CREATIVE SPACE #7 of 2022 (uploaded April 6th 2022)
CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the two–part CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on April 6th 2022:
Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS.
CREATIVE SPACE #7 OF 2022: THE PAN PROGRAMME AT CULTURE: WHAT HAPPENED…?
Barbara Mason was brought in to Culture, from the private sector, in the middish-90s. “I loved pan music but when I went to Culture, it wasn’t something that was settled what I went there to do.”
When I say Culture I’m referring to the arm of Government tasked with cultivating local art and culture. Pan refers to steel pan – the only original musical invention of the 20th century, born right here in the Caribbean (specifically Trinidad and Tobago).
When Barbara was brought in to Culture, pan in Antigua and Barbuda was on a low, as we say – including no panorama between 1995 and 2000. As I remember it, various pan orchestras did what they could in that time to keep pan alive e.g. street “bomb” competitions and schools of pan ( with the Gemonites’ school of pan leading to its popular Moods of Pan showcase, launched in 1999). These initiatives share credit for helping revive competition and appreciation for pan music in Antigua and Barbuda.
But Culture benefited from having an in-house advocate for the art form. “We decided that there should be a pan department,” Barbara said, explaining that while pan had previously been taught at or through Culture, it was formalized when she came on board.
The newly minted steel pan department rolled out a youth programme, involving regular lessons at schools across the island and twice weekly at Culture, taught by pan tutors (Victor ‘Babu’ Samuel, Aubrey ‘Lacu’ Samuel, Bernard ‘Buntarte’ Duplessis, Patrick ‘Stone’ Johnson) brought in to the department from various government departments and the private sector. “They just came in one by one …to come and build that programme and do their part.”
(Left to right, pan builder Eustace ‘Gaytooks’ Harris, and pan tutors, Aubrey ‘Lacu’ Samuel, Patrick ‘Stone’ Johnson, and Victor ‘Babu’ Samuel)
With new talent being fed in to the existing orchestras, there was something of a heartbeat again in the pan body. The department’s efforts would culminate in a vibrant National Youth Pan Orchestra, officially launched in 1998, and going on to play national events and regional events like CARIFESTA. Schools panorama was introduced in the early aughts.
(NYPO performance directed by Victor ‘Babu’ Samuel)
Barbara’s focus on youth was a natural extension of her previous volunteer work with junior calypso and, through her former employer, Wadadli Travel and Tours, junior mas. As she moved in to pan, it was with the mantra, “turn your hobbies in to careers” – something she has seen materialize with children who came through the programme, including current Culture director Khan Cordice. He “always showed leadership from day one” and became the first Antiguan and Barbudan to receive a scholarship to study pan at university.
“Careers were always centered around things that we know, standard things…to become a doctor or a lawyer,” Barbara said. She believes that the programme helped open up possibilities in the creative arts, pan in particular.
Enrollment in the programme was high. “It was an exciting time then…dealing with children who wanted to play the pan.” Allies included champion of music education Isalyn Richards, and pan builders Eustace ‘Gaytooks’ Harris and Veron Henry; and Barbara remembers director Arthur Bird and former director and Carnival boss Reginald Knight being very supportive as well.
Money is often the missing ingredient when it comes to arts development and Barbara remembers “money coming at the right time” was always the main challenge. Clearly both the government (by staffing the department) and private sector (with several businesses adopting schools involved in the programme) made investments. But it wasn’t light work; letters had to be written, systems finessed, fabric bought and uniforms made for when the band had to play out, pans procured etc. Barbara especially credits Culture administrative assistant Keturah Thomas with helping her clear funding hurdles (“she knew the system”). This is not a small point – artists, allies, and advocates in the larger culture are vital but having people within Culture with a will and plan, and knowledge of the system, can be transformative. One example of Mason’s energies adding to the pan infrastructure was not settling for the donations of pan she received for the programme but securing facilities for a pan lab – “I had a talk with B. T. Lewis at Public Works for those buildings”. She noted that once people see your heart is in the right place, they come through. “My life’s work has been encouragement,” Mason said. “That’s all I did.”
(Young pannists pictured with pan tutor Patrick ‘Stone’ Johnson, right, Barbara, second from right, Gaytooks, third from left, in white, and, I believe that’s Keturah Thomas, in blue, left)
The NYPO achieved continuity with new members coming in as older members aged up to other opportunities for a solid 10 years. ‘Just Six’ was a chamber-sized subset of NYPO that, Mason said, “used to get gigs all over.” Other initiatives included a pan conference, history of pan publication, and a one-time concert with seasoned players from bands across the land playing as one.
There is sadness in Barbara’s demeanor when talking of the end of the programme and her exit from Culture. “I didn’t even know it was losing momentum…I asked if we could have a pan house built (and got) no response.” Barbara retired in 2013 and doesn’t want to dwell too much on why something once so vibrant dimmed. Whether through bad mind (“it was said I get everything for pan”), institutional disinterest, or something else, the stop and start of arts initiatives in Antigua and Barbuda is hardly breaking news.
She more readily rattles off the names of the musicians who came through the Culture pan programme, many of whom she still keeps in touch with – “and all the stories are good”. A number, she said, went on to study pan, rather than the staple piano, at CXC and university – “some real outstanding players”. Such outstanding players, in fact, that the NYPO cream of the crop were formed in to Just Six, a chamber-sized side that, Barbara said, “used to get gigs all over.”
Khan, one of those players, said “the pan in school programme still exists; however, like most other extra/co-curricular activities that fosters gatherings, was allowed to be put on hold. It is slowly returning with a different approach. The NYPO does not currently function. Some one on one pan lessons are offered at the department and we are launching an upper level development programme in the next few weeks.”
Barbara has not been replaced though Khan credits the pan programme she helmed with offering “many of us an outlet both for development of the art but also of the person as well,” Khan said. “I am a firm believer that advocates are necessary but also, an advocate does not necessarily need to be a practitioner of the particular art form as was the case with Ms. Mason. It is my vision and I hope it works come to fruition in the near future.”
Barbara Mason profile in When Steel Talks, its Story of Pan in Antigua, and its history of Antigua and Barbuda’s Panorama. This article, meanwhile, speaks to the challenges facing Antiguan pan around the time when Reg Knight, referenced in this article, was Culture director.
The Caribbean History Repository has recordings of three vintage Antiguan steelbands only one of which – Hell’s Gate, the longest ongoing consecutive pan orchestra at over 75 years – is still with us.
Images in this article are from Barbara’s personal archives. Here are a couple more.
I’m glad I got the opportunity to connect with Barbara. As expressed in this blog posting from 2018, I’ve been wanting to give her her flowers for a while.
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