The steelpan provided options for the musically gifted

by Ron Fanfair
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Always with a positive demeanour and endearing smile, it was hard to tell that Joy Lapps-Lewis was grieving when she appeared on stage with her six-piece band and accepted the Woman in Pan Award at the Pan Arts Network’s (PAN) 26th annual ‘Snowflakes On Steel’ concert on January 20.
Catherine Lapps, a paternal aunt, was buried a few hours earlier in Maryland. Suffering a right ankle injury and expecting her third child, Lapps-Lewis was unable to attend the funeral.
Her first independent album, ‘How Great Thou Art’, was released in 2004 and sold over 3,000 copies.
“That was not sold through a traditional distribution channel,” Lapps-Lewis said. “It was done through the ‘Auntie’ and ‘Uncle’ network at a time when people were streaming music. They were adamant about selling and getting the CD out there and Aunt Catherine was one of those people who played a major role in that process. Her death is a big family loss.”
In her pre- and early teens, Lapps-Lewis sang in school choirs, took part in musicals in school and church, played the saxophone and took some informal piano lessons from then Church of the Nativity, Malvern organist and Trinidad & Tobago’s first woman Panorama arranger Marjorie Wooding who died in Florida in January 2013.
Lapps-Lewis learned to play steelpan in 1997 with the Nativity Steel Angels led by Alistair ‘Vince Cato’ Fraser who passed away five years ago.
“He was my first teacher,” Lapps-Lewis said. “I know he got a little bit frustrated with me in the beginning, but once he realized I was serious and my parents were very supportive, he invested his time in me, and we worked well together.”
Once she became comfortable with the instrument, Fraser trusted her to perform with him as a duet at community events. When he was double booked, he allowed his protégé to do gigs on her own.
The instant gratification of learning to play a song on steelpan appealed to Lapps-Lewis who performed with Birdsong Steel Orchestra in a Panorama semi-finals at Queen’s Park Savannah in Trinidad and is a member of reigning Pan Alive champions Pan Fantasy.
“If you are learning the cello or violin, it takes a long time just to get your intonation,” she said. “With the steelpan, you just hit it. Steelpan is accessible, making it easy to produce music. Now that I am teaching, I recognize that students feel a sense of accomplishment more quickly playing the pan than they would with other instruments.”
Though excelling in steelpan by the time she was ready to pursue university studies, Lapps-Lewis did not feel she knew enough to study music. Instead, she completed an International Bachelor of Business Administration degree from York University’s Schulich School of Business.
As part of the international degree requirements, Lapps-Lewis interned for six weeks in 2014 at the Calypsociation Steelpan School in Paris founded in 1993 by two Parisian friends who fell in love with pan after visiting the twin-island republic.
“I wanted to go to West Africa to find the music I wanted to study, but Schulich did not have a partner school there,” she said. “I tried to go to Brazil, but the partner school taught only in Portuguese.”
Even though graduating with honours, Lapps-Lewis hated business. She did some music courses and a Master of Arts in History, Development and Composition for Steelpan in York University’s Jazz Ensemble.
Lapps-Lewis’ university pedagogy and varied community education programming integrate ensemble teaching to promote individual and collective success.
In 2022, her fifth album, ‘Girl in the Yard’, was released. The first full-length recording pays tribute to the community, mainly the many women who have helped facilitate her mastery of the steelpan and supported her success in the steelband movement.
“I have been thinking about my role and place as a woman in steelpan,” the 2014 Dr. Alice E. Wilson Award winner said. “I wanted to explore the idea that not only am I a woman, but I learned to play pan in church. When I was doing that, people approached me saying they were not allowed to play steelpan in church.
“I also wanted to establish that while the number of women playing pan has increased exponentially over the years, women are also arranging, composing and leading bands.”
The 13-track album includes ‘Sharifa the Great’ that is a tribute to older sister Asha Lapps who is the eldest of four siblings. She founded the Black Queens of Durham in 2017 for women to connect and empower.
“Very protective of her sisters while growing up, Asha has evolved into a leader in our community,” said Lapps-Lewis whose repertoire teems with Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian inspired rhythmic and harmonic patterns. “She has always been a protector, looking out for us and others.”
While preparing for a jury during her undergraduate studies, York University School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design contract faculty member Gareth Burgess suggested she start a project with bass and drums.
“In that way, he said the jury would know I understand my chords and I would not have to do what a guitar and keyboard player would do,” Lapps-Lewis said.
Starting as a trio with her husband, Larnell Lewis, on drums and Andrew Stewart on bass, the ensemble has evolved in the last 15 years.
“It is a place for me to share the music that I write,” said the mother of two children who has been married for 13 years. “We have toured, and it is an opportunity for me to express myself creatively.”
The Joy Lapps Project has been busy touring. After performing at the GroundUp Music Festival in Miami Beach on February 4 and a First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa show on February 10 they will be featured in a showcase in Kansas at the end of February.
On May 11, Lapps-Lewis and her husband will join The Jon Cowherd Trio at Koerner Hall as part of the Royal Conservatory jazz concert series.
Betsy Anthony, who migrated from St. Vincent & the Grenadines four decades ago, was also honoured with a Woman in Pan Award. She started playing the instrument about 20 years ago.
“When I saw someone playing pan for the first time, I could not believe that a steel drum could produce such sweet sounds,” said the septuagenarian. “When I attended Panorama for the first time in Trinidad, I was blown away by the pan players. I had to do it.”
With an interest in music, Anthony started playing the piano.
“When my teacher retired, I saw Panatics was offering an introductory course and that is where it all began for me,” she said.
Anthony is a member of the Elton Jones-led Gemini Pan Groove whose oldest member is 83 years.
Seeing a group of friends on her North York street heading in one direction back in 1976, Linda Stacey-Fenech inquired where they were going.
“We are part of a steelband,” they responded.
A lover of music, the then 11-year-old joined them.
When Mike Stacey found out his daughter was learning to play pan with York Lions, he went to see what was happening.
“I liked what I saw, and they asked me if I wanted to drive their truck to transport the pans and other equipment to venues they were performing at,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Sure’.”
Starting as equipment manager 48 years ago, Stacey took over the general managerial duties after some of the founding members passed away.
He was the recipient of a Pioneer in Pan Community Award for contributing to the upliftment of steelpan in the Greater Toronto Area.
PAN co-founders Earl LaPierre Jr. and Wendy Jones made the presentation.
“Mike took these children from the community and gave them an opportunity to be part of a program,” said Jones who is a Pan Fantasy Steelband founding member. “I often saw them playing in little parades around the city and they were a joy to watch.”
In accepting the award, he paid tribute to the late Jerry Jerome who was instrumental in York Lions’ growth.
“Jerry was very talented and not interested in personal glory,” said Stacey, whose wife of 61 years and a devoted band member – Gail Stacey – passed away in December 2022. “He was a genuine person who wanted to see young people excel. When this band started in 1972, the kids were from challenged communities and the decision was made they would not pay to learn to play pan.”
That has not changed.
Brothers Don, Ted and Doug Saunders started York Lions that performed at the 1973 Lions International Convention in Miami and the Canadian National Exhibition the following year.
Under Jerome’s tutelage, Stacey-Fenech learned to play the soprano pan for the band that has about 30 members. She is York Lions musical arranger/director.
For Stacey-Fenech, what is the allure of steelpan music?
“I just love the rhythm,” said the married mother of two children who is learning to tune pans. “You just gravitate to the music and want to move and dance to the sweet sounds.”
Attending Trinidad Carnival is on Stacey-Fenech’s bucket list.
“Now that I am retired, I am looking forward to going in another year or two,” she said.
In Trinidad & Tobago, Randolph Karamath played most instruments except the steelpan that is the only new instrument invented in the 20th century.
“I played guitar, keyboard, drums, cuatro and other instruments,” the Pioneer in Steelband Community Tribute Award winner said.
Four years after leaving Trinidad & Tobago, Karamath started teaching in 1994 at Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute that was the hub for the Naparima Alumni Association of Canada.
When Marielle (Shelli) Karamath’s first application to attend the University of Toronto Teacher’s College was unsuccessful, dad suggested his daughter list her steelpan accomplishments.
“She was one of our best players,” Karamath, the founder of the now defunct ‘Steel Bandits’ recalled. “After adding that part to her application, she was accepted. When that happened, I told my students there is power in pan.”
In the mid-1990s, he successfully advocated for pan to be part of the Cedarbrae music program for Grades 10 to 12 students.
Karamath retired in 2016.
Robert Nathaniel, who resides in a long-term care home in Cornwall and was unable to attend the event, was awarded a Pioneer in Pan honour and Reuben Briggs of Panatics won a student bursary.

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