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November 19, 2005 - Volume 1, No. 4

Let us celebrate the steelband women...

“Steelband women are the greatest panmen around.”
Singing Francine

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 woman.

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 carnival.

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 world.

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.

Stay Blogged.

P.S. If readers don’t understand any of the carnival or steelband terms used here, please go to the Port of Pan ABC at pan-jumbie-com. Otherwise you may contact this writer. Thanks.

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