Montreal’s Salah Academy tough to beat

By RON FANFAIR

Montreal band leader and educator, Salah Wilson, has made it clear that he is not coming all the way to Toronto to lose. And that his band expects to win many more Panorama titles.

Salah Steelpan Academy, which Wilson founded in 1997, captured its third straight Pan Alive crown and its fourth in nine years at the Ontario Steelpan Association (OSA) final last Friday night at Lamport Stadium.

In 1995, Wilson’s five-member outfit won the steelpan contest that was a precursor to the OSA competition that began 12 years ago.

This year’s 39-member band – comprising mainly elementary and high school students and a few adults – wowed the audience and judges with the Edwin Pouchet and Alvin Daniell composition, First In De Line, which was their panorama selection and Diana Ross’, I’m Coming Out, which was the academy’s tune of choice.

“We came to Toronto to do a job well and we achieved our goal,” said Wilson who won the title last year with 22 players. “We relish winning and we intend to win more contests but we know it’s not going to be easy. The other bands will go back to the drawing board and try to see what they can do to become better in the next year. Some of them are going to be better and we know that. But, so will we. We realize that in order to stay on top and hold on to that crown, we have to keep working hard to get better and raise our level. We enjoy the competition and we will be ready for any challenge next year.”

Wilson, who migrated to Montreal from Trinidad & Tobago in 1973 and is the founding president of Pan Quebec, attributes much of the academy’s success to his students’ musical literacy.

“Going to school helps because they get structure in arranging what to do and how to do it,” said Wilson, whose academy includes his wife, their six children and two grand children. “That, along with discipline, is very important and that is what we have been applying. We have a formula that we are using. It’s a general formula and we can take different things from it and do whatever we want because we understand what we have to do.”

Prior to coming to Toronto for the Pan Alive event, the academy participates in the annual Montreal International Steelpan Festival at the end of June.

“We begin our preparations a few months before this event, so we are very ready and prepared by the time we get here,” he said. “The Toronto bands might be at a disadvantage but we have invited them to come to the festival which will give them ample time also to be ready for Caribana.”

The victory proved to be more satisfying for the accomplished bandleader who lost almost all of his possessions in a fire last May that gutted the townhouse complex where he and his family have lived for two decades. He managed to save a hard drive from a burnt out computer which contained six books he authored and the manuscript for one that he is preparing.

“The victory means a lot to me personally in view of the little tragedy that we had which was a bit of a setback, but it made our group stronger,” said Wilson, who played pan with the steelbands, Exodus and Desperadoes, in Trinidad & Tobago. “My wife called me at around 9 o’clock on a Monday night at the academy, where I was putting on the finishing touches for a three-day event we were to perform at the next day, to tell me our home was on fire. It was very devastating but we were there bright and early for the start of our show the next day and the teachers at the school … just could not believe that we showed up to play pan and have a good time in light of what I had endured.

“I believe in a higher force and I am just a servant. I try to do my best at all times because I feel that is what is expected of you. Life is full of peaks and valleys and you just have to roll with it. Not because the sun does not come up every day means that day is a bad day. You have to make adjustments. That’s my view on life because things don’t always go the way you want them to.”

Veteran pannist, Ian Jones, says he’s not surprised by the academy’s success.

“They are very organized and focused and they have a sense of purpose,” he said. “They are also led by a very good musician so their arrangements have always been interesting and unique. We also have to bear in mind that these kids are active for almost 12 months a year.”

New Dimension finished second while there was a third place tie between Afropan and Pan Fantasy.

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