For Patrick “Panman Pat” McNeilly, singing and playing to musical beats was more appealing that walking the beat.
After four years on the job as a Toronto Police Service constable assigned to 14 Division, McNeilly resigned in 1972 to pursue a cultural career.
The only steelpan player at the inaugural Caribbean Carnival in the city five years earlier, he introduced the musical instrument as a formal high school music credit in the Toronto District School Board, published Hands on Steelpan”: Teachers Guide and Student Companion to the Art of Playing Steelpan and adjudicated several Toronto District Catholic School Board music festivals.
Last week, the 68-year-old cultural artist and educator was honoured for publishing his fourth book, A Musical Journey, and his distinguished leadership in sharing and promoting Trinidad & Tobago’s music and culture in Canada for nearly five decades.
“Music is in his blood,” said younger brother Gerry McNeilly who heads the civilian body that handles public complaints against municipal and provincial police in Ontario. “He thinks, eats and sleeps music which for him is steelpan and calypso.”
The holder of a Diploma in Education from Queen’s University and an Ontario College of Teachers member, McNeilly is a two-time calypso winner and 1991 Juno award recipient who returned to the Organization of Calypso Performing Artists (OCPA) in 2007 after a 10-year absence. He was the oldest participant that year.
Four-time calypso monarch John “Jayson” Perez said McNeilly is a man of many talents who has made a huge impact on the cultural scene in Canada.
“Pat is also one of the most unselfish human beings I have ever met,” said Perez who was the leader of musical ensemble, The Legends, which folded in 1983 after 13 years. “He’s always willing to share his time and passion for music.”
Retired librarian and raconteur Rita Cox recalled her early meetings with McNeilly and late lawyer and activist Charles Roach who was a musician and bandleader in the city in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
“As a young person coming from Trinidad & Tobago, I went to Charlie’s home on Selby St. and to the now-defunct Club Trinidad which were havens for new immigrants from the Caribbean and being entertained by Pat and Charlie who played the guitar and sang together,” recounted Cox who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1997.
“A year ago, Pat and I went to see Charlie who was very ill. Even though he was extremely sick and weak, Charlie still found the strength to pick up his guitar and he and Pat started strumming away. That was such a beautiful memory…Pat has helped to tell our stories in so many ways.”
McNeilly played an integral part in helping the Naparima Alumni Association of Canada (NAAC) establish a steelband, Panache.
“Pat is committed, caring, creative, dedicated, funny and resourceful,” said former NAAC president, Rustin Oree. “The history and development of our steelband provide many examples of these qualities. He’s committed to keeping the culture alive and sharing it with others.”
T & T consul general Dr. Vidhya Gyan Tota-Maharaj and pannist Earl Pierre also paid tribute to McNeilly who migrated to Canada in 1966.
He spent nine years in T & T promoting steelpan music in school and singing in calypso tents before returning to Toronto in 2004. Five years ago, he was diagnosed with chronic glaucoma which is the leading cause of blindness among adults in Canada and is particularly dangerous because it can gradually progress and go unnoticed for many years.
Though he carries a Canadian National Institute for the Blind identification card instituted in June 2011 for Ontarians who are blind or partially sighted, McNeilly has not slowed down.
He performs regularly at community events and finished fourth in this year’s OCPA competition even though he walked off the stage midway through his second presentation, Get off the Fence. He claims an audible feedback from the drum machine was too distracting for him to continue.