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Pan In Her Blood


Young Amanda Lawrence in The Spotlight


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Canefield, Dominica, W.I. – Amanda’s mother, Gemma Lawrence, confesses to having listened to a lot of Beethoven and other composers and performers during her pregnancy sixteen years ago, and attributes her daughter’s love affair with music to this fact.  The fifteen-year old Amanda, a Form Five student, is currently studying for the Grade 6 level in music exams, and not too long ago aced Grade 5 with a perfect score of 100, never before achieved by anyone in the island of Dominica.  To say that her parents are proud would be to state the obvious.

Amanda is a student at Orion Academy located in Canfield, Dominica, a secondary [high] school community in existence for about five years.  For the past two years, the institution has been located in a building that was once a nightclub.  The classes are small in size and allow for quality interaction between students and teachers.  This is a non-governmental school run by a board of seven trustees, and operating under a unique initiative. This group of individuals decided to meet head on and share in, the responsibility of graduating students on the national level who are, as they see it, better equipped to serve their country.  The school’s syllabus includes a variety of different subjects, some not initially offered in the regular government schools – such as music and civics.  And even though it is an ongoing financial challenge, through the efforts of the board and with government assistance, the school continues along its chosen path as a determined and contributing educational institution.

Gemma Lawrence who is chairperson of the school, says that the creative force behind Orion Academy, sprung from the opinion that “students/citizens” were completing their education in Dominica, but still “knew nothing about being good citizens…[they] were just turning out being dependent on the government,” and not being properly prepared for being “good mothers, fathers…responsible members of society.”  Orion Academy’s ultimate vision is to produce well–rounded individuals who are ‘civic-minded,’ so the school remains a source of potential wealth for the nation by grooming its boys and girls into promising and competent youths.  And Amanda is just one of the products of the institution.

The young musician joined the Brizee’s Cultural Drama Club at a very young age, around six or seven.  Already playing the piano and recorder, it was with the drama club that she was first introduced to the steelpan.  Now, many years later, Amanda says she has noticed and appreciates the advantages of being a pianist, in conjunction with being a pan player.  Because of her background in piano, she has observed the resultant latitude afforded her in creativity, in grasping of harmonies, the use of chord structures and the like.  She notes that she understands better the family of steelpan instruments, and how they interplay with each other, and the music comes to her more easily as a result.

The double second pan became her main instrument through the drama club.  Amanda recalls that at its inception, all the club’s members were ‘tiny’ and their pans, at that point were just their size – just like the ‘souvenir’ type miniature steelpans. Amanda’s were put on a bookshelf for her to play, and she even remembers the first song the diminutive club members learnt – Lord Kitchener’s Sugar Bum Bum.

Asked about the importance of Brizee’s Cultural Drama Club, and its impact on her life, Amanda responded, “The drama club to me is like a family; we have our own little unit, we’re all friends – you get to meet people – and then, because you’re with them all the time, doing this thing that you all love, you have this in common.  There is this bond that you have.  Aunty Anna [Anna-Maria Raffoul, founder of the [drama club], she’s like the supportive mother.”  The drama club has also afforded the young lady the opportunity and challenge of arranging.  She is presently working on Alicia Keys’ hit song ‘No One’ for the group.

Her travels to St. Lucia to play with Digicel Pan Times steel orchestra for Panorama from 2005 — 2007, are experiences which Amanda finds very different to pan in Dominica, and almost indescribable. The young pannist found it literally mind–blowing to be playing with a full–sized steel orchestra.  Her eyes lit up as she talked about “fifteen year-olds playing with forty–year olds – such a range of pans!”  There are no seven–bass, or nine–bass instruments in Dominica, and only one set of quadraphonic pans on the island. “To go down there [St. Lucia] with all these opportunities – I really don’t know how to describe it…it’s wild!”

Her mom Gemma exasperatingly but laughingly interjected here “Let me just tell you something about this child that is driving her father and myself absolutely crazy: [we would ask] ‘Mandy, what about Physics – (sigh from Mandy); what about Math (sigh from Mandy); and then you say the word “PAN” {Mandy’s countenance radiates and she transforms!).”  In St. Lucia for 2007 Amanda happily had in tow one of her friends and fellow drama club member, tenor player Nicole Tom, who according to Amanda, is just as dedicated and interested in pan.

Amanda has also been fortunate to visit Trinidad in 2005 along with her drama club band mates. There, they took in the junior panorama competition – with the orchestras in the under–twenty–one age group carrying the full one hundred musician–complement, and being an even greater source of steelpan wonder to them all.  She reminisces that on the way to the junior panorama, their group saw one of the twelve-basses that are characteristic of one of Trinidad’s conventional steel orchestras, Harmonites.  One of the drama club’s bass players exclaimed “I want to play that!”  The group did not stay for the main panorama competition, but did have time to visit one of the orchestras’ pan yards during practice.

In light of her experiences, Amanda would love to be one of the innovators of pan on the island of Dominica, and to play a pivotal role in bringing the instrument back into prominence, once more featuring larger steel orchestras.  Asked about the possibility of a few of Dominica’s steelpan groups coming together for a single performance – Amanda mused about the concept of Cool Steel, Genesis and Brizee’s Cultural Drama Club coming together (as three of the island’s more active groups), for the nation’s upcoming Independence celebration in November 2008.  “It would be great to get the younger people with the new ideas and the older people with their experience together.”

Graduation from Orion Academy is just around the corner, and for now with college on the horizon Amanda has set her sights on music as a minor, but is as yet unsure what her major would be.  She does admit though, that could she be sure of music as a viable source of income, it would be her major!  For now, she is awaiting responses from colleges in the United States to which she has applied; one thing is for certain – her beloved double seconds pans are traveling with her to college.

Amanda remains firm in the knowledge that the steelpan would be central in her life as she matures, and looks forward to joining the ranks of those who are industry professionals in their chosen fields, by day, and gifted steelpan musicians ‘by night.’


contact: Gemma Lawrence | email:

contact: Dominica Steelband Association | Anna Raffoul, President; Founder, Brizee’s Cultural Drama Club | email:  | tel: (767) 448 2622

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