A Tale of Steelpan, Resilience, and Cultural Legacy- Panman Pat

By Lincoln DePradine

Patrick McNeilly, educator and cultural artiste, has a story to tell that encompasses steelpan music and his involvement in the artform, beginning in his homeland of Trinidad and continuing with his subsequent arrival in Canada.

Patrick McNeilly (Panman Pat)

“No mind how talented you were with steel drums in colonial Trinidad then, you had to go outside, you had to go abroad, to escape,’’ said McNeilly, who began playing pan at age five. “So, for me, it was like cultural exile. It happened to a lot of our steel pan players of the time.’’

McNeilly, popularly known as “Panman Pat’’, relates his participation in steelpan music in a 30-minute documentary film, titled “The Art of Resistance’’. It was produced two months ago for the Diocese of Toronto’s “Reconciliation Walk Series’’.

The documentary also covers other issues such as the attitude to pan in colonial Trinidad and Tobago where, at the time, pannists faced negative repercussions, including physical punishment from police, school officials and parents.

Pat McNeilly

“At about 16, I got kicked out of home,’’ recalled McNeilly, who migrated to Canada in 1966. He performed as a pannist, at Toronto’s first carnival – then known as Caribana – in 1967.

He was a Toronto police officer for four years, resigning in 1972 and enrolling at Queen’s University.

McNeilly, a certified educator and musician, and a member of the Ontario College of Teachers, wrote a steelpan curriculum and was a pioneer in the introduction of pan as music credit at Ontario high schools.

The introduction faced difficulties, according to McNeilly. One of them was teachers telling him that “there was no room for steel drums’’ at their schools, said McNeilly.

West Humber was one of the schools where Al Foster, now music arranger with champion steelband Pan Fantasy, was then a student.

“There was an auto shop that wasn’t in use. I cleaned it out and started teaching. You know who was in that class when I cleaned it out? Al Foster. He and the other boys helped me clean it out,’’ McNeilly said. “I took Al and his class to Trinidad. Sixteen of them.’’

McNeilly is hoping that at least one organization, the National Film Board of Canada, would offer support to produce an enhanced version of “The Art of Resistance’’.

“I would like to get them to do it over from scratch,’’ he said.

McNeilly also is soon to release a second documentary based on a ceremony held earlier this year at the Trinidad and Tobago consulate general in Toronto. He was among 15 pioneers of the steelband movement in Ontario that were honoured at a recognition ceremony.

McNeilly, 76, has published texts such as “A Musical Journey” and “Hands on Steelpan: A Teacher’s Guide and Student Companion to the Art of Playing Steelpan’’.

He’s operator and master teacher of “Pan School TO’’, a former Canadian Calypso Monarch and a 1991 Juno Award recipient.