Pan rising in Toronto

By Ken Bruzual

While snowflakes may descend gently and come to rest lightly, starlets burst very brightly and engage the eyes and mind intensely. So when these two occurrences coincide, like rare eclipses, the spectacle is astonishing. Such can be the perception drawn from the performances and the experiences of the audience at the 21st. annual Snowflakes On Steel Concert held in Toronto recently.

The Pan Arts Network (PAN)  which produced the event, continues to show its determination to lift the artistry of pannists in Canada  to higher  levels. PAN Executive Wendy Jones certainly gave the audience the hope of enjoying even much more in the future .She also give the orchestras, their arrangers, pannists, percussionists, tuners, vocalists, wind artists and the pan community  the hope of providing them with their own quality arts theatre.

Each of the steelbands at the concert  – Oshawa Sounds of Steel, Panatics, Gemini Pan Groove and Pan Fantasy validated  itself  as progressive, capable and dependable by their performances. Arrangers appeared to be quite pleased with the performances of each band which used only traditional pan instruments and at times  were accompanied by exemplary artists.

As Oshawa Sounds of Steel began the concert with  the Latin hit, Bailamos by Enrique Iglesias and Luis Fonsi’s Despacito, the anxious audience settled itself into utter silence.. There would then be performances of other Latin selections, an aria, ballad, calypsoes, classical, funk, opera, pop and R&B music – a worthy testimony to the acceptability and versatility of the steelpan.

There were many admirable young pannists on base and on tenors in the first-half on the concert  whose performances were so laudable and brilliant that they seems to be on the way from sparkling starlets to eventual stardom. This grand sense of accomplishment has been recognized by  PAN which has presented a number of practitioners and volunteers each year with awards. On this occasion, the Women in Pan awards went to Marlene Altenor and Ishma Alexander-Richardson, while the  Pan Pioneer award was given to Leslie Williams Sr and the Volunteer Awards were presented to Michael Rosteing and to Alma Machado for her husband, the late Jose Machado.

Over the past six decades since steel orchestras from Trinidad & Tobago have visited and performed in Toronto and other places in Canada, the amazement that existed locally ‘in seeing beachcomers’ playing music on a steel-drum has morphed into a very cherished fancy of Canadians eagerly seeking to enjoy the music. This has encouraged many Ontarians, from seniors and their children through to grandchildren to seek to play the instrument amd some pan arrangers are finding merit in putting together professional vocalists or string and wind-playing artistes with pannists in performances.

This initiative was full-blown at this concert as arranger Elton Jones joined virtuoso vocalist Amanda Wilson with Gemini Pan Groove in Moliendo Café and All I Ask of You. In re-enforcing this venture, arranger Al Foster paired Opera vocalist Denise Williams with the band in Giacomo Puccini’s famous (1918) aria, ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ (‘Oh My Beloved Father’ ) and presented some eight wind instrumentalists in two of Pan Fantasy’s  rendition- Beres Hammond reggae ‘I Feel Good’ and in the popular number ‘Uptown Funk’, with every musical bar to the delight of the audience. Co-arrangers Gareth Burgess and Andrew Jackson delighted the audience with their stylings and expertise on Panatics Steelband with selections from Luther Vandross, Beethoven, Janet Jackson and the 1951 triple hit of Marty Gold and Al Alberts, ‘Tell Me Why’ that was popularized by Jerry Grey, The Four Aces and Ed Fisher.

The renditions in this Snowflakes On Steel ranged from fairly recent songs and Caribbean beats to those which evoked a pleasant mood of nostalgia, including Oshawa Sound  of  Steel’s rendition of Mighty Sparrow’s ‘Jane’ and Gemini’s re-cap of Invaders Road Chip, ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, a 1964 posthumously published composition of Stephen Foster.

But as  pan artistry  continues to rise to higher  levels  in  Canada, PAN Co-executive Earl LaPierre Jr., notes that even vintage Afro-Pan Steelband still currently ” exposed to the elements,” yearns for a home. It is highly desirable for the community, the entertainment industry and the civic and provincial administrations to review the economic and social benefits that the province enjoys from pan and assist in providing  much needed accommodation for the  steelbands.

Photos by: Tina Sutherland