'Our Carnival culture — the arts — is gonna die with our parents' generation'

Steelpan is synonymous with Caribbean Carnival season, but for how much longer? Toronto's Joy Lapps-Lewis is on a mission to keep the music playing.

That's one Toronto steelpan artist's fearful prediction, but she'll fight to keep the music playing

Steelpan is synonymous with Caribbean Carnival season, but for how much longer? Toronto's Joy Lapps-Lewis is on a mission to keep the traditional sound alive. (Avital Zerner/Courtesy of Joy Lapps-Lewis)

When I was 11 years old, I attended a summer camp with my cousins. It was held in a church basement in the east end of Toronto, and I don't remember much about our time there beyond the friendship bracelets we made and the smile of a boy I had a secret crush on. But one thing always stuck with me: a steelpan lesson. I remember the excitement I felt learning the basics of the instrument. I loved the sounds that emanated from the steel, the discovery of its orchestral range and the fact that we were able to play Bob Marley songs for hours on end. My lessons ended when camp was over — but each Carnival season leaves me itching to return.

An instrument created from the discarded containers of industrial waste, the steelpan is a pitch percussion instrument. It's the only major acoustic instrument to be invented in the last century, and its creation story is riddled in myth and legend. But what is not debated is its indelible influence on Carnival traditions and the musical sounds of the Caribbean.

Steelpan is the ultimate community arts experience.- Joy Lapps-Lewis, musician

The Toronto Caribbean Festival was last weekend, and steelpan was in the air. Alongside calypso music and the masquerade, pan completes the sacred trinity of Caribbean Carnival arts. Joy Lapps-Lewis is one of the best-known pan players in the city, but she fears that the traditional arts of Carnival are in danger of dying out. That's why she's made it her mission to keep the music alive.

A musician, composer and arts educator who has learned from pan pioneers, leaders and innovators such as Tommy Crichlow, Wendy Jones and Andy Narell, she recently completed her MA in composition for steelpan in the jazz idiom (an unique focus not many others can boast of) and she has performed at numerous festivals in Toronto and around the world. I spoke with Lapps-Lewis over the phone this week about her musical journey, her fears for the Carnival culture and her transition from performer to composer. (And we also learned that we both were introduced to steelpan at the same east end Caribbean church...)

How do you think living in Toronto has shaped your practice?

I started playing steelpan because they offered lessons in that predominantly Caribbean church in Malvern. Tutoring, African dance and steelpan were my Saturday mornings. So I think that kind of access to diverse cultural experiences has been really important. We have some of the best of the best in Toronto musically, so in my creative work, I'm blessed to have my compositions brought to life by some of the best musicians that we have in the country. The community arts aspect of the work that I do has been really impactful — that's really shaped the way I think about how art can affect people and that therefore informs my practice. I think steelpan is the ultimate community arts experience in terms of how people engage. In the summertime I play with a band, and when you play in a steelband, you have somebody who just comes to help build or paint the rack. You have a grandmother, auntie or someone's mom who cooks food and makes sure the band gets fed every day. You have a five-year-old zooming around the pan yard on their scooter. You have people who just come to be a part of something. I think that's the essence of community arts. I think there comes a point when it's not really about the art anymore — it's about the people. In Trinidad, every community has a steelband for that reason.

When you travelled did you notice any differences in styles and approach?

Yeah, there's different things. So in pan you have your pan soloist, who's either playing solo pan or solo pan with tracks, and then you have this pan "jazz." Anything that's not soca or calypso is usually called pan jazz. And then you have your big ensemble stuff that you see at Pan Alive or Panorama.

There's definitely a high calibre of music in that pan jazz or Afro Caribbean jazz side of things. Unfortunately there's been a lack of advancement, in my opinion, as far as what we do arrangement wise in the Panorama arena. Pan is a big resistance instrument. So it went from, "You're thrown in jail," "Don't date my daughter if you're playing pan," to being the national instrument [of Trinidad]. They had a lot of really interesting advancements but the issue now is that a lot of the bands [in Trinidad] depend on sponsorship. So you'll notice the big oil companies or the big banks, the biggest bands tend to have sponsorship from them and so they can afford the biggest arrangers and you get the most amount of money if you win the competition. So there's almost been this formula of what wins the competition.

What is the formula?

The tempo that you play — there's certain things that have to happen stylistically, like chromatic scales and stops and things that make people want to jump up. So there's not so much a respect for the music. Not many people can find that balance of creating the excitement for the crowd but also finding something that your average musician would be like, "Oh my gosh, this is really good quality music."

Why did you initially decide to begin composing and arranging music?

My husband just really encouraged me to write. [Also] as I grew in the art I began to understand that if I wanted to be not just a musician but an artist, then I had to bring something to the table — to create something. My focus is in Afro-Caribbean jazz, so you write something and then you have musicians bring it to light. It's on another level when they add. In jazz there's so much more freedom to express, so that feeds it. It's like you're starting a painting but they can add more colour to it. You've given a template but there's still freedom in there.

Why is teaching pan important to you?

My goal as an educator has been getting people to a level of understanding with their instrument so they can play in the steelpan ensemble. I really feel strongly that our Carnival culture — the arts — is gonna die with our parents' generation. The ideas of people getting together and building costumes or people spending a month and a half in the pan yard night after night preparing for Pan Alive — I don't see it living past our parents' generation if we don't feed people into that. The Carnival that we see, most of the people that produce the artform are not compensated for it. So whether it's the masqueraders, the people volunteering in a mas camp or the pan players, they're not compensated. The reason why it lives on is because of people really, really passionate about it. So my goal is to teach people so that they would be inspired to go into bands.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

The Joy Lapps Project with the Larnell Lewis Band. Aug. 17. Newmarket Old Town Hall, Newmarket, Ont. Newmarket Music Festival.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.


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