When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

Recently, a call came in – someone was looking for a steel drum player for a local gig, and was referred to this one “working panman" from Trinidad; a Florida resident, and one of Boogsie's "crackshot" tenor pan players for Phase II. Negotiations were going great, and the two parties arranged to meet to seal the deal. On meeting the intended entertainer, the client declined to enter into a contractual agreement, because this particular panman, happened to be of Chinese descent, and they (the clients) were "looking for someone more authentic".

A White American pan professional entered into a contract to do an event for a client. This client, had absolutely no problem with this entertainer's ethnicity, and all systems were a "go" for the scheduled performance. As this performer was about to begin his set, a representative of the "employer", requested that this US panist/pannist/steel drum player, don a fake dreadlock wig during the performance. Offended, this artiste refused to become a gimmick act, regardless of what they were willing to pay him.

I have written about my being offended, whenever I do show with the fake coconut trees, and requests for "Island wear", which is assumed to be a Hawaiian shirt and white slacks. I often have to remind would-be clients, that I am not from Hawaii, and in Trinidad & Tobago, entertainers used to dress like that during the colonial days of yore; that we now wear designer clothing like other entertainers, if we choose to. We are no longer "Merrymen" and "Tradewinds", and the steel drum – pan – is not a genre but an instrument, used in a variety of contexts, from classical, to the various jazz forms, to R & B, to rock. Et cetera.

Indeed, the steelbands of long ago would wear “uniforms”, and I agree that a band looks more professional when the members wear similar outfits. However, I think that the time to end the "exotic" stereotyping of the steel drum performer is upon us – a more international and "universal" fraternity, and until we are no longer seen as Caribbean props (e.g. Black, dreadlocks, coconut trees, steel drum) for the entertainment of the elite and snobbish, we will continue to be no more than “minstrels”. And, that’s regardless of how “fine-tuned” and “advanced” our instruments become.

Yours Forever In Pan,

Pan’tum – The Ghost Who Talks. Honoring the Legacy of George “Sonny” Goddard.


Views: 449

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

Well said Pantum, I couldn't agree with you more.

LOL! This is an issue that's as funny as it is serious and needs to be addressed. Actually it's long overdue. perhaps Hollywood has a lot to do with this stereotype, because of some of the hary belafonte type movies of the late 50's and early 60's. 

Pan players aren't the only ones affected by this, as Cuban musicians have also been afflicted with this Hawaiian/cross tropical  stereo type of Hawaiian shirts, with white shoe and pants.

I never came across this until I hit LA, but fighting against it was futile. But the London pan scene is much worse, as it not only pigeonholes us as far as dress, but musical style as well.

Has anything ever  been done to promote a modern image of the steel band? I've lived in the US for over forty years, and I've never seen an image of a modern steelband on TV or even in the movies.

Has anyone ever seen a  Panorama or Music festival steel band on any TV show? Even Public TV?

Maybe in New York, I don't know, but definitely not in most of the US.

As long as this is the case, the stereotypical image is the first one to come to the mind of anyone unfamiliar with the steel band movement, and you really can't blame them.

Sometimes we pan people still live in a (pan) bubble, and we forget that most of the world  know little about us.

It is up to us to fight the stereotypes by finding ways to promote our music and instruments in main stream media.

As a matter of fact, I have yet to see steel band music reviewed or promoted in music publications- newspapers and magazines.

The burden is on us to figure out ways to raise our profile in the mainstream media, so that mention of the steel band would evoke modern images of today's panists, not the old traditional stereotypes.

This is a very interesting topic that has really gotten me thinking since it was posted. I have always been one to support to demolition of such awful stereotypes as the hawaiian shirt, straw hat, rasta wig, and over all tropical scene. Upon talking with my brother today (professional musician that performs with piano, saxophone, accordion, and more) I came to realize that he deals with a lot of similar issues. He plays everything from dueling pianos and Frank Sinatra, to jazz quartets and big band, to polka and oompa bands. For each one of those different acts, he has a certain outfit that he wears to complete the entertainer package. For the piano gigs he wears music suspenders and a brimmed hat. For jazz he wears a white shirt and a skinny black tie. For polka and oompa he wears lederhosen. He recently did a St. Patrick's Day party and wore a green top hat, red beard, and played the penny whistle. It is all part of the entertainer package. Unfortunately, for us, most Americans have not realized that the pan can play something other than "caribbean" music. Another unfortunate issue for performing panists is that many Americans do not differentiate warm climate from caribbean. To many people in America a Hawaiian shirt does not represent Hawaii, it represents warm sunny weather and the ocean, nothing more, nothing less. The same applies for the straw hat and rasta wigs. 

In regards to GHOST's statements above, I can certainly relate. I have personally had a gig that my employer requested that I wear a rasta tam with fake dreads. I told them that is a completely inaccurate stereotype and that I will not do it. What I did do though, is that I wore a red, white, and black tam. Why? Because that gig put food in my mouth and I needed to keep my employer satisfied. When push came to shove, they did not care about the dreads or the rasta colors. They just wanted something that reminded them of warm weather. This gig was in Michigan for New Year's Eve, so my employer just wanted the guests to "feel warm."

Don't get me wrong, I still am not a supporter of these inaccurate stereotypical clichés that performing panists have to endure. I am afraid though, that without popular culture stepping in and promoting the steelpan in different ways, the only thing that we can do is wait. While we are waiting, we will have to decide if we, the educated and informed performing panists, will compromise on the visual clichés in order to continue to sneak in different genres of music hoping that somebody out there is actually listening with their ears instead of their eyes. Or do we choose a different way to pay our bills in order to give us the luxury of refusing paying performances because of visual (and probably acoustical) stereotypes? Keep in mind, that if we don't show our listeners what the pan is capable of at every event, nobody will. Employers will always find some hard-pressed musician that is willing to do whatever it takes to eat that week, or pan will just not be present at all. Here are some questions we all need to answer:

If I compromise on my appearance, and take on the entertainer persona, can I educate people with my voice and my instrument?

If I do not compromise my appearance, can I eat?

If I do not compromise my appearance, will some other, less qualified, person take my spot?

If I do not compromise my appearance and some other, less qualified, person takes my spot, will the steelpan community as a whole be hurt?

I think these are very personal questions that everyone will differ on. I try to avoid performing in Hawaiian shirts, straw hats, etc. like the plague. I always talk to my employer upfront and explain that what they say they are looking for and what they mean they are looking for are two different things. I usually end up educated my employer about Trinidad and the steelpan. I typically have to make some compromises to my show, but I also educate my audience. 

Matt you made some valid points. Sometimes musicians are apart of an exotic prop, I guess it comes down to how hungry the musician is because we all know the employer WILL find someone to take the job.

Yes I have had this too. In the past I have been asked whether I am authentic. As I play a mixture of panorama, soca, calypso and other styles I said yes - but what did they mean by "authentic"? They meant the colour of my skin, and when they found out I was white, then I lost the job. And in this country you are allowed to discriminate by race in the case of "entertainers" and "actors". I think that pan will always have a problem as people want to see acts (and yes most employers for parties etc want "acts" rather than "musicians") that fulfil stereotypes. What would people think if you hired an Irish band and a bunch of Asians turned up? Most people don't know that Trinidad is very mixed racially and really do expect that pan-players are all African-descended males.I am lucky in that my credentials are such that I do get gigs, but I ALWAYS get asked about why as a white  person I play this instrument. 

I think we just have to keep chipping away, playing well, refuse to wear the most foolish items of clothing, and be respectful to the instrument and its culture, and continue to be a good ambassador for pan and TnT, and eventually things will change.

Hence, the backstabbing, Cecil. I am NEVER too "hungry", to "gain the World and lose my soul". Should a female university student sell her body to help pay for college? I could NEVER go hungry, for it is written that "not one of My Seed, shall sit on the sidewalk and beg bread". Of course, there will always be someone who is willing to be exploited, ill-treated, disrespected, and stereotyped, for a "fistful of dollars", but at the end of the day, it is the one who stays true to principle, that has the respect of the industry. Stevie Wonder is the quintessential example, and in the pan fraternity, Othello Mollineaux comes to mind. Will share a story, when I return...GHOST.

Well i had tried before to give an explantion, never succeded,nevertheless,after reading all of the comments,,,,as far as i,m concerned, no one would be giving me a costume of a monkey,a comedian or whatever to wear and stand behind a Pan,,Steelpan and perform,,,to the point,,one Must Get Job,,if ever they aren,t a professional Steelpan Player with contact and connections to earn a regular livelihood,,Respect the Steelpan ,,, PERIOD,,,,a very good topic that the Ghost Who Speaks has raised,,,,there are those that may use the Steelpan for the purpose of specially trying to make a living,  financial gains,,,,seeing the same as a money making something,,well THE STEELPAN YOU HAVE GOT TO FEEL IT,,,  RESPECT   IT,,???????? PAN GOT A  HISTORICAL   BACKGROUND,,,Respect for all  and GOD   BLESS.


© 2021   Created by When Steel Talks.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service