Brian Benoit: A Young Man Equipped With A Pan
  Aryana Mohammed
February 2018

Twenty-three year old, Brian Benoit always steps out in confidence with the motto, “You don’t always need money to start an idea”, proven by his many accomplishments in a short space of time.

It all began when at the age of seven, Brian was thrown into the Single Pan Band, Harlem Syncopators from Quarry Street, East Dry River in Port of Spain.

He claims, “Everybody in the community basically passed through that steel band.”

On the far right is a young Brian Benoit representing his community’s steel band, Harlem Syncopators

On the insistence of his parents, he too joined “everybody”. The steel band took him to Panorama until 2008 when at the behest of his parents he stopped playing to follow an interestingly different journey, academics, but not without the pan in hand. As the years went by he “poked his nose” in different areas but in 2015, concreted his decision to take his skills into entrepreneurship and education by officially starting Benoit Academy.

Yet his journey was rife with many indecisions, challenges and eventual victories.

Flashback to his time at Belmont Junior Secondary School. Then he was part of the school’s band and due to the change in the shift system, the music teacher began offering an elective to learn to read music in the extra time to assist in sitting the ABRSM examinations. Brian finally found something of his own to pursue and so he completed the exams till Grade 5, with the highest being 8.

Remembering how it felt to be empowered when helping others in class, joy washes over his face as he says, “I have something to contribute, to share.”

At that time he describes himself as not being “academically inclined” but the credentials that he has under his belt now might suggest otherwise. However, he was recognized for achieving in other areas in secondary school, by being the valedictorian for extra-curricular activities and winning the award for “Most Outstanding Student” in the Basic Pan Tuning course with Pan Development Unlimited which was sponsored then by BPTT.

However, the challenge came when he decided to do his degree in music but had only graduated with one C-SEC pass in Physical Education in 2010 and in 2011, he obtained a pass in English A. Somewhere in between this dilemma and getting into the University of Trinidad and Tobago’s B.F.A in Performing Arts that specialized in music, he also had a stint with On-The-Job Training in the Ministry of Food Production.

He says, “Well I wanted to continue with steelpan. I mean it’s the only musical instrument I really grew up on so I never played piano or guitar or anything like that, so steelpan was just it.”

When he applied to U.W.I, they were unable to accept him because of their academic requirements, however, he passed the interview with U.T.T and they took him into their certificate program. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough students in the program so instead of putting him out, they opted to place him in the B.F.A program only under the condition that he would repeat the syllabus for C-SEC Mathematics. He consented and life got the ball rolling to reveal to him, his real passion.

“I always wanted to start a music school since I had left secondary school,” he discloses.

Affected by U.T.T’s traditional focus on Panorama, he states, “I really enjoyed the courses, what happened is that, I found a more passion for starting a steelpan business. My whole problem was I wanted to see the steelpan industry develop and I found there wasn’t enough courses for it or people wasn’t doing it how I saw it fit.”

So while at U.T.T the wheels began turning to put this vision into action. He visited YTEPP, hoping to get a loan to start a school to teach different types of instruments, including steelpan but with no proper business plan in hand and no collateral, he was doomed for failure from the time he stepped out of the door.

Still endeavouring for success, he says, “So I started to say, you know what, let me try and narrow it down to steelpan and see how I could just develop steelpan.”

Brian Benoit in explanation while teaching class

Yet again, he went “a-knocking”, venturing to NEDCO, with the promise in his heart that he would get a loan to buy a few instruments to start up, but with no one to co-sign the loan with him, that was another buzzer sounding, “NO”. However, patience coupled with persistence can lead to progress in the present.

“So the officer decided to tell me about a program called ‘IBIS’ that is an entrepreneurship program that they partner with COSTAATT to help entrepreneurs develop their business. They give you an office space and money and those kind of things.”

He attended the interview and was shortlisted because they were looking for more innovation but as luck would have it, he got a spot when someone dropped out in Chaguanas.

Finally, what a breakthrough! He began attending the course on evenings after school. However, the degree was becoming more demanding of his time and so he had to make a decision, it was either the degree or funding for the business. Passion overruled all and he chose the business.

Happily he says, “A lot of ideas came out of it.”

He refers to his animation or rather “Panimation- Legends of Panderica” which he developed as a cartoon for kids, targeted at age’s six to nine, to educate them on a wide scale about the steelpan.

His idea?

“If you bring it in a nice fun way then it will captivate them.”

He tries to put the discovery of the idea into “flowery” words but ends up with, “Well while doing the course, one evening I was just sitting down in my drawing room and it just came to me.”

With a natural talent for drawing and some graphic design skills picked up at YTEPP, he sketched the very first character, Mr. Tenor, with some coloured ink pens. He then got an animator from U.T.T to share in the character creation for a while but eventually had to get other help which he sourced online, finding Lab206 Animation and Interactive Design Studio who aided in the development of the script, character backgrounds and in animating the characters.

The first victory came. He says, “While in the course there was a competition called ‘Ideas 2 Innovation’ which they gave you up to $200,000 to fund the business. So I entered the program in 2014 and I actually won.”

He took home $75,000 to bring it to “proof of concept”, develop a pitch bible and to create a 25 second animation. Currently, he plans to develop it into a 22 minute series with possible sponsorship through ExporTT and the Ministry of Tourism.

The second victory rings loud and clear when proudly he cries, “When I graduated from the course with IBIS, I was actually top of my class in the business course, yeah and these were people who already had their degrees and their certificates.”

After the official graduation ceremony in 2015, NEDCO who funds the “IBIS” program, gave him $65,000 to start the Benoit Academy. He invested the money in buying furniture for his physical space and rebranding the business through new letterheads, call cards etc. In July 2015, they also set him up with an office space, conference and training room, located at #21-22 New Yalta, Diego Martin Main Road, Diego Martin.

July 6th to the 24th, 2015 marked his first official project out of Benoit Academy, their pan camp held at his alma mater, Belmont Junior Secondary School where he is now a member of the local school board. It catered to an age range of seven to eighteen. He along with another teacher he hired, taught them the history of pan, pan making and tuning, how to read music etc.

“Most of the kids there had played steelpan for the first time,” he informs.

Apart from receiving good feedback from the parents, it was profitable and so he hoped to head an after-school program, but the school didn’t grant him access to use the facility. However, another break came to him through teaching at Eastern Elementary Private School in Trincity on Thursdays.

Brian Benoit in class teaching students how to play the steelpan

The most profitable venture that he has undertaken so far is producing musical charts purchased by the Ministry of Culture for the sole purpose of educating children in schools about the steelpan. Also, the Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs have been sponsoring the “Pantrepreneurship” workshops for him to go to schools to teach them about the steelpan and its function in the entertainment industry.

He says sincerely, “What I like is teaching people something and seeing it being reproduced.”

Brian’s student plays as he looks on

At the school in Diego Martin he plans to offer an in-depth course in “Pantrepreneurship” which will deal with topics like contract law, business plans and possibly advice from longstanding survivors in the industry. He will be teaching courses entitled Pan Making and Tuning (PANSEC) as well as, Steelpan Literacy which is starting from the 7th of March. His long-term goal is to create his own pan textbook and create examinations for pan similar to ABRSM so pannists can be certified in the same way. Pushing the envelope a bit more, he applied for a loan from Youth Business Trinidad and Tobago, who is now willing to invest in pans for the academy.

Brian has even begun the process to turn Benoit Academy into a limited liability company, already appointing a diverse board of directors of qualified professionals in their respective fields, ranging from a graphic designer and pan enthusiast to a lawyer and project manager. At present the board consists of Curtis Toussaint, Carlton Emanuel, Savitri Rampersad, Dianne Mc Nicol Stephenson, Mikyle Padia, and Darceuil Duncan. Brian says that while they have started off small, they’re structuring like a big company.

Their vision?

“We want to become the global academy for steelpan development.”

In 2015, Brian won yet another award, this time it was the National Youth Award for Entrepreneurship. He continues to stress on the importance of educating the young and old in the business aspect.

“The whole idea was, I could get a little bit of everything so I decided to become an entrepreneur and have a taste of everything.”

Speaking about the “starving artist syndrome” and the “freebie” culture, he refers to the musicians out there by saying, “You pay them to get exposure because they’re still doing something for you.”

Frustrated he says, “I really have a problem with Pan Trinbago because they are the ones supposed to be doing these kind of things.”

He reiterates that the purpose of the Benoit Academy is to “show them what is going to be done”.

With newfound verve, he says, “That’s one of the reasons Benoit Academy exists and it needs to exist.”

However, Brian does have personal goals of his own that he would eventually like to fulfil by walking the tailored “degree path” all the way till the PhD in Business Administration.

Excitedly he says, “I just want to go all, all, all the way.”

Brian is also the leader of his church theatre group, Anointed Characters Theatre Company and he is quite fond of acting, film and theatre as well. This school vacation he hopes to do another camp called “Performance Stop”, this time including all the arts. August 2016 will mark another big achievement for him and Benoit Academy with the advent of “Pan Fest” a pan festival opened to the public with seminars etc.

Brian continues to push his limitations, set new goals and overcome challenges in such a profound way, that it’s important that we document it. I’m sure we’ll be hearing many more great things about this young man in many years to come.

In closing Brian advises, “Once you’re passionate about it, don’t be afraid of making the first step. The secret in getting ahead is getting started.”

Be sure to like Benoit Academy on Facebook. For those interested in their services, you can visit their website, and keep on the lookout for an app for online pan lessons.

By: Aryana Mohammed | MUSIC-CULTURE | February 2018