WST - “What were your earliest experiences with Pan?”
Nicole A. - “I grew up with members of my family watching the Panorama competition every single year. They would have heated debates over which band performed better. I however, didn’t understand it! To me, it was just a whole lot of noise with no sense to it at all. When I turned 14, one of my favorite songs was ‘Somewhere Out There’ by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram. I knew it word for word, and one morning I heard the school steelband playing this song. I literally learned to play pan just to play that song. That was it! I was hooked! I have been playing ever since.”
WST - “You are a proud member of Valley Harps Steel Orchestra - talk about this experience through the years?”
Nicole A. - “I have been a member of Valley Harps for approximately 13 years. Being a part of Valley Harps I suppose, is like being a part of any family. Sometimes we get along great, other times we don’t but in the end the music keeps us together. Again like a family, sometimes you can’t live with them but at the same time you can’t live without them either.”
WST - “Do you perform with Valley Harps throughout the year? If so, contrast these occasions with the annual Panorama season.”
Nicole A. - “Yes I am a year-round member of Valley Harps. Panorama season is a much more intense experience than during the year. Everything from the music to the practice hours to the actual practice sessions go into overdrive. It is also a much more tiring time for members!”
WST - “Being female, were you initially cautioned or perhaps even dissuaded in any way, from becoming involved in the steelband art form?”
Nicole A. - “Funny enough I wasn’t discouraged by my family, they were very supportive of me playing, especially my mother. The person who actively discouraged me from sticking with playing pan was my Form Teacher at the Comprehensive school I was attending at the time. She basically told me that I would start ‘looking for man,’ get pregnant and drop out of school. If I did manage to make it through school then I would most definitely fail all my exams.
“I proved her wrong on all counts and still played pan during school, taking part in two school panoramas before moving on to play with Potential Symphony for a number of years and the San Juan All Stars.
“A different form of dissuasion came from the early years of playing with a band outside of school. I encountered men at that time who still viewed female players as fair game. I was told that I would have to give a kiss or a ‘feel up’ or something to that effect if I wanted music to be passed on to me. I never gave into this and there were always other male players who would pass on music without trying to use it for perverse purposes. That experience made it a little difficult to stick with it but I loved what I was doing and that was stronger in the end.”
WST - “Do any of your family members play pan?”
Nicole A. - “Yes they do! Two out of my three brothers play! So does my sister and at least one of my cousins. I have to confess that I, being the oldest, basically bullied them into it! Now they love it as much as I do though.”
WST - “What keeps your passion for pan going?”
Nicole A. - “Playing pan is my therapy, my ultimate relaxation, my one constant throughout the years. I don’t think I can properly explain the feeling I get from playing. You know those players that jump and wine, stand up on the stands while performing? Well I am not one of those, on the outside that is, but on the inside when I am playing I am doing all those things and more. I have not been able to find a single thing that duplicates that feeling for me.”
WST - “Who/what are your musical influences?”
Nicole A. - “Firstly, I love my culture! I love calypso including social commentary (Heather McIntosh, Kurt Allen, Singing Sandra, Sugar Aloes, etc.); I love soca (Superblue my all-time favorite, Kes, Nadia Batson, Baron, Black Stalin, etc.! That I think is my biggest influence. But, I also love music in general! Swamp Dog, Kenny Rogers, Bruno Mars, TLC, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, Tina Turner! The list can go on and on. I LOVE MUSIC. All genres, heavy metal being the one exception, I just don’t consider that to be music at all. As long as it is good music, you got me.”
WST - “What have you been most proud about as it relates to pan?”
Nicole A. - “The fact that our collective creativity as a people could produce such beautiful music makes me proud. We have a lot of talented people in Trinidad and Tobago and pan is one of the ways where our talent as a people is highlighted.”
WST - “What about the Pan fraternity do you find most disappointing?”
Nicole A. - “Lately the amount of controversy that has been plaguing Pan Trinbago, as the governing body for steelpan.”
WST - “What is Panorama to you, personally?”
Nicole A. - “Panorama for me personally is just a great outlet, a great big woosah! A time to do what I love doing the most and share it with an entire community of people that feels the same way about it.”
WST - “Overall, is it (Panorama) a curse or blessing from your perspective?”
Nicole A. - “I believe for the most part it is a blessing because it is the biggest showcase for steelbands and panists yearly.”
WST - “Carnival, Mas, Pan and Calypso are great Trinidad and Tobago exports. What would be your greatest concerns regarding their present states, respectively?”
Nicole A. - “I believe, where all four are concerned, that we are losing the creativity behind these events. For example, I find it difficult these past few years distinguishing one Mas band from another. Is just feathers, feathers, beads, and more feathers.”
WST - “What is your vision for Pan in Trinidad & Tobago a decade from now?”
Nicole A. - “I would hope that the wider community, not just the pan fraternity, starts giving pan the respect it deserves as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. That they recognize that when they invite us to perform at an event that, yes, we should be considered artists as well, and be shown the same respect as the other performers.”
WST - “If you could change one thing about Pan what would that be?”
Nicole A. - “The way the average panist is viewed by band Managers, Captains, etc. In my opinion, they expect loyalty, long hours and sacrifice. We make the least amount of money in the pan fraternity (and I am not talking about the Dane Gulstons, etc., of the pan fraternity) and this is something that we accept for the most part because we understand what it is all about.
“The problem is though, most of us also feel like we don’t get any appreciation from these same people that expect so much from us. We are treated with a ‘So what’ attitude, and even though it is not said, it is usually implied. So what if you have to bring your children to the panyard, so what if you have to get up early in the morning. So what if you have school. The implication is you are only a player and you can be replaced. So what if I short-pay you with absolutely no explanation. So what, don’t play - somebody else will!
“Then there are the ones who give you lip service! Acting like the average politician, spouting a lot of nice words with no real meaning behind it. They say they appreciate your time and effort while at the same time their actions show you different and they think you won’t notice!
“I know a lot of skilled panists who still have a few good performing years in them and they just stopped. Ask them why, and their reply is usually that they are not motivated anymore. They don’t make any money out of it and they feel severely underappreciated and disrespected. Panists are expected to give and then give some more and don’t dare complain about it. However, there really is little motivation to do that - except for the love for what you do, and for a lot of us that is no longer enough. This needs to change because without the average panists, there is no band to manage or captain and no band to arrange for.”
WST - “What advice would you give to young and upcoming females who would like to follow in your footsteps as a female steelpan musician?”
Nicole A. - “Like any panist, male or female, you have to love it! It is not something you can do because you are bored or because you just don’t have anything better to do. It takes up a lot of your time and energy so you have to really love it to be able to stick with it.”
WST - “After playing Pan for some time, several young adults eventually cease playing. Do you have any plans in this regard?”
Nicole A. - “I am not sure this question applies to me as I have been playing for at least 29+ years now and still going!”
all photos by and © Stephane Gondange
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