Archive of International News Items

Mar 9, 2015

Female Musical Trailblazers: The first “All Girls Steel Bands” of Guyana*


GY - A women’s History Month Tribute
Female Musical Trailblazers: The first “All Girls Steel Bands” of Guyana*
By Lear Matthews

Source: Guyanese Online

It was the early 1950’s. Guyana, then British Guiana, like many other Caribbean countries was in the initial stages of struggle to shed the yoke of colonialism, epitomized by the first national, multiethnic political party. The dawning of “Massa Day Done”!

As with the political scene, “beating pan” was a male-dominated activity. But despite normative cultural credence and challenges faced by women, pioneering genius was afoot. The phenomenon of a female steel orchestra was emerging. Steel band was viewed as a lower class musical form, practiced by urban folk from economically deprived communities – “Dem Bad boys” from Albouystown and Lodge (although the majority of residents from those neighborhoods were decent, law abiding and productive). Initially, steel band playing was not considered socially accepted as a legitimate genre of entertainment, thus deemed unworthy of invitation to perform at “prestigious venues” such as the Town Hall in Georgetown.

Against this backdrop, one could envisage the idea of a female steel band was indeed an ambitious, if not presumptuous artistic endeavor. The first two such bands were founded by unsung hero Yesobel Ross, a home maker and later Iris Leach, a school teacher. Challenging tradition, these enterprising women ingeniously organized a group of teenage girls, marking the birth of an All Girls Steel Band, a stark gender breakthrough. They undoubtedly had to be charming, diplomatic and bold as they did compete with male counterparts, unnerving engrained gender-based cultural barriers. The country certainly was not “ready” for such a thing. Among the trainers was a pan wizard named Bertram DeVarrel, who was the leader of Tripoli Steel Band. He was a tuner and first-pan player extraordinaire. At that time the rival band was Quo Vadis.

To capture that unprecedented, challenging and transformative experience, I interviewed Joan Rose, former leader of the Ebony All Stars Steel Band at her home in Brooklyn, New York.

Lear: What do you remember about how the band started?

Joan: Your mother, Ms. Ross, a very courageous woman, started the band, first of its kind in British Guiana. She got the idea from a similar group in Trinidad. Our uniform was white waist-coat and burgundy skirt.

Lear: Which pan did you play?

Joan: I played the “jam pan”.

Lear: How did your parents and the other parents react?

Joan: Some parents were OK with it. Others were upset and tried to limit our involvement. They said things like: “You’re not going to beat no oil drum….education is more important; you’re not going to ruin the reputation of this family.” It was tough.

Lear: How many members were there?

Joan: About ten, plus the trainers, who were “pan men”, very respectful and decent. I am still in touch with band members Cynthia George, Iva Matthews–Homer, and Edith Abrams.

Lear: Where did you practice?

Joan: We practiced three times a week in Worthmanville under a “bottom house”.

Lear: What was it like being a member of the first All Girls Steel Band?

Joan: It was a new experience. As teenagers we were excited to be in the newspapers. We were proud of our accomplishment.

Lear: Where did the band perform and how were you received?

Joan: We performed at LCP Fairs; Elsie’s Ball Room in Durban Street; Promenade Gardens; Girl Guides Pavilion; and McKenzie, but “tramping” was not allowed. We played in Surinam, touring with leading calypsonians from Trinidad, and chaperons. We had many supporters. Audiences loved us. We were well received and applauded wherever we played.

Lear: Were there critics?

Joan: Of course, but not of our music. People criticized our parents. “How could you allow your daughters to do such a thing?” they would ask.

Lear: As a “small boy” I heard the band play. Anything else you would like to share?

Joan: It was a good experience while it lasted. We made history. It was a different time, different values, stricter rules. I am glad you are doing this because many Guyanese are not aware of it. We have come a long way. Steel band is now recognized around the world, with no gender or age discrimination. Times have changed.

Lear: You are certainly a musical pioneer. The Guyana Cultural Association of New York recognizes and celebrates your efforts and priceless contribution. Thank you!

Note: Today Steel Band/Pan playing is very popular across the globe. In fact, recent observation revealed that more female youth (than their male counterpart) of various ethnicities participate in this fascinating musical genre.

*(A version of this article was published in the March 2012 Guyana Cultural Association’s Special Issue on Women’s History Month).