Earl La Pierre, Sr. – a panman’s life

By Lincoln DePradine

Earl La Pierre

Earl La Pierre, Sr., a veteran, renowned in the steelpan movement in Trinidad and globally, has given a mixed review on the state of the musical artform. One of the things he welcomes is the United Nations-backed “World Steelpan Day’’, which was observed for the first time ever on August 11.

“This was the best thing that ever happened for pan,’’ La Pierre told The Caribbean Camera. “You know how long we’ve been trying to push this instrument – the only instrument created in the 20th century – as one of the best.’’

Pan, according to the UN, “possesses cultural and historical significance and correlates to cultural, social and economic development’’; and, as well, “promotes inclusive societies, sustainable communities and the creative economy and can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being, gender equality and youth empowerment’’.

The observance of “World Steelpan Day’’ included band performances in various countries and cities, including Toronto.

La Pierre has utilized his talent with several steelbands including Metronomes, Starlift, Phase II and Harmonites. However, he has fond memories of his early involvement with Shell Invaders.

“Shell Invaders was my main band. I was one of the youngest arrangers in Trinidad to arrange for a big band,’’ said La Pierre, who also has arranged for Toronto’s Afropan since the band’s founding.

The band’s pioneers were formerly associated with the Harriet Tubman Centre, with Afropan established in 1973 and winning Toronto’s panorama the same year with a rendition of the late Lord Kitchener’s “Rain-O-Rama’’.

Afropan – popularly referred to as “The People’s Band” – was third this year at the “Pan Alive’’ panorama. “We played well, the band looked good and for the 50th year, we were sounding really, really good,’’ La Pierre said.

Promoting “interest in, and appreciation of, steelband music’’ is listed as part of Afropan’s mission.

The band is also dedicated to using pan music “as a medium to develop life skills among youth learners’’; developing “collaborative programs and partnerships with other community groups interested in steelband art and culture’’; and encouraging “community integration and collaboration in music with youth, adults and seniors’’.

According to La Pierre, it’s a “very good feeling’’ to mark a half-century of Afropan. “The band is celebrating 50, with 28 wins,’’ he said.

Thirteen times, said La Pierre, Afropan has placed second at panorama in Toronto; and four times, it has finished in fourth position.

“I don’t complain when the judges give me first, second, third or whatever,’’ La Pierre said in an interview at an Afropan event last Sunday in Toronto.

The band was hosting its second annual “Last Lap Blocko’’ on Mowat Avenue.

La Pierre’s main income source is in the Cayman Islands, where he performs professionally as a pannist and also teaches pan to six bands and to students at middle school, secondary school and college.

Students with the North York and Toronto school boards also benefitted from La Pierre’s tutoring in the art of pan musicianship.

La Pierre, however, laments the state of the current schools’ pan program, saying “it has died’’.

Some steel orchestras participating in competition also are “really suffering’’, said La Pierre, pointing to Afropan itself.

“We need a venue where all the steelbands can get together and put on functions,’’ he suggested.

In the specific case of Afropan, the band is without a permanent enclosed structure to house its instruments.

The efforts at finding a place include a letter written to the City of Toronto, requesting the use of a site under a bridge at the Gardiner Expressway.

“I would like to store the instruments under the Gardiner bridge, where they store things for the CNE exhibition. We applied but they haven’t answered us as yet,’’ said La Pierre.

“We can’t get a place to practice at all. We need a little warehouse, so that we can teach pan in the day, teach pan in the night and then we could practice.’’