Written by Bill Willetts
This year I spent my third year at the annual International Panfest in Virginia Beach. This festival celebrates its 14th year in 2016 which is a remarkable achievement. It wouldn’t be possible without the vision and leadership of Director Dave Longfellow. He is a tireless worker and ambassador of pan and has over the years honed this festival into a well-oiled and well-attended machine.
The festival happens Mother’s Day weekend every year and the weather at Virginia Beach never ceases to give us surprises. This year was no exception with threats of rain and unusually cold weather, but in the end the clouds parted and the sun came out as the passion for pan poured out into the beaches of Virginia!
The festival is attended by a diverse group of attendees from around the world who bring bands from many categories to attend workshops and participate in the competition which culminates Saturday evening with an awards ceremony and more concerts. This year there were 22 bands from all over the country in categories ranging from Elementary to Private schools and community bands. The adjudicators this year where impressive – Cliff Alexis, CJ Menge, Dr Jeannine Remy, Dr. Dawn Batson and Yuko Asada.
Panfest always has a headliner band as well as other performers. This year we were treated to the Northern Illinois University Steel Orchestra with Liam Teague and Cliff Alexis. Also performing was a reggae band from Chicago named Nature’s Child and annual favorite Jonathan Scales Fourchestra which was re-tooled for the performance with bass player Jay White and drummer Greg Essig. They delivered a great performance and the young people especially like his unique groove.
As the festivities began to wind down Saturday the band from Brooklyn called New York Pan Stars took home the Grand Champion award. All the bands were seriously impressive and had the crowds engaged. The Pan Stars definitely brought the heat this year and stood out a little above all the rest. Congratulations to all the bands that came out to perform. We were treated to some great music. The grand finale act was a 2 hour performance from the NIU Steel Orchestra with solos by Liam Teague. The energy was great and the crowd was enthralled.
If you have never been to this great even you can go ahead and mark your calendar for next year! It’s always Mother’s Day weekend each year and it’s FREE to the public. If you have a band and would like to compete please contact Dave Longfellow at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will see you there!!
Additionally, I was able to spend some time with Liam Teague and follow around the students. I was very impressed with what I observed. Not only are they amazing musicians they were also very professional and well-behaved. I even spent lunch with them at a local pizza parlor and you would have never known 50 college students were in the house! I was able to interview a couple of the Masters students from the West Indies. I was curious as to how they came to NIU and what their plans were after graduation. Here is a transcript of my interview.
Interview notes from NIU students:
Akua Leith – Trinidad, POS, Cascade
TJ Bouda King – Antigua, St John.
Bill – There are a lot of Americans that are going down to Trinidad to play with Trini bands, particularly for Panorama. Here we have two young men from the West Indies who are coming to America to learn. What brought you to NIU?
AL – Back in Trinidad they only offer you an education up to a bachelor’s degree but at NIU I can obtain a Master’s. That was the driving reason. Outside of that more emphasis is placed on scoring and the composition and using time wisely. The skill set here is also very high so we get to marry the best of both worlds together.
TJK – Basically hearing about the famous Liam Teague and Cliff Alexis and completing my undergrad at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. After researching and looking into it seemed like the best opportunity for me. So I applied and they listened to me and I auditioned and they accepted me. I feel like I am honestly better prepared for music in general than I was at the Bachelor’s level, my reading has improved, my improvisation, my arranging – they focus on everything to get you ready. But also giving you the tools you need to know how to study better and how to utilize the time. Also they have taught me so much about professionalism and little things like that. Basically, anything you can think of they have covered it at NIU already.
BW – In a couple of days you will both be graduated from school. What are your plans for the coming days and what will you do with Pan from this point on?
AL – I came here on a Fulbright scholarship so part of that arrangement is that you give back two years to your country so I will definitely be doing that. In addition, I would like to start an academy of music and using pan as a community outreach tool for communities in Trinidad. I also want to go into the education system and teach at the college or high school level.
BW – As much as Trinidad is the mecca of steel band, what do you plan on doing different?
AL – Yes as much as the country is the Mecca, there are many innovative things happening in pan in the USA like this festival here. This high school level workshop for 3 days they have here and a competition – getting highly skilled teachers here to teach these workshops and then seeing there are colleges they can continue on to – this is very innovative. This will be good in Trinidad and help the music system and development of students in my country.
TJ – Oh boy, I have a lot of BIG plans quite honestly especially as I return to Antigua, Barbuda and I also do a lot of work in Belize. I do workshops, clinics and arranging – my plan is to touch as many of those places as I can and help students gain new appreciation and respect for the instrument. I would be interested in teaching in school and around the world – basically emulating my role models Liam Teague and Cliff Alexis and spreading the gospel of Pan. I have plans to start a music program at the university in Antigua – I would like to influence and invest in starting this program and also in Belize to develop an education program. Currently there are no pan music programs in either country at the university level and there is very little in high school.
BW – Besides Liam and Cliff – who did you look to for inspiration and influence in pan?
AL – well in Trinidad you are surrounded by incredible musicians but definitely Boogsie and Ray Holman and one of the biggest influences was Seion Gomez who is a college friend of Liam and he introduced me to the education part of steel pan.
TJ – Boogsie, Robert Greenidge, Babu Samuel whose arrangements I played my whole early life. Also my Captain back home Veron Henry and my good friend Kahn Cordice who is like a brother who was always supporting me and pushing me and inspiring me. Through all my career he was one who always had faith and pushed me to continue. I never could have seen myself where I am now without someone like him. So not only panmen but friends have influenced me.
BW – is this the first time you have been to Panfest? What do you think about it?
AL – yes this is great, it’s just great. They have a well thought out machine not in just terms of the crowds but also the education aspect of it and the competition. Everybody here is a winner – this is a very good project and something I want to take back to Trinidad. We don’t have anything like it.
TJ – this is my first time and I am really really impressed with things even as simple as the stage setup and the sound – they have done everything very well and it is very thought out. I am very impressed. The bands and the quality of music here from Elementary to the high school level is very impressive and something everyone should check out.