Providing sweet pan music is costly

Providing sweet pan music is costly
Pan Sonatas Steel Orchestra

The sound of the steel drum is captivating.

The vibrant sounds emulated from a steel orchestra literally beats the sounds associated with Caribbean carnival into the air.

Birthed in Trinidad, the steel pan orchestra is a passion honed by many across the Caribbean and worldwide.

Building and maintaining a steel pan orchestra is no small feat, providing the sound of the steel pan in Brooklyn since 1971 – Pan Sonatas Steel Orchestra has faced rising costs through breaking their own pockets.

Current president, Mack Scott, recalls the last sponsor helping to provide funds to cover costs including transportation and practice space. That sponsorship ended in 1993 and since then Pan Sonatas have funded everything.

“We got to go out and raise funds, having BBQs, band launches where we invite other bands and sell refreshments and stuff like that,” Scott explained. “We want to get sponsors so that they can help us get a space to practice and truck for transportation and all of these things would have the sponsor’s name on it for their exposure.”

With serial construction taking over empty lots that were once prime practice space for steel pan bands, Scott and his board have partnered with Square Business Consulting to once again garner outside support.

“I see the needs and the wants in the steel pan industry, not only here in the United States but also in Trinidad. It is a passion but it is also looking at it from an economic way for young Caribbean people who have a talent for steel pan that they can expand themselves into. I want to look at steel pan not only as a passion but as an economic way our young people can look into,” Kofi Pierre, director at Square Business Consulting, explained. “As a group, Pan Sonatas, for the last maybe 10 or 12 years we’ve been doing everything on our own from our pockets before Mr. Pierre stepped in,” Scott added.

Maintaining a full steel pan orchestra is not a small feat. Taking into account of purchasing and maintaining the instruments, uniforms appropriate for casual and formal occasions, rental vehicles, liability insurance per player and more can run up to a cost of $20,000 and more – the price of college tuition for one student attending college locally.

“To run a stateside band annually including new instruments and all that is approximately $60 to $70,000. It wouldn’t be annually but that would be if we needed new instruments. Normally, it should be $20 – $25,000 annually,” Scott said.

“To run an orchestra like Sonatas business wise it would run around $200,000 — to have leadership, teachers, to have a full program but during the carnival season its around $30 – $35,000,” Pierre added.

The passion for the music and preservation for the culture, Scott, founding member Randolph Hillaire, and Pierre are working together to economize and professionalize steel pan music.

Both the musical arranger and captain of Pan Sonatas hold masters degrees in music. Despite their accomplishments, the music associated with steel pan is confined to stigmas of violence in relation to carnival. For Pan Sonatas, the steel pan has more to offer and can very well be taught in schools — as it is currently in New York University and Princeton University — be a means for scholarship and more.

“Currently we are working with ASA College and they want us to help them bring a steel orchestra to the school that will then offer scholarships to Caribbean students to play,” Pierre said.

Solidifying sponsorships from Caribbean corporate companies have been an upward battle Pierre is willing to tackle. “Sponsors shy away, they do not want their name to associate with that type of violence or whatever it might be and that is because of the leadership,” he said. “What I have looked at are the Caribbean organizations which benefit from carnival, who get the exposure for free for carnival for example, Caribbean airlines, tourism companies but they do not put their money at carnival. This year, we are focusing on Caribbean organizations that benefit so hotels, tourism and so fourth. The only company that has come up so far is D&G from Jamaica.”

The message Pan Sonatas wants to make clear is that steel pan music is world music. It is captivating. It is beautiful. It is positive. It is played by professional musicians who deserve that recognition. It is cultural, and most importantly impactful.

“You’re dealing with professional, educated musicians who are playing steel band professionally right now. It’s just that there is not an outlet right now to label them as professionals,” Pierre said.

Ensuring that every member of the band lives up to his or her responsibilities, the captain of the band and other leading members ensure that those still in school still meet their necessary academic standards as well as provide them with a safe ride to their houses.

“You got to think about the hours that these young kids put in too,” Scott said. “One of our criteria in playing with our stateside is if you are in high school you have to show us how you’re going along in school or else you’re going to be off a few weeks until your grades start picking up again.”

Pan Sonatas has managed to stay afloat by the grit and skin of their teeth but fueling their passion shouldn’t rest in the stress induced by green paper. “What Sonatas is in need of is proper funding,” Pierre said.

Sought out by churches, schools and more to teach the art of the steel drum, Pan Sonatas is focusing on securing the proper funding to help in the maintenance of these strong, costly instruments that can be anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 a piece.

“That’s the main reason why we need this type of help. We’re going to work for the sponsor and hopefully the sponsor will do the same,” Scott said.

Get behind Pan Sonatas Steel Orchestra, operating strongly in their 44th year, and help them garner the sponsorship and economic support they deserve. Visit for more information about the band and their upcoming performances.

Reach reporter Alley Olivier at (718) 260–8310 or e-mail her at Follow Alley on Twitter @All3Y_B.