Meet T&T’s Chinese Steelpan Group!
  Gavin Luke
June 2019

According to Kenneth Chang On, President of the Trinidad and Tobago Chinese Steel Ensemble, his enjoyment from being affiliated with the band comes from just seeing how people respond and appreciate the playing of the band. “The pleasure is in the feedback and seeing the children just enjoying themselves playing.”

The Trinidad and Tobago Chinese Steel Ensemble (TTCSE) can boast of being the very first all Chinese steelpan bands in the world. The idea to form the band occurred in early 2006 i order to commemorate the 200th year of Chinese arrival in Trinidad and Tobago. Following a rigorous recruitment drive it was at the Chinese Association of Trinidad and Tobago that the band was able to secure its first official "panyard" for the band.In the begining the ban was short of instruments and at that point support came from Management of Excellence Stores, as well as Silver Stars, PCS Starlift and Harvard Harps Steel Orchestras, who were kind enough to lend the band some of their surplus instruments. Musical arrangements were at that time provided by Roy Edwards, Douglas “Dougie” Redon and Jeremy “Skies” Abraham.

Over the years the band has been constantly changing and evolving. The challenge, according to Chang On, is that retention of band members is difficult as many join at school age but eventually develop other interests that take up their time or go on to further their studies.  In 2006 the band’s membership was at its peak, numbering approximately thirty players.  The current membership, however is approximately seventeen, comprising players and non-playing executives. As a “Chinese band” members must have some Chinese heritage. At any one point in time players can comprises of youngsters from the age of nine (9) to teenagers and adults well over their fifties; from schoolchildren to business owners. Many join as novices never having played a musical instrument before. 

Among the band’s early public performances were a series of concerts in Trinidad and Tobago, including a banquet hosted by the President of Trinidad and Tobago at his residence on Chinese Arrival Day, October 12th, 2006. In creating its unique sound the band has often fused traditional Chinese musical instruments, such as the Er-Hu, Yer Woo, Toon Kam and Mook Kam (all string instruments) and blended them with the sound of the steel pan. This in itself allows accompaniment for a few renditions with vocalists performing authentic Chinese songs. Over the years, through the guidance of the Chinese Bicentennial Limited, whose mandate is to propagate Chinese arts and culture in Trinidad and Tobago, the band has managed to secure its own instruments. This however does not pre-empt the need to meet its other financial commitments such as band house rental and maintenance, utilities and equipment maintenance. Toward this end donations are often solicited from such additional sources as the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. The group also organizes its own fundraisers and charge a small fee when they perform.

Amongst its proud achievements to date has been the ability to tour the Republic of Ireland, where planned preparation included learning popular Irish tunes, all spiced up with a uniquely Trinidadian flavor: These included Wild Rover, Black Velvet Band and Lord of the Dance to name a few.

With the band now very much a part of the cultural landscape they remain a regular attraction at the annual Dragon Boat Festival and often perform at Diplomatic events, especially as it pertains to the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China. In 2011, for the first time in the country, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago hosted a banquet at the Prime Minister’s Diplomatic Centre to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The band was selected to play at this function. In this same year as the Chinese Hospital Ship “Peace Ark” was winding up its visit to Trinidad and Tobago, appropriately entitled “Harmony”, where its doctors attended to hundreds of needy patients, the band members were the only non-Chinese nationals, besides the Minister of Education, who were invited to attend the farewell function held on board the ship.

With it growing popularity, in 2014 the band was invited by the China Arts and Entertainment Group to participate in the “Meet in Beijing” Arts Festival, one of the largest festivals in Asia and one which is respected by both the domestic and international arts communities. In Beijing, the band performed at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, the Pop Musical Festival and at the Latin American and Caribbean Night edition of the event. Some other notable venues where the band has performed include the Brian Lara Promenade, the St James Amphitheatre, the Boardwalk in Chaguaramas, Movietowne Banquet Hall, the Tranquility Tennis Club, the Chaconia Hotel and the Kapok Hotel.

With the pan as it fundamental base instrument the TTCSE currently focuses on Chinese folk songs fused with rhythms of the Caribbean and South America, as well as soca, classical, and pop pieces. Its mandate is to maintain at least 50% of its repertoire as songs of Chinese origin.

The band’s immediate plans include organizing a tour to Toronto in conjunction with the Afro Pan Steel Band based there. They plan to continue to do private functions, formal functions when invited by the Chinese Embassy (usually their Spring Festival and National Day celebrations), the annual Dragon Boat Festival in Chaguaramas and wherever else invited. The band usually practises on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, with extra practices whenever there is an important performance.

The band house is located at 34 McDonald Street, Woodbrook, Trinidad and Tobago.

To have a look at one of the band’s performances, click on the link below:

By: Gavin Luke | FEATURES | June 2019

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