am probably on my downward descendency, but I plan on playing until I can’t any more.”

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

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