Afropan returns as country’s top steelband


Afropan broke Salah Steelpan Academy’s four-year stranglehold on the Ontario Steelpan Association’s Pan Alive contest this year and, in the process, clinched its 28th crown at this year’s Panorama competition.

Emerging out of the old Harriet Tubman Community Centre, the city’s oldest and most successful steelband regained the championship with Winston “DeFosto” Scarborough’s “A Raging Storm” which they executed to perfection before an appreciative audience at Lamport Stadium.

The NLCB Fonclaire steel orchestra performed the Ken Philmore-arranged song in the 2011 Trinidad & Tobago national Panorama competition.

“I was surprised that a lot of the local bands bypassed that song,” said Afropan’s long-time arranger, Earl LaPierre Sr., “That was a good song because the melody was sweet and to beat.”

A Cayman Islands resident for the past 25 years, LaPierre said that he and the band members, including his eldest son Earl LaPierre Jr. who is the manager and grandson Terrell LaPierre who is the conductor, were determined to bring the crown back to Toronto.

Salah Steelpan Academy, founded by Salah Wilson in 1997, is based in Montreal.

“I felt we were close in the past four years but, for some reason, Salah got the better of us,” said 65-year-old LaPierre who played with the T & T Invaders steelband and was the arranger for the twin-island republic’s Junior Chamber of Commerce steel orchestra which played at Expo’67 in Montreal and at a Toronto convention a few weeks later.

“That was a small band that kept beating us and it’s something that we worked hard to overcome which we finally did this year. We had a nice song which we did very well over the allotted eight minutes and the public was really behind us…I had a good feeling from the ‘blockos’ that we would do well and that was confirmed on the night of the competition.”

Afropan won the contest with 291 points which was five more than Salah Academy. New Dimension was third with 284 points followed by Pan Fantasy (280), Hamilton Youth Steel Orchestra (275), Panatics (274), Symphonyx (270), Golden Harps (266), Silhouettes (262), JK Pan Vibrations and Pan Masters (258), Metrotones (257), Canadian Caribbean Association of Halton (255) and St. James Youth Centre Steel Orchestra (247).

The judging criteria was 40 points each for arrangement and general performance and 10 points each for tone and rhythm.

While elated with regaining the title, LaPierre is disappointed that prize money was not at stake in the competition.

“When you consider the amount of work we and the other bands put in for the competition and then to be rewarded with a small trophy is just not right,” said LaPierre, who was honoured last year for his contributions to the Toronto Carnival. “That would not happen in any other part of the world. It’s good to be congratulated for your success, but it’s hard to celebrate when we do not have any money to do that. I am so dejected. The organizers know that people like playing pan in this city and they figure they can do anything to them and exploit us. That has got to stop.”

Former Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) chair Ken Jeffers, who founded the Harriet Tubman Centre in 1972, which included a steelband – the Tubman Survivors that later became The Avenger Steelband and then Afropan – comprising about 20 young people and their parents, agreed with LaPierre who he hired as the band’s first arranger.

“In many ways, that’s disrespectful to the pan culture and the instrument,” said Jeffers. “This is the national instrument of Trinidad & Tobago and you don’t even think it’s important enough to deserve a monetary prize. Steelpan evolved out of the working class and it has given people an opportunity to develop and learn music.

“I firmly believe that the Trinidad & Tobago government should step in and address the disrespect for the pan culture which you have to put a value on.”

Band of the Year winner Carnival Nationz will receive nearly $7,000 in addition to the almost $10,000 they will pick up for clinching the King and Queen titles while winning calypsonian Bryan “Structure” Thornhill won $6,020 and trips to next year’s Atlanta and Notting Hill carnivals.

Jeffers gives LaPierre much of the credit for Afropan’s success.

“It’s under Earle’s dedication and creativity that the band became popular and very successful,” said Jeffers.

Last Monday, LaPierre returned to the Cayman Islands where he introduced steelpan music almost three decades ago. He was a member of Earle Wong’s Trinstars band that toured the British Overseas Territory in 1986 for the annual 10-day Pirates Week Festival.

“I remember people looking at me in amazement when I played the instrument,” said LaPierre who was recognized with a T & T Consul General Diaspora Award three years ago. “I saw an opportunity and I went into the schools and did some workshops before coming back to Toronto. Within a week of my arrival here, I received a call from the Cayman Islands Board of Education, requesting that I come back to teach in their schools. At that time, country western music was dominant there, but that has changed over the years.”

Every school on the islands of Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac has steelpan programs and the University College of the Cayman Islands’ Pandemix band members have been visiting Toronto for the past four years in the summer to experience the city’s carnival.

A total of 19 students spent two weeks here late last month.

“They do fundraising for the trip and when they come here, they spend the time in Afropan’s panyard as part of an educational development and cultural exchange exercise,” LaPierre said. “When they go back home, they have to write and talk about their experiences as part of a university project.”

When he’s not working in educational institutions during the day, La Pierre could be found nights at hotels playing with the three-member LaPierre Family Steelband which comprises son Olujimi and daughter Aziza.

LaPierre, who began playing steelpan at age three, helped spread the instrument’s growth in Toronto schools and communities before relocating to the Cayman Islands.

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