“I admire women who now bring their daughters to the panyard. I used to have to hide to play the pan. You know how much broomstick I get on my hand ‘breaksin’ blows from my mother,”said an animated James-Mc Queen, 73, who is widely regarded as the first woman in the country to play the steelpan.
So bad was the stigma, she recalled, that the owner of a private pre-school in their East Dry River neighbourhood declined to enroll her younger sister at the school because their two brothers were playing pan for the nearby Casablanca Steel Orchestra, which, at that time, had been in bitter rivalry with other bands.
“My mother (Fredericka James) was real hurt,”she recalled during an interview at the band’s cramped panyard at the corner of Quarry Street and The Crescent in East Dry River, Port-of-Spain.
While James-Mc Queen is grateful for the change in the overall mindset towards women in the artform today — something she has always prayed for — she feels governments could do so much more to uplift the profile of the steelband movement generally.
“It is not sufficient. You see how Jamaicans pushing their reggae? They (governments) not pushing pan so. Is only Carnival time you would hear it (pan music) on the radio and in the panyards. But is mostly a Jamaican thing (on the radio),”she argued.
However, the veteran player, who maintains an unpretentious disposition, has other issues, as she fears that the artform to which she has given her entire life may soon lead to her detriment, given the demands on her time and the ever rising cost of pursuing projects.
“You see me here, my doctor tell me I under real stress and I don’t know how much longer I could keep this up,” she said.
The mother of two admitted, though, that the support and encouragement from elders in the community over the years have kept her going. This year, the band, which has been a mainstay with defending Panorama champions, All Stars, is expected to perform Shadow’s “Peter” in the small band single-pan competition.
James-Mc Queen, who received the Hummingbird Medal (Silver) for outstanding and meritorious service at the annual Independence Awards at President’s House in 2005, was barely more than a toddler when she first played the “kettle” pan. “Since the age of five, I became involved through my brothers.”
She recalled observing her younger brother, Fitzroy (now deceased), beating a “kettle” pan in the family’s yard, which, she found, looked like a biscuit tin.
“He used to leave it on the ground and in his absence, I used to do what I saw him doing. Then one day, when my mother went to the market, my older brother (Ancil) came and told me ‘Come, I want you to go over the hill with me.’”
Ancil later took James-Mc Queen to the Casablanca panyard, which, she recalled, was crowded with people. Among those in the yard at that time were famed panmen Oscar Pyle, a former captain of the band, and Patsy Haynes.
“I did not know what was going on but I saw some white people and he told me that he wanted me to ‘play the thing.’”
Baffled by the request, James-Mc Queen remembered holding the pan in an awkward manner to play a tune, but seconds into her performance, some members of Casablanca started playing alongside her.
“I was shocked by the sound that was created,” she said.
Unknown to her staunch Roman Catholic mother, James-Mc Queen later became a fixture at the Casablanca panyard. So delighted were the spectators with her talent and passion, she often received money after her performances.
“The tourists would give me money but my brother would take the notes and he would give me the coins,” James-Mc Queen recalled, adding that she hid the money under a stone in the yard of their home, away from her mother’s eyes.
Despite her mother’s disapproval, James-McQueen’s interest in the steelpan persisted, but it was not until years later, during the 1950’s, that she became truly captivated by its infectious appeal.
She recalled being at her home one day and hearing “nice music coming down the road”.
“I started to look up the hill and I saw a band coming down. It was Syncopators. It was the first time I heard a band playing real nice music.” As fate would have it, members of the band remained at her mother’s house and played.
“I was glad,” she said.
Her mother, too, enjoyed the music and subsequently encouraged James-Mc Queen’s two brothers to leave Casablanca and join Syncopators.
Although her mother developed a greater appreciation for the steelpan after that experience, James-Mc Queen was still scolded for playing the instrument.
Things changed, though, when the Rose Hill RC student was asked to perform at a concert at the then St Ann’s Workshop.
“I invited my parents because I had to perform during the second half of the programme,” she said.
James-Mc Queen recalled that John Donaldson Sr, father of the former PNM minister and party vice-chairman, was scheduled to deliver a speech at the event.
“He was a jefe in the PNM when Dr Eric Williams was there. But he did not reach on time and the people started to make noise because they find the thing taking long to start. They pelt empty cup, paper, orange peel skin,” she said.
Worried that the behaviour of the patrons could have disrupted the event, organisers asked James-Mc Queen to begin the show.
“I was vexed and I started to tremble one time because I did not think I was opening the show,” she recalled.
“But from the time the curtain open, the place got quiet. If a pin dropped you could have heard it.”
Performing the classic “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “Indian Love Call” on pan, James-McQueen said she received a standing ovation at the end of her performance. Donaldson, who arrived late but had seen the performance, also congratulated her.
“That was when my mother accepted me playing the pan,” she said.
As an adult, James-Mc Queen’s love for pan piqued and for many years, she maintained a reputation as the only woman in the artform.
“I never saw any other woman. I heard there was a woman in Belmont. I think her name was Gemma Worrell, but she went away.”
She also holds the reputation of being the first woman to accompany a calypsonian on the steelpan in the finals of the Calypso Monarch competition at the Dimanche Gras show, during the 1970’s.
“I accompanied Brother Mudada and he came second in the show that year with “Nigerian Panorama” and “Papers No Use,” she recalled with pride.Although the steelpan has taken her to many islands in the region over the years, her deep involvement in the movement did not affect her family life, she said.
“Practice used to be on a Sunday and I used to get up at 4 am to clean my house, cook and I gone,” she joked.
James-Mc Queen singlehandedly re-established the Harlem Syncopators some 12 years ago, both as a testament of her love for the instrument and as a means of keeping the youngsters in her gritty neighbourhood off the streets. She joked that she often wonders if the sacrifice was worth it.
“I had $60-odd thousand dollars to build a house and I take my fas’ self and say Syncopators want to come back because when you go to a meeting only a few people used to come out,” she said. And while the band has had much success since then, winning numerous titles during its relatively short reincarnation, the stress of maintaining it has begun to take a toll on her health, she said.
The proprietress, who now functions mainly in an advisory capacity in Syncopators, said the cost of managing the band over the years had become overwhelming.
“I recently went and trust two tenor pans and one of them alone is $6,000,” she said.
“I have no sponsor but sometimes I would just get jerseys for the players.”
In addition, she told Sunday Newsday that she usually charged All Stars $5,000 to play for them on Carnival Monday.
“But if the tractor man (who transports the pans) alone want $3,500, all I could do is buy things for the children to eat and drink. You really not making anything for the band. It is just for fun and the love of it.”
Last month, scores of unsponsored steelbands received assistance with preparation for the National Panorama competition through corporate donations, amounting to some $110,000, from the Scotiabank Foundation. Harlem Syncopators was among the bands which received support.
Days before, Arts and Muticulturalism Minister Winston “Gypsy” Peters had also distributed more than $2.6 million to 165 unsponsored steelbands to assist with Carnival expenses.
At the function, Peters said the money was given to ensure that smaller bands remained viable entities of pan music within their respective communities.
“We are certain that these funds will ease the burden of sustaining each group and that players and administrators will be able to place greater emphasis on making great music for the season,” Peters had said.
James-Mc Queen feels a sense of pride at having tutored many successful pan players. One of them, Keron Harris, is now a drummer with the HD outfit led by soca star Machel Montano.
James-Mc Queen has lost several players who cut their teeth in Syncopators to larger, more accomplished bands.
“They (large bands) take them after they train and some of them don’t even say a word. You just miss them.”
James-Mc Queen, who sat alongside late Desperadoes ace arranger Rudolph Charles at Rose Hill RC, also complained about parents who rarely support their children during the band’s practice sessions and fund-raising activities, but show up to collect money during prize-giving celebrations.
“I don’t understand some people,” James-Mc Queen said, adding that she has sometimes had to reprimand parents for such conduct.
Despite the encumbrances, James-Mc Queen, who is regarded as a matriarch and respected figure in her district, has vowed to soldier on.
In her own way, she has done her best to keep young people away from a life of crime whilst assisting with the development of the steelpan.
“I just want to keep the children in the area together and musically inclined. My dream is also to develop into a big band once I get a major sponsor,” she said.