Celebration of Women and the Steelpan Art Form

 

Tribute To Women In Pan

 

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Meet Jovanka Williams - Guyana

“I love performing and entertaining people. Seeing the joy on their faces when we play is priceless. On the other hand, being able to educate the nation’s future and somehow play a part in the maintenance of the artform is also priceless....” 

She is a respected member of the National Steel Orchestra of Guyana. In addition she has experienced many aspects of the steelband music industry as both an educator and touring musician. In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks - Jovanka Williams shares her feelings, experiences, and insight into the Steelband music art form and more...

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

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WST - “Tell us about Jovanka Williams?”

Jovanka W. - “Jovanka Williams is a 26-year-old Double Second player, 5-time duet champion, 4-time senior solo champion, steelpan teacher and mentor. A member of three bands: Parkside Steel Orchestra, Kunjaz Ensemble and the National Steel Orchestra. Finally, a University of Guyana graduate with a Diploma in Marketing and a Degree in Business Management.”


WST - “When and how did you first become aware of the steelpan instrument?”

Jovanka W. - “I was about six years old when I first discovered the instrument. My mother took me with her to a Church Seminar in Trinidad, and a woman from the Church suggested to her that I learn to play pan while she was in her daily sessions. It’s history from that point on because luckily for me when I returned to Guyana, there was a Steelband housed in my Primary school, and they were looking for students to start a Junior band. Of course I was excited to be able to continue to learn more about this wonderful instrument.”


WST - “Talk a bit about steelband in Guyana in general.”

Jovanka W. - “In Guyana, Steelpan had its ups and downs. Currently, we’re at our strongest ever with over fifteen school bands and three large bands. Every year we have our Panorama competition which sees an increase in support and in participation.”

Jovanka Williams (center)
Jovanka Williams (center)

WST - “You are a member of the Guyana National Steel Orchestra. How did that come about and talk about your experiences and travels with the orchestra?”

Jovanka W. - “Guyana hosted Carifesta 10; with that the National Steel Orchestra (NSO) was formed and members from all bands in the country were asked to come together to form the one-hundred-piece band. I was elated to be a part of something so monumental in Guyana. Since joining NSO, we have travelled to Suriname, French Guiana, Haiti, Barbados, and of course many regions in Guyana. I love performing overseas because of the reactions and love we get from our audiences. In most cases, many people have never seen the instrument before and are very curious as to how the unique sound is produced. So that first look of amazement on their faces always makes me smile. For others, they would get up and dance to our music and encourage others to.”


WST - “In your opinion, what is the greatest challenge Pan faces in Guyana?”

Jovanka W. - “Availability of pan tutors and builders may be one of Guyana’s greatest challenges to date. Many tutors cater to two schools at a time while builders are limited and overwhelmed with large projects to complete in short time frames.”


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

Jovanka W. - “My favourite arranger is Len “Boogsie” Sharpe. Since I was introduced to steelpan he was my mentor and I was intrigued by his arrangements, especially his Panorama pieces.”


WST - “You are both a performing panist and educator. Which do you prefer?”

Jovanka Williams
Jovanka

Jovanka W. - “That is a tricky one. I love performing and entertaining people. Seeing the joy on their faces when we play is priceless. On the other hand, being able to educate the nation’s future and somehow play a part in the maintenance of the artform is also priceless. Overall, I might like being a panist a bit more.”


WST - “What is the greatest challenge facing this current generation of steelpan musicians from both an educator’s perspective and that of a player?”

Jovanka W. - “Finances and availability of students. While there has been a significant increase in bands in the country, there is a limited supply of educators, and many work extra hours at multiple schools at a time, and sadly the compensation does not suit the workload. [Also] Steelpan classes are in direct competition with after school lessons and sports, which can cause wavering attendance and lack of dedication.”


WST - “What keeps your passion for the instrument, the music and art form going”

Jovanka W. - “The joy and excitement on our audiences’ faces when we perform.”


WST - “Are there any other instruments you play?”

Jovanka W. - “I recently started learning how to play drums and once I attempted the 5-string bass guitar.”

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

Jovanka W. - “LOL, feels like a Miss Universe question. If I could change anything immediately it would definitely be to increase the pan builder and tuner community in Guyana. This can be done by introducing courses locally or investing in persons to study this craft in Trinidad through exchange programs.”


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

Jovanka W. - “I am proud that the artform has attracted and kept many female players. Pan in Guyana was formally known as a “man’s arena,” but now that stereotype has ended, thankfully.”


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

Jovanka W. - “The lack of proper appreciation of the artform. As miniscule as it may seem, some persons still view the artform as something for the poor and uneducated.

“On the contrary, I have had the pleasure of performing with doctors, pilots, engineers and numerous graduates of the University of Guyana.”

Jovanka Williams (center)
Jovanka Williams (center)

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

Jovanka W. - “Yes, definitely yes!!! Women have surpassed expectations by entering fields once thought to be for men only such as engineering, disciplinary services, etc., and excelling at same. With regards to the [steelband] artform, women across the world have been outstanding and even front runners in the artform at a competitive level through leaderships and championships.”


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

Jovanka W. - “From day one, I was always encouraged to push myself and to be the best female player and musician. Steelpan had a stigma attached to it, but that has since ended thanks to the persons who enrolled us into the artform, and we the members as well. It is no longer a “poor man past time” but an instrument that provides many opportunities and can be compared to other conventional instruments.”


WST - “What would be your advice to the thousands of young female panists all over the world who are dreaming of becoming involved with the steelpan instrument as a career move?”

Jovanka W. - “Just do it! Do not hesitate! Start putting in the work. The instrument has scope to allow career-building whether it be as a soloist or in a combo. The entertainment sector has been open to live music forever and the steelpan has made its claim as an international leader in entertainment. It’s just fascinating!”


WST - “What is Panorama to you?”

Jovanka W. - “Panorama is the big leagues. It’s when you and your closest friends become enemies just for 2 months or so because we’re in different bands and want ours to win. In Guyana, we have 2 nights of competition, so on those nights, everyone brings their “A” game in hopes of topping the other competitors.”


WST - “Overall, is Panorama a curse or blessing from your perspective?”

Jovanka W. - “Nothing but a blessing. Even though we are in competitive modes, it’s great to have everyone in one space, enjoying the music and the company of band members and supporters. On these days we learn a lot about others and even ourselves.”

Jovanka Williams with Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, center
Jovanka Williams at right, with legendary music icon Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, center

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

Jovanka W. - “In Guyana, I’d love to see the instrument impact more schools, communities and “at risk” youths. This would ensure growth and stability of the artform. Internationally, awareness and appreciation of the artform.”


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

Jovanka W. - “It would be nice to have more International Steelband competitions and exchange programs.”


photos provided by Jovanka Williams


   Jovanka Williams rehearses with the National Steel Orchestra of Guyana in preparation for the Carifesta festival




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