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Pan Fantasy ...Canada’s undisputed champion steelband

Thursday, August 4, 2016
Wendy Jones, the captain of Canada’s pan champions Pan Fantasy.

Pan Fantasy Steelband of Toronto, one of the many fine foreign steelbands that ventured to last summer’s International Conference and Panorama in Trinidad, are again the reigning Panorama champs of Canada. On July 29, for the fifth year in a row they won Pan Alive—Canada’s Panorama—in Toronto, with Al “Allos” Foster’s arrangement of Kerwin DuBois’s Unforgettable. 

This year the band also celebrates 30 years of existence with many events. The band had previously won the Pan Alive steelband competition at Caribana in 2005, and 2006 as well, and since its inception, Pan Fantasy Steelband has been one of the leading steelbands in Canada. In addition to its strong presence at the Pan Alive steelband competition every year, the band performs at an ever-expanding schedule of events throughout Canada and North America, and makes regular visits to the New York Steelband Panorama competition in Brooklyn. This summer they are planning to return to Brooklyn Panorama for Labour Day weekend and also are planning a special 30th anniversary five-day Caribbean cruise to the Bahamas.

Pan Fantasy Steelband formed in 1986 in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood of North York, an area with a strong and vibrant Caribbean community. The band started small, with approximately ten members who broke away from Afropan founded by Earl La Pierre Sr, which is itself the oldest and longest active Toronto-based steelband.

Pan Fantasy Steelband is part of a larger non-profit organisation, the North York Inter-Community Youth Group, which has many other youth activities beyond steelband and gives area youth a solid base in the community. The organisation’s goal was, and continues to be, to engage youth to learn leadership skills through the performing arts. The programme was successful indeed and after well over three decades of service, Pan Fantasy continues to be one of the stalwarts on the Toronto steelband scene. 

Wendy Jones enthusiastically leads Pan Fantasy. The Canadian-based Black Business and Professional Association recently honoured her as a Harry Jerome award winner for her work in entertainment. The band’s arranger for the past 15 years is Al “Allos” Foster who started with Pan Fantasy as a teenager in a summer camp programme and grew into teaching steelpan full-time in the Toronto area schools and arranging for steelbands throughout Canada. Ben Jackson of Trinidad has been the drillmaster for the band for several years.

The band also features Larnell Lewis, one of the top jazz drummers in Canada, and he has been with the band for the last several summers.

“He is one of the best!” Wendy says, proudly noting the team of Foster, Jackson and Lewis has been a key to their success.

The Pan Fantasy has a core stage-side membership of 25 players that grows to full strength Panorama size, normally around 80 to 100 players, in the summers for the Pan Alive! competition. Throughout the year, the band practises on Thursdays and Sundays, though it, like other steelbands in Toronto, ramps up activity and practise nearly every night during the summer months in anticipation of Caribana. Pan Fantasy Steelband’s dedication and precision have paid off with its current dominance as the top steelband in Toronto. 

Pan Fantasy prefers to rehearse on the lawn area outside its normal panyard in a large warehouse, when the weather co-operates.

Frigid temperatures aside, the band keeps its instruments in top shape and works with one of Trinidad’s leading tuners, Roland Harrigan. The primary tuner for the band, Harrigan has been coming to Toronto to keep their steelpans sounding great for several years. Ed Peters, a Trinidadian who relocated to Canada nearly three decades ago, built Pan Fantasy’s first steelpans. However, over the years as instruments deteriorate and the band grew in size, Harrigan has built new replacement steelpans for Pan Fantasy that he ships up from Trinidad and tunes and blends on site in Canada. 

In 1997, Pan Fantasy Steelband leader Wendy Jones and Afropan manager Earl La Pierre formed the Pan Arts Network (PAN). The band decided that the Canadian steelpan community needed an organisation to promote steelpan concerts at various times throughout the calendar year, not just Caribana in July. The Pan Arts Network started their initial promotion with a winter steel orchestra showcase, Snowflakes on Steel, held in January, and a Gospel Praise on Steel event in April, complete with steelbands and vocalists and ensembles. Both concerts have grown in popularity and now sell out each year. 

More recently, the Pan Arts Network has also started Autumn Leaves on Steel, a soloist showcase which features guest artists the likes of Duvone Stewart, Ken “Professor” Philmore and Dane Gulston. The Pan Arts Network’s latest project is New Generation, a summer concert for steelbands not participating in Caribana to get a chance for exposure.

Over the years, Pan Fantasy has recorded two albums and now has a third in the works. 

One of Pan Fantasy’s most interesting projects was the Meeting of the Two Drums venture with support from the former T&T consulate Michael Lashley. The project was an outreach and collaboration with the Wikwemikong First Nation community on the local reserve outside Toronto for a cultural/musical exchange of workshops and concerts. The collaboration resulted in Pan Fantasy performing at the Wikwemikong Pow-Wow, Eastern Canada’s oldest Pow Wow, in 2010.

Since the 1990s, Pan Fantasy has made regular trips to New York to perform and compete in the Brooklyn Panorama, including 2013 and 2014. The band has plenty of supporters in New York and generally earns top places in the competition. In 2015, Pan Fantasy opted to skip the Brooklyn Panorama and instead followed the legions of foreign steelbands to Trinidad in order to compete in the International Conference and Panorama this past August. Travelling to Trinidad was a dream come true for Pan Fantasy Steelband, Jones especially. The band performed Al Foster’s arrangement of Destra’s Lucy for the competition. 

While several members of Pan Fantasy come down to Trinidad every year to play in different steelbands for Panorama, Jones notes that it was exciting to plan to bring the whole complement of Pan Fantasy down. “It was a good lesson in different ways of doing things. For me, it was eye-opening. I came away with a different mindset and ideas on how we can improve things.” The process was not easy and proved a major financial challenge for the band, but in the end it proved a great experience. Jones was, in particular, thankful for the host band, Couva Joylanders, for all the help the members provided. Now it seems just another step in the band’s ever-evolving journey.

Now, though barely recovered from celebrations over its latest win, Pan Fantasy is coming to take New York by storm. Watch out Brooklyn bands!


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