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The Pan Tuning Meritocracy

Published: 
Thursday, February 23, 2017
Emily Lemmerman runs her own pan-making and tuning operation in Austin and was trained by icon Elie Mannette.

It’s mid-morning Wednesday and this interview is clearly not going to happen. Desmond “Mappo” Richardson is probably capable of hearty, colourful conversation, but not today in the Desperadoes panyard four days before Panorama semifinals.

Attempts to get Bertram Kellman and Leonard “Lenny” Lera have come up blank. It’s busy season and phone calls are not easily answered (or remembered) above the ring of the notes or during rare hours of restful sleep.

But here, Mappo is hunched over a pan; eyes and ears focused on a single note. One knock of the hammer and the plonk, plonk, plonk of a panstick.

He is reduced to short sentences and the grim declaration: “not today, not today.”

Mappo’s understudy, Jason Holder, is himself an accomplished pan tuner. He stands over the veteran’s left shoulder, equally as focused and attentive. The task of the interview eventually falls to the 40-year-old protégé. Holder, an army corporal, has played and tuned pans in T&T, several other Caribbean countries, the UK and USA.

For three consecutive years, between 2013 and 2015, he was also behind the sound of the pans at twotime Panorama winners Silver Stars and his hometown band, Pamberi. To him, pan-tuning is both art and science. Though he is old enough to have witnessed the use of tuning forks, strobe tuners and now mobile apps, he considers the human ear to be pan tuning’s most valuable tool.

“The (tuning) machine is a guide,” he says, “but you still need to know what you are looking for in a note. You still need the human brain.”

Most of all, Holder is not pessimistic about the future of pan tuning, though he believes that the cadre of professionals in this discipline will increasingly become international in nature.

Over at the Phase II Pan Groove panyard, on the other side of town, Emily Lemmerman is evidence of Holder’s thesis.

The 40-year-old Texan (her birthday was celebrated at the panyard a few days before this conversation), has been a T&T Panorama regular for almost ten years. She runs her own pan making and tuning operation in Austin and has tuned pans for local bands such as Katzenjammers, Skiffle, Tokyo, Harvard Harps and now multiple Panorama winners, Phase II.

On a drizzly Sunday afternoon she has heavy headphones over her ears and her eyes are closed. Nearby carwash chatter is muted. An email exchange will be necessary.

“There are not enough professional tuners worldwide today,” Lemmerman later responds to an emailed question. “This is the fastest growing artform in the US, and there are new bands forming all over the world each day.”

She argues that every new pan being manufactured in T&T, US and all over the world requires years of maintenance “and there just aren’t enough people trained to do the job. Assuming that there are 100 more tuners worldwide that I just don’t know about, there aren’t even enough tuners worldwide to have one in every country.” “If the criterion narrows, and you are looking for the most talented, premier tuners, that list gets much shorter.”

Ronald Matthews, who has been tuning for over 25 years and is currently associated with Arima Angel Harps and a number of other Caribbean bands, agrees that for a long time to come the finely-tuned ears of the pan tuner will be a necessity. “It is going to be very long time before we are going to be replaced by machines or computers,” Matthews, a former classical guitarist says, “but my concern is with tuners themselves.”

He cites a recent study which shows that over 60 per cent of all tuners in T&T are over the age of 60. “In the next 10-15 years they would have stopped working and we would have to start bringing tuners in from the outside,” Matthews adds.

“We are not doing enough to get the younger generation to get involved in tuning.” Lemmerman, the lone female tuner on the Panorama circuit, believes more should be done to “support and encourage young people to go into this field.”

“It is a difficult life—one that requires years of intensive training, hard work, and a tolerance for financial insecurity,” she says. “And it’s difficult to find a good teacher (and) often premier tuners can’t afford the time to invest in young tuners, and there is sometimes a sense that young tuners will thief jobs from their elders.” To be fair, operations such as Panland T&T and Pan Development Unlimited (PDU) have offered extensive training in pan construction and tuning over the years.

In March, for instance, PDU will b e g i n an Introductory Pan Construction Course for Schools at Belmont Secondary. But the magnitude of the demand, both nationally and internationally suggests that the home of the world’s finest steelbands will become just one of several sources of seasoned pan tuners required for the thousands of steelpans being manufactured all over the world on an annual basis.

Operations in the US, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Japan are churning out a growing number of pans requiring professional tuning and blending.

Supernovas arranger, Amrit Samaroo, considers pan tuning professionals to be among the “unsung heroes” of pan music. They are perhaps as irreplaceable as the instrument itself.

In 2001, Black Stalin’s Mr Panmaker calls for a closely-guarded “secret of making steelpan”.

The testimonies of those in the industry however suggest that the gates are already wide open and that the flow of talent, skill and imagination is already evident...in both directions.

In the panyard, Lemmerman sees an emerging meritocracy , without regard to age and, in her case gender and country of origin. Holder also makes the point: “Once they can do the job, they will be accepted.”

The interview is over and he races back to Mappo’s side. The sounds of the outside world disappear including the prying voice of this interviewer.

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