Let us celebrate the steelband women...
“Steelband women are the greatest panmen around.”
In spite of the above quote, the irony is that
many women panists who dedicate their skills, talents and other
services every year to the various steelbands are unrecognized and
not appreciated as much in the steelband movement. Today, there are
many qualified women panists but it was not always that way. Clive
Bradley, a popular arranger, recently stated that he found that
women were easier to train than the men because he believed that
they don’t have so many hang-ups and are more disciplined than the
men. That may be true but it was not always believed. In the
beginning of the steelband movement women were not permitted to be
panists or visit the panyards. The road to the present has been long
and arduous with many social obstacles put in the way of the
panwoman. A famous woman once said that no nation can develop
without its other half. I say that is also true of the steelband
movement that cannot fully develop without the many women who defy
society’s expectations and contribute to the steelband movement.
Therefore, it is time to pay homage to all the women of the
steelband movement and to utter a call for their leadership in the
various steelbands around the world.
From the beginning of the steelband movement, women stood behind the
scenes as their boyfriends, husbands, cousins, nephews and sons face
the daily struggles fighting for their space in a hostile society.
It was those same women to whom the early pan pioneers turned in
their moments of sorrow, disappointment and frustration as the
society used every means to stop the creation of the steelpan. Many
of those women supported their men but did not receive any credit
for their contributions. There should be an annual award for their
contributions to the steelband movement. This past labor-day many of
the panists among the various steelbands were women. Therefore, it
is only fitting that we give a little background of the steelband
Today, the steelband woman is known as a panist. But, in the
beginning she was not welcomed in the panyards. Also, if her parents
only knew that she entered a panyard, far less to think about
playing the steelpan, she was chastised and banned, sometimes beaten.
Even the early male panist did not want their daughters to play the
pan or join a steelband. The thought of a woman dating a panist was
also out of the question even though a few dared to do so. If done,
it was done in secret. The earliest women to enter the steelband
movement were the “Girl Pat Steel Orchestra” which consisted only of
women. Many of them belonged to the middle class, but nevertheless,
they could not resist the pull of the steelband. However, the band
did not last too long to have any affect on the movement. But, there
place in steelband history is assured. The band was mainly a stage
side and performed at concerts but never played on the road for
I can only recall one great pan woman by name from the 1960s. I knew
her as Daisy McLean and she played the soprano (tenor) pan in the
City Syncopators Steel Orchestra. Before, she played in the
Casablanca Steelband and after leaving Syncopators, she joined the
Starlighters Steel Orchestra. Today, Ms. McLean leads the Harlem
Syncopators Steel Orchestra that is situated on Quarry Street
in Port of Spain, Trinbago. The band comprises of about 30 young men
and women. Recently, I saw Daisy at the Brooklyn Panorama
competition and she was excited to be there as she explained that
she hoped one day to bring her steelband to the Brooklyn Panorama.
In her day, Daisy was a good enough panist to become a member of
Syncopator’s stage side and played in one of the Steelband Music
Festival competitions. Her talents and skills as a panist were never
challenged by her male counterparts. Unfortunately, Pantrinbago does
not have a list of all the women panists to properly honor them in
this article. Two other women panists are Gemma Worrell and Ursula
Tudor. Ursula played in Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. There are many
other nameless pan women and Pantrinbago should try to find out
their names so that their contributions do not go unheeded.
The lot of the early pan woman was difficult and must be seen in the
context of the patriarchal and class society of the Trinbago of the
1950s and 60s. The steelpan and the steelband movement were created
by young African men who were at the bottom of the social ladder in
Trinbago. But, further down the social ladder were the many African
women whose boyfriends, husbands, brothers, uncles, nephews, cousins
and fathers were in the forefront of the steelband movement. The
African woman was both oppressed by the larger society and by the
men in her community. In those early days from 1940s through the
1960s, no ‘self respecting’ parent would permit their sons, far more
their daughters, to join a steelband. But, beginning in the late 60s
the society was changing as the era of the Black Power was upon it.
As a result, many African young women felt comfortable enough to
join the steelbands. Many of the African women wanted to express
their cultural identity and joined the steelband that was started by
their men. Mostly, they did it during the carnival when non-members
were permitted to join the steelband only to play at the panorama or
on carnival day where large numbers of panists were needed.
The 1980s saw many more women playing in the steelbands all over
Trinbago, especially at the music festivals. Beginning in the early
1980s, Trinbagonians saw many local Indians, Chinese and Europeans
taking their rightful place among the many steelbands throughout the
island at the different festivals. Today, you can see the rainbow
variety of the women that expresses the diverse nature of Trinbago’s
steelbands in the Panorama and the Music festival.
Although women were not fully represented in the leadership
positions in the steelband movement in the early days, there were
other roles for the women in the steelbands. They were staunch
supporters who supported their steelbands sometimes fanatically. One
example of that support was the Boston Symphony Steelband. When
Boston broke away from Trinidad All Stars steelband as a
result of a disagreement all of the young women left with them and
gave their support to the band by playing mas with them and helping
to push their pans on carnival days. In those days pushing the pans
was an important and necessary element needed for the bands on the
road. Other women were flag wavers during carnival time in their
respective steelbands. Famous flag women were Mayfield and Boboloops
who belonged to the Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra.
Most steelbands had their share of saga girls who displayed their
beauty on carnival days in the different steelbands. Also, the saga
boys in the steelbands had their girlfriends who were also strong
supporters of the steelband. Another important role for those pan
women was on steelband committees as treasurers or secretaries. At
other times women would play leading roles in the mas sections of
the steelbands on carnival day, notably as Queen of the band. An
important observation was that at times the captain’s wife or woman
was the matriarch of the particular steelband. She would give
instructions or follow up on her husband or boyfriend’s orders to
members of the band. She was also the chief cook of the band.
Another early contribution was their involvement in the making of
costumes for the steelbands. They spent sleepless nights sewing the
costumes to get them ready for the carnival.
One sad aspect of the steelband woman was that some times she was a
major reason for the start of some steelband riots during the 1960s.
In those days steelbands played in parties and there would be fights
at those parties resulting from interactions among the steelband
women. If two steelband women got into an argument their boyfriends
or husbands would pick up the argument leading to fights in the
parties. Other times a steelband man from one steelband would try to
pick up a steelband woman from another steelband and the result
would be a riot that would last through carnival. There was also
much jealousy among steelband men who were sensitive and touchy with
their women and raised hell if another panist from another steelband,
with whom they were fighting, talked to any of their women.
The pan women played another important role in the steelbands on
carnival days as pan pushers, at times pushing their husband or
boyfriend pans. In those early years of the steelband pan pushers
were an important element of the steelband without which many bands
could not come on the road. I have seen many quarrels between my
friends’ women and others about who would push their pans. One other
important role that the women played was to act as mediators to cool
off their husbands, fathers or boyfriends from fighting and saving
others from harm or injury.
One of my memorable sightings in the 1960s was to witness the
beautiful young girls standing outside the panyards during practice
dressed in their best clothes as they competed for the different
panists. Sometimes they would stay the whole night until the
practice was over. Those who had boyfriends in the steelband would
stand close to the pans keeping an eye on their men from other women.
In the 60s, when steelbands played in the Hollows at the Queen’s
Park Savannah on a Sunday afternoon, many young girls would attend
those concerts to support their boyfriend’s steelbands. Some of the
middle class women would support the steelbands from their community
at the bi-annual Music Steelband Festival that are held at Queen’s
Hall in the St. Ann’s district of Port of Spain. But, they
would never visit the panyards fearing to be labeled a ‘panwoman’.
That label meant that the woman was loose and not of good character.
Even today there are still some of those feelings among a few
Trinbago women. The lot of the panwoman was not easy but they
prevailed. Today, there are women panists who play in all of the
steelbands throughout Trinbago and the world. In Brooklyn, most of
the panists are women. In Switzerland there are many women panists.
It is no longer taboo or scandalous to see women playing the
national instrument in the land of its birth or any part of the
Once more, I call for more women to step forward and lead the
steelbands and/or become the President of Pantrinbago. I believe
that the future of the steelpan and the steelband movement will be
safe and secure in their hands.