Thursday, December 14, 2017

Intellectualising the steelpan

New York University student on a mission


OF TRINI PARENTAGE: Kendall Williams, 27, born in Brooklyn, New York, of Trinidadian parentage, will be attending Princeton University later this year to pursue doctoral studies in Music Composition, with an emphasis on the steelpan.

Mark Fraser

Born in Brooklyn, New York, of Trinidadian parentage, Kendall Williams, 27, was initiated into playing the steelpan since the age of 4.  Later this year, Williams will be heading to the prestigious Princeton University to pursue doctoral studies in Music Composition, with an emphasis on the steelpan.

“My parents are pannists, and I was always around the steelpan whenever they were practising at the house. Many times, I went with them to their rehearsals,” said Williams. Now residing in Miami, Florida, his parents, Hollister and Jennifer, have played with steelbands in Trinidad and the US. In Trinidad, his father played with Crossfire, and Invaders. In the US, both parents have played for bands in New York and Miami.  

By the time he was 12 years old, Williams could hold his own on the tenor pan. Since then, he has become the consummate pannist — arranging, and composing. Williams has played with many bands in New York. On his visits to Trinidad for Carnival, he has had the opportunity to play with top bands, including Phase II and Desperadoes.  He also co-arranged for Junior Panorama champs, St Margaret’s Boys’ EC School in 2008. Williams is now on a journey to spread and intellectualise the steelpan through academia.    

Ironically, Williams’ initial academic pursuit was in the field of Architecture. “I started off as an Architecture major at Miami-Dade College in Florida. There was also a jazz ensemble at the school, and I became part of it.  I played many solos on the steelpan,” he said.  

While still at Miami-Dade College, Williams attended a steelpan concert put on by the nearby Florida Memorial University (FMU). The Miami steelband, 21st Century Pan, of which both his parents were members, performed as guest artiste. FMU, had for a long time, been one of only two universities in the US, offering an undergraduate major in Steelpan. Williams inquired about the programme, met and spoke with students, and the head, Dr Dawn Batson, a Trinidadian.  That ignited his fire for pursuing pan at the academic level.   

“I decided to switch from Architecture, because of FMU’s programme. I was accepted as a sophomore, at the beginning of the 2006-2007 academic year, in the Bachelor of Arts programme in Music Performance, with a major in Steelpan,” said Williams. Through this programme, he learned to read music for the first time, and thus, was able to enhance his raw steelpan skills.

Although the steelpan has become internationalised, there are few opportunities in the US for gainful employment after acquiring a university degree in the field. Williams graduated in May 2010, with his Bachelor’s degree in what he loved, although he risked being unemployed or underemployed. “I was lost,” he said. “I did not know what I would be able to do with the degree.  I was hoping to teach pan at a school—arranging, composing, or playing—but did not know how to get in. I was anxious to introduce, and spread steelpan music widely to schools.”

Before Williams had graduated, however, he had spoken to the programme head at FMU about the possibility of doing a Master’s degree. “I liked arranging, but no school was offering such a programme. Dr Batson told me though, that composition would help with arranging. We looked at a few universities. I decided on New York University (NYU), because there was a steelband there,” said Williams.

Throughout the two-year Master in Music Theory and Composition programme at NYU, Williams focused on having the programme for steelpan expanded. The programme became more popular, and grew from around a mere 12 members to 20-something.    

With a fierce determination to be a composer, arranger, and advocate for spreading steelpan programmes to other colleges and universities, Williams got his first opportunity to do so.  “After I graduated with my Master in Music Theory and Composition in May 2013, Medgar Evers College in New York, hired me as an Adjunct Professor, in August 2013, to teach the course, Introduction to World Music,” he said.

In November 2013, while at Medgar Evers, the American Composers Orchestra awarded Williams, the Van Lier Emerging Composer Fellowship. He was placed at the renowned New York Philharmonic, where he is able to meet conductors, and composers. Williams is being taught how to write music, and how to market himself. The Fellowship ends in October of this year.

“I had a private lesson instructor for an hour to an hour and a half a week. I analysed music compositions, and worked on how to compose for different instruments. I always did compositions first of all for ‘pan, and then I would transpose them for the other instruments,” Williams said. In one of the sessions, when asked what he wanted to do for the future, he said, “I want to spread steelpan programmes more widely to universities. Some universities have programmes, but they are not known.”    

Williams continued his quest for intellectualising, and spreading the potential and versatility of the steelpan via academia. He spoke to one of his former NYU professors about his yearning. The professor told him that he should look into the possibility of doing a PhD, since this would give him more clout for his mission. Williams again sought the opinion of the FMU programme head, and she agreed with the NYU professor’s suggestion.  

At the PhD level, most universities in the US, offer concentrations in either Music Composition or Music Education. “I wanted to stay in the New York area, because of the connections and links I had established. I was considering Columbia University Teachers’ College, but they did not have a strong emphasis in Composition. I definitely wanted a programme where I could incorporate ‘pan,” Williams said. “My former NYU professor advised me to look at the Composition programme at Princeton University. I would be able to write music for pan, and other orchestral music. I applied to Princeton University, and was accepted for the Fall semester, August 2014.”

Williams received a full scholarship—paid tuition, a stipend for housing, and a Teaching Assistantship. This extraordinary young man of Trinidadian roots, plans to do his dissertation on some aspect of the steelpan.  

Despite Williams’ ambitions for intellectualising the steelpan, unfortunately, even with the distinction of being the only 20th century musical invention in the world, the instrument continues to be derogated and devalued by some within the Trinbagonian society. The steelpan was created, and perpetuated by African-descended young men of impoverished and disadvantaged backgrounds. As a consequence of this history, many in Trinidad and Tobago still believe that mastering the steelpan is valueless. Williams’ success, nonetheless, debunks this perception.

The opportunity for Williams to be able to intellectualise and proffer the steelpan at the hallowed halls of Princeton University, one of the world’s foremost bastions of academia, is a rare honour. To be as determined as Williams has been, is commendable, and exhilarating. What homage to the steelpan!  Williams’ achievement has proven that it is highly viable to play ‘pan, and “beat book”, simultaneously, and prolifically, all the way to Princeton University.