“Right now, steelbands are like vagrants’’

Lincoln Depradine

By Lincoln DePradine

Despite a collaboration with the Festival Management Corporation (FMC), under which pannists are able to ply their trade and now earn income at some Toronto restaurants, leaders of the pan movement in the city still aren’t satisfied that the artform is receiving the financial and other support that are required.

“Right now, steelbands are like vagrants,’’ Terrence Wilson, president of the Ontario Steelpan Association (OSA), told The Caribbean Camera. “Steelbands need assistance, quickly.’’ 

Like other aspects of the Toronto Carnival, steelband activities are funded by the City via the FMC that gets its finances through sponsorship and from city, provincial and federal government grants.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying economic lockdown, which began last year, forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 Toronto Carnival and all live in-person pan, calypso and masquerade events.

With COVID restrictions easing, “individual players are getting gigs here and there’’ but the situation is “hard’’ for pannists, said Wilson.

Terrence Wilson

“Income is at its lowest,’’ he said.  “It’s a razorblade struggle.  The social media avenue is what has kept the moral and motivation intact for players.  Some of them showcase their skills at virtual events, ensuring that pan is visible and relevant; doing what they enjoy and love.’’

Earl LaPierre, Jr., who plays pan professionally and is a leader of Afropan Steelband, was impacted firsthand by the lack of employment opportunities because of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has prevented us from having the ability to perform for people at live events. It’s just not the same performing over Zoom,’’ LaPierre said in an interview. “People don’t value a virtual performance as much as a live performance, so getting paid appropriately is also a challenge.’’

Since July 9, OSA and the FMC have been involved in a venture under which pan musicians are hired to play occasionally at restaurants.

“This is part of an economic recovery initiative to boost customer flow to these restaurants. It will run until August 1 and, maybe, thereafter during the summer,’’ Wilson explained.

As an organization, OSA hopes to bring pannists together in the summer for an outdoor event.

“It’s in the planning stage, mainly because of the uncertainty regarding the easing process with regard to the COVID restrictions.  It will be a free event,’’ Wilson said.

Al Foster, Terrence Wilson and Wendy Jones

Overall, however, “most steelbands are at a standstill’’, the OSA president said. “Our main problem is lack of accommodation, operating with struggles in the summer. But, once that cold breeze blows, we have no home for our instruments and our 2000+ players are hibernated.  With a location, we can be active throughout the year with such things as concerts and fundraisers.’’

Wilson also expressed dissatisfaction with FMC’s funding for steelbands, complaining about the funding model and the corporation’s “lack of transparency’’.

“In 2020, OSA received no funding. In 2021, OSA was informed that due to the COVID, and FMC’s reduced funding from government grants, that we have to absorb a 60 percent cut. Therefore, OSA is now entitled to 40 percent of the funding received in 2019 and out of that funding, OSA has to supply music and pay steelbands and players to participate at the FMC events from July 9 to August 1.’’

Earl La Pierre

Wilson’s suggested an alternative to the current assistance model is for governments “to release funding directly to OSA and not via FMC. I would like to meet with government officials – at any level – to make our plea.  That meeting process started in late 2019 and early 2020; but, there’s been nothing since’’.

LaPierre also is concerned about the “seasonal’’ appearance of steelbands, echoing comments made by Wilson. In addition, he wants performers of various Caribbean artforms to try and work closer together.

LaPierre highlighted the lack of accommodation that bands experience. “…steelbands are in need of shelter for…eight months.  One of the many thoughts I have is for us to get support from the FMC for mas’ bands and steelbands to partner up and share a warehouse space year-round.’’