US – The steel pan’s cheerful yet melancholic chime has mesmerized Mike Kernahan since he was a young boy growing up near the oil fields of Palo Seco, Trinidad. It is in his blood, he says — his two uncles on his mother’s side were both pannists in Red Army, one of the first pan bands formed.
But in 1963, when Kernahan was just 14 years old, his mother, like most parents at the time in Trinidad, strictly forbade his playing the pan. He wasn’t even allowed to listen to pan music. The instrument’s street origins had given it a bad reputation, and though in-group fighting had ceased since its introduction in the 1930s, the instrument had already been marked.
Kernahan, optimistic and determined, didn’t let his mother’s disapproval stop him. One night, while he was staying with his grandmother in St. James, he snuck out and approached his four older cousins who played in the group Tripoli. They quickly invited him to the pan yard where they practiced, with 28 handmade steel pans standing in rows underneath the natural fauna. After some trepidation, Kernahan’s cousin told him, “You won’t learn anything standing out here.” Kernahan shook off his fears and began learning by rote.
“When my mom saw I was playing she started to cry, but my older cousin told her, ‘I’ll take care of him,’” says Kernahan. “It seemed like [the pan] would call you out, so when you hear it you have to go, you know?”
Kernahan has spent a lifetime heeding the call. He has toured with Liberace, performed on national television, and was once nominated for a Grammy. Today, his West Kendall studio tells the story of Kernahan’s part in pan music’s triumphant history. Downstairs, the walls are lined with photos from his years of touring; in one, he stands arm in arm with Liberace and the then-Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams. Upstairs, covered up in a back corner, Kernahan still has the original pans from his performances with Liberace in the late ’60s. Every now and then, he’ll take them out to show students how the sound has evolved from mellow to bright.