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Festival to celebrate the steel pan

Bermuda’s first Pan Jazz Festival takes place next month, celebrating one of the world’s most versatile instruments.

Organised by Somersfield Academy and Atlantic Publishing, the festival will include the 18-piece Somersfield Steel Pan Orchestra, the Happy Hands steel pan group and the Bermuda School of Music and the Giant Steps Band.

“I think the steel pan is a nice instrument for young people to be versatile on,” said Somersfield music teacher Janice Pearman. “We play all different styles of music on the instrument. It is comparable to your traditional orchestra. You can play any style of music whether you want classical or jazz, contemporary, calypso or reggae. I think it is one of those instruments where the children can achieve something at a very quick stage.”

The instruments were originally created in Trinidad in the 1940s out of empty oil drums left over by the United States Army. Today, the steel pan is the official instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, but its sound has become synonymous with the entire Caribbean. It is one of very few instruments created in the 21st century that is not electronic.

“I find the steel pans very peaceful,” said ten-year-old Somersfield steel pan player Bobby Cooper.

His classmate, nine-year-old Everett Van Zanden, said: “I like how the sound of all of them goes together really well so it sounds like only one instrument is being played and not a group of them being played.”

Mrs Pearman can take some credit for bringing the steel pan back to local schools. Past programmes had died out. Several years ago she introduced the steel pans to students at Paget Primary, then the Bermuda School of Music and now Somersfield. There are now five schools on the Island with a steel pan music programme.

Mrs Pearman hoped that the Pan Jazz Festival would showcase the students’ talents and bring them together with the more experienced adult pan players from Happy Hands and Giant Steps.

“We wanted people to see a diverse mix of ages performing,” she said. “The different age groups will perform separately and then together at the end.”

She is originally from Trinidad, hence her pride in the instrument. Her main pan is the tenor but she can play all of the different types which include the violin pan, cello pan and guitar pan.

“I started playing in church at about age 12,” she said. “I grew up playing the guitar in church and then went over to the steel pan. I found it easy to transition from the guitar to steel pan, based on the knowledge I had of cords. Then later on, when I was doing my bachelor’s degree, there was a component that included steel pan. I have done it from that perspective.”

Somersfield steel pan players have performed in school, but have not yet been out in the community. Mrs Pearman hoped that the festival would help them raise some money to buy cases for the instruments so they could be taken outside. Her ambition is to see the Somersfield Steel Pan Orchestra performing at events such as the Agricultural Exhibition and the Bermuda Day Parade.

“The children are very excited about playing,” she said. “We play popular music. I let them choose some of the songs, then I arrange the music so it suits the different instruments. We are learning music from the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’, at the moment, and the ‘Pink Panther’ theme. They are doing classical pieces as well, such as the ‘William Tell Overture’. They get a nice mix. From that perspective they are quite excited.

“Most other schools don’t have steel pans, so it gives Somersfield something different to offer the students who come here,” said Kairo Morton. The nine-year-old had never heard steel pans until he joined the Somersfield orchestra.

“It is not the ordinary music that you play,” said ten-year-old Shelby Madeiros. “I find it easier because you can move around and you can learn the notes easier than other instruments.”

Brent Wilson, an adult steel pan player with Happy Hands said he was excited about taking part in the festival.

“We have played for many different functions,” said Mr Wilson. “Last year, I played at 19 different divorce parties. This is my first time doing something like this festival. I know it will be a good experience.”

His compact disc, ‘Pepper Sauce Jam’, is available at the Music Box.

The Pan Jazz Festival will be held on May 5 at Somersfield Academy. Tickets are available at the school office $50 for patrons, $25 for adults and $10 for children.

Students from Somersfield Academy practice for their upcoming steel Pan Jazz Festival in May. (Photo by Akil Simmons )

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Published April 24, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated April 23, 2013 at 3:57 pm)

Festival to celebrate the steel pan

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