By Arienne Johnson
As a little girl at the Church of The Nativity, a black Anglican church in Scarborough with a strong Caribbean presence, I used to admire our church’s steelband. At the age of seven I was too young to join the band but I always stuck around to listen to the rhythm of the steel pan notes. I couldn’t wait to grow up and be one of the teenagers who played the tenor, alto or the bass pan. Music in our church played a significant role in the services, and the steelband made the services especially unique.
In 2005, my best friend Karimah and I joined the Nativity Steel Junior Angels when we were about nine years old, which provided music practices for the younger players. The group was fairly familiar with us already, as we used to dance around the church sanctuary while the band rehearsed.
Mr. Ian Jones, a very well-known individual in the pan community, was the instructor and arranger for the band, and he taught me everything I know about the single tenor pan, which is in fact the soprano instrument of the orchestra.
Having already played two other instruments as a child (the piano and the flute), I picked up the instrument very quickly. Playing in the junior band was really fun, especially around my friends.
If anyone knows me, they know that my father Mr. Johnson was responsible for taking me everywhere including to pan practice, and I was always waiting for him after practice.
The senior performance band: Nativity Steel Angels, had their rehearsals right after the junior band. Mr. Jones approached me to say, you might as well learn a song or two with the senior band while you wait for your dad. When my father arrived, I had already learned all two songs and was playing alongside the older players. That is how I joined the Nativity Steel Angels at age 11, the youngest member at the time.
After years of playing, I finally joined Panatics Steelband Network, a performance and competitive band under the Ontario Steelpan Association (OSA). This band was led by Andrew Jackson and music was also arranged by Mr. Ian Jones. I was active with Panatics Steelband for about seven years.
We competed in a panorama competition called Pan Alive. This was my first experience playing in a steelband that large and was my first time learning a Pan Alive competition song, so I was nervous to say the least. The section leader’s responsibility was to teach everyone the song in that particular section, which was a very new concept for me, but luckily Mr. Jones taught me the beginning of the competition song to give me a head start.
Having to practice every single day for any instrument makes you a stronger player, but practicing as a group every single day next to experienced players really improved my own playing skills. A joke I tell people is that I think I went through some hearing loss during my first summer practicing with Panatics Steelband, because my ears would be ringing every night after practice. The competition song really became a part of me that first year and I do not think I will ever forget jumping up while playing the song Calling Meh by Destra at Pan Alive 2011.
I started playing mas very late, at age 21, because I was always on the road with my steelband. The best feeling while playing pan on the road was seeing spectators dancing up next to the truck, singing along to every “chune”. Everyone I have met through the steelband community has become like family and I am so grateful to have experienced a piece of my Caribbean culture right here in Toronto.