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An instrument for cultural resistance

In conjunction with Fragments of Epic Memory, the AGO is hosting a series of steel pan performances in Walker Court. We spoke to Toronto-based steel pannists Earl La Pierre and Suzette Vidale to learn about this important piece of Trinidadian history.

composite photo of steelpannists

Images courtesy of the artists

Fragments of Epic Memory, the AGO’s major exhibition centred on the art and legacy of the Caribbean, has been open to the public for the past couple of weeks. If you’ve visited the Gallery on a Saturday afternoon, you may have heard the distinctive sounds of steel pans being played in Walker Court, alongside British-Trinidadian artist Zak Ové’s breathtaking installation sculpture Moko Jumbie (2021). The AGO invited two of Toronto’s most well-known steel pannists for a limited run of performances, adding a musical and deeper cultural tie to Fragments. Both accomplished musicians, educators and leaders in Toronto’s steel pan community, Earl La Pierre Jr. and Suzette Vidale have been sharing their musical stylings in the city and abroad for decades. 

The steel pan was born out of resistance in 1930s Trinidad and Tobago; many believing its exact birthplace is the capital city of Port of Spain. When French planters arrived in Trinidad in the 1700s, they brought with them enslaved people from West Africa. It is said that these enslaved people, barred from participating in Carnival with their enslavers, used sticks and bamboo to make percussion instruments (like the tamboo bamboo) to play during their own version of Carnival, only to have these instruments banned by their enslavers quickly thereafter. Eventually, in the post-emancipation years, formerly enslaved people continued to invent musical instruments. Discarded metal objects like dust bins and car parts were turned into instruments by street musicians. Enter the oil drum in 1934; hammered, polished and tuned to play. “Oil drums,” explains Vidale, “had a greater surface area to accommodate more [music] notes and produce more sounds.” Indeed, the steel pan has endured in years since then, expanding well beyond the shores of Caribbean islands. To learn more about their careers and the steel pan in Toronto, we asked La Pierre and Vidale a few questions. 

AGOinsider: How did you get your start as a steel pannist?

La Pierre: I started playing because it's in my blood, although I never liked pan when I was growing up. My dad [Earl La Pierre Sr.] was very instrumental in bringing the steel pan to Canada’s Caribbean communities in the 1960s. I started when I was around 14 or 15 years old but I regret not starting earlier. I was asked to perform at an assembly because my dad's band was also going to be performing at my school. As I got older, I developed my style that mixes R&B, Hip Hop and Reggae. From there, it was on!

Vidale: In 1993, my mother encouraged me to play. I wasn’t interested at first, but a good friend named Monifa Colthurst invited me to an Afropan Steelband rehearsal. I remember it as the first time I really saw steel pans up close. They were illustrious and they pulled me in closer. Once I heard the sounds and felt the vibes, I was hooked.  

AGOinsider: How have you seen Toronto’s steel pan community evolve throughout your career, especially as the instrument and its sound have become more widespread?

La Pierre: From what I can remember when I started playing, there were only a few steel bands in Toronto: Afropan, Silhouettes, Metro Tones, Pan Masters, Taspo and The Lions Club. There were only a handful of pan makers, like Earle Wong, Tommy Crichlow and Ed Peters. Now, there are many steel bands and pan makers across GTA. It's more commonly recognized in Toronto. We even have schools that offer steel pan courses. 

Vidale: Toronto is a melting pot and you can see that reflected within the bands. There’s more diversity. In some bands, more than half of the pannists are women. Pannists are getting younger as the years go by. 

Toronto’s steel pan community was originally closely associated with Caribana. In the decades since Caribana’s inception in 1967, I have seen steel bands and pannists participate in diverse events, ranging from non-Caribbean cultural festivals to Pride, and international film festivals.

As audiences listen to the various steel bands around the city, they realize that many of the stereotypes they hold of steel bands and steel pannists aren’t based on reality. Many times, they might expect to see a male player and hear calypso and reggae but are often shocked to see a female player and hear classical music, R&B, Hip Hop or other cultural pieces from various parts of the world.

Aside from seeing the steel pan being incorporated into educational institutions at all levels, my most favourite shift is the inclusion of the instrument as a wellness tool. I have had some of the greatest moments connecting with our city’s most vulnerable citizens. I am always learning from others while doing steel pan workshops for the homeless, at-risk youth as well as marginalized women who have been abused or experienced trauma.

AGOinsider: What goes into preparing for solo and group steel pan performances? Do you prefer to improvise or play a setlist?

La Pierre: That’s a difficult choice because they are so different! I’ll say that it doesn't matter if it's for solo or group performance, practice is the most important thing. I have been doing more solo performances lately so I try to learn the song. Not just how to play it, but understanding what the song is about and what the original songwriter is trying to convey. I try to bring the feeling of the original song into my rendition. 

Vidale: Depending on the event, you may have new pieces to learn if there is a specific theme For International Women’s Day, for example, I would perform inspirational songs about female empowerment. I try to have a diverse repertoire so I can easily add to the atmosphere of the event I’m performing at. I generally know what I would like to play, but once I arrive in a space, I take my cues from the audience. Sometimes, you completely change your set.

AGOinsider: Why do you think the steel pan has endured as such a strong part of Caribbean culture, even beyond its roots in Trinidad and Tobago?

La Pierre: Trinidad and Tobago have so much culture for such a small island. Calypso, Soca Pan and Mas, our culture is so infectious it makes you want to see, feel, touch and learn more! The steel pan is now worldwide. It’s truly fascinating to see how other cultures have embraced it!

Vidale: The steel pan was born out of necessity. The spirit of the drum is the heartbeat of its people. The steel pan and its community are inclusive, allowing for friendships to form through music, transcending race, religion, gender and borders. 

Time your next visit to the Gallery so you can also enjoy one of La Pierre and Vidale’s performances. The dates and times are listed here and stay tuned for more interactive programming with Fragments of Epic Memory. Read about how the AGO’s Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs came to be here.

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