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Day in the life of a Pannist: “Pan is a 24 hour job; when I sleep, I dream about things for the band!”

“Let me tell you the honest truth. It’s a 24 hour job. When you work in the panyard for 12 hours and go to sleep, you dream about things for the band and the players…

“Ideas are always popping up in my mind. I’m never satisfied with something. I always believe that it can be improved 100 times over.”

Wired868 highlights the day-to-day lives of everyday Trinbagonians in our ongoing series entitled: ‘A day in the life…’

Today, we talk to a 74 year old pannist who finds his way back to Trinidad to compete in Panorama every year, despite having migrated to the United States several decades ago:

Photo: Members from the Despers Steel Orchestra rehearse for the 2019 Panorama competition.
(Copyright Maria Nunes)

How long have you been a pannist?

Since I was 13 years old; so that’s about 60 years.

Who inspired you to become a pannist?

My Father, Lennard Flanders. He was a musician. He played the banjo. I can also play the banjo, guitar and the cuatro.

Which steelpan bands have you played for?

I played for the Trinidad Valley Harps, Guinness Cavaliers, Maritime Life Hatters and BWIA Sonatas (NYC). I play for the Trinidad Valley Harps at present.

Have you ever won a major competition?

(Chuckles) All the bands I’ve played with [in Trinidad] always place second; we never placed first! Every year we would place second to the top bands such as Fonclair and All Stars. Although we never placed first, we are one of the most recognised bands in the country.

However, I played in a steelpan band in New York that won six Panorama competitions there. The music was arranged by my very good friend, the late Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore.

Photo: Late steelpan legend “Professor” Ken Philmore.
(Copyright Steelpan Authority)

What is it like preparing for the Carnival season at your pan yard?

Let me tell you the honest truth. It’s a 24 hour job. When you work in the pan yard for 12 hours and go to sleep, you dream about things for the band and the players. For example, if I think the pans should be painted in a different colour for the panorama competition, then so be it. The next morning when I wake up, I’d start to repaint the pans.

Ideas are always popping up in my mind. I’m never satisfied with something. I always believe that it can be improved 100 times over.

Are you married? Do you have children?

I am not married. I have three children though; two boys and one girl—all of whom live in New York.

Do they play the steelpan as well?

They love the art-form but they don’t play. My daughter was exposed to it [the most and] would always come to support me when I played both in New York and Trinidad. My sons however; one was born in America and the other was not with me most of the time I was playing pan.

How did you balance living abroad with your personal life and your love for pan?  

I was employed with the Port Authorities of New York and New Jersey as an electrician. I used to come to Trinidad three times for the year. Those three times would be: Christmas, Carnival and for the Point Fortin Borough day.

How I used to schedule my time was like this: I used to work over-time on my job and make up hours so I could have been able to get five to six weeks off to come to Trinidad. Those six weeks would be split up into three with Carnival getting the most time so I was able to rehearse for competitions.

It was challenging at times because after I play pan and hop on a plane back to America, I’d go straight from the plane to the port and start my shift—no sleep, nothing.

Everyone knew my love for pan and helped in every way possible. I am retired now but of course I still play pan.

What is the most rewarding thing about being a pannist?

Knowing that I play an instrument that is like no other in the world. As the late Ken ‘Professor’ Philmore said: “This is a wonderful instrument!”

What is the most challenging thing about being a pannist?

The most challenging thing would have to be being able to please the judges and the public. I think one of the things judges look for is support from the crowd. The crowd feeds on the performance and in so doing drives the pannist to play their best. I also think [judges] look at the arrangement and how the performance sounds in general.

Photo: The La Horquetta Pan Groove steelpan orchestra respond to a conductor.
(Courtesy Annalicia Caruth/Wired868)

Can you share with us one memory of playing steelpan that stands out from the others?

One memory that stands out was playing pan for a Mother’s Day event at Madison Square Garden in New York. I can’t remember the exact year but I played with the BWIA Sonatas and the Garden was filled with people!

There were a few of my calypsonian friends who came from Trinidad like the late ‘Shadow’ and ‘The Mighty Duke’. Seeing them there in New York supporting the steelpan made me feel happy on the inside. We placed second in that competition.

What keeps you motivated?

Children. The children here at the pan yard, the secondary school steelpan band and the church group band, which I am all currently teaching. As long as they are around, I am motivated to carry on.

Where do you see yourself as a pannist in the next three to five years?

I see myself teaching this art form to children as long as I am alive. In the next three years, I want to be able to carry my community steelpan group to play in an international competition [abroad].

About Amelia Tilkaran

Amelia Tilkaran
Amelia Tilkaran is a Wired868 intern who is pursuing a BA in Journalism and Media at COSTAATT. Apart from academics, she loves experimenting with ingredients in the kitchen to create her own recipes. Outside of the classroom, she loves photography, the beach and exploring hidden gems in and around our beautiful twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

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18 comments

  1. I really liked how the focus was not just on pan but the passion and drive behind wanting to play. Goes to show that despite one’s age the desire to do what you love never dies. Hope to read more articles from you in the future Amelia. Trinidad has so many stories that are worth telling!

  2. This article emphasis the importance of being passionate towards your dreams. Those dedication doesn’t go away with age.. but are refined and matured just as fine wine the older they become. I enjoyed reading that people of our national still embodies Ambition and Persistent to improve their skills wether it’s the Pannist stating that his dream.. his Passion is a 24hr job that can always be improved a 100 times over; to a budding Journalist as Amelia that focus on educating us as citizens of Trinidad and Tobago that there are still Positive and Motivated news in our nation to be Reported. Thank you so much for your inspirational Article and I look forward to reading more from you Amelia. Keep up the excellent work.

    • Amelia Tilkaran

      Thank you Matthew for your kind comment. I do believe that journalism isn’t about getting the most sensational story to the public but to also highlight the ones that are meaningful and add positivity to the society in some way or the other. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and thank you for taking the time to read it.

  3. This is an interesting story. It is nice to hear our local instrument the steel pan talked about so passionately.
    Very interesting article.

  4. Hannibal Najjar

    I will read this interview later. All that I can say, as much as I love football, being a footballer, coaching football, travelled the world because of it, met thousands upon thousands, was inspired by scores, and inspired throusands upon thousands, I still tell myself, “oh, how I wish I could play that instrument!” I own a tenor pan and occasionally, in my basement, I’ll pick songs read from a learner’s manual and it moves me to think just how tallented our pannist are. I love the music and when that one rubber touches a note, like a deer’s hearing and nose’s sniffing, I spin to locate its whereabouts. Beautiful is its sound. That’s the Trini in me.

  5. Migrated Trinbagonians have have been doing our job at spreading our home culture with integrity.

  6. Loving these interviews. More please.

  7. Lasana, when yuh going tuh feature a Day in the life of a TTFA employee?