Megan Smith has heard differing stories as to how her brothers Wayne and Romal Smith began playing the steelpan – a musical instrument synonymous with Trinidad and Tobago; all she’s certain of is that she grew up hearing the instrument played all around her. Sounds that were soothing and cheerful, yet exciting and brash, at the same time. The sounds were so intriguing to her that she was drawn to pick up her first sticks at age 14 to begin learning to play steelpan.
She was drawn to the uniqueness of the instrument.
“I looked around and said, ‘Okay, not a lot of persons here play this instrument’, and I always wanted to do something that not a lot of persons did. I put two and two together and was like, ‘It’s the steel pan’,” said Smith.
With both her brothers playing the instrument, she chalks up becoming a pannist to “tradition”.
“It’s like a family thing… I wouldn’t say I was forced, but I knew it was something I was going to learn to play eventually.”
She admits that when she first started playing the steelpan at age 14, it was just another instrument to her. She took lessons with Jeff Hall, deceased, and Duke “Errol” Strachan.
Prior to picking up her steelpan sticks, she played violin, drums and the piano. She also took lessons in saxophone after learning to play the steelpan.
“Music was always in my blood,” said Smith whose dad, Komal Smith, is the leader of the Smith Foundation Steelpan Band and plays guitar.
Romal plays steelpan as well as saxophone, and Wayne is the steelpan soloist. Also comprising her family’s band is Ray Bethel on keyboards and percussion; and occasionally Stephan Colebrooke on keyboard.
A year after she began lessons, Smith began playing the steelpan with her family’s band which performs locally at hotels and private events, and which has taken their music internationally, having played at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, Minnesota, at the request of the student government association.
Seven years since she picked up her first sticks to begin her steelpan lessons, she has fallen in love with the instrument.
“Just the sound that you can get from it is very peaceful,” says the 21-year-old. “If you’re having a bad day, you just go run some notes and you just feel much better.”
And then she enrolled to pursue studies in agriculture business at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), the birthplace of steelpan (1939), where hearing the steelpan played is about as common as breathing.
“When I first went [to T&T] I was like I’m going to find a steelpan band to play with.”
She hooked up with the Exodus Steelpan Orchestra, which afforded her the opportunity to play Panorama, a fierce annual steelpan band competition that takes place every year during T&T Carnival. It’s a competition that brings out the best pannists in the world and lasts for several weeks, leading up to the finals. Competing orchestras play a highly arranged calypso piece. Each piece lasts for approximately eight to 10 minutes.
Having played Panorama, she says she couldn’t fathom what could be a bigger event for her to play.
“I feel like that right there was…[the pinnacle]. It’s like okay what else do I do now – but school.”
When she made the decision to attend UWI in T&T, Smith says she went in with the decision that no matter the distance she had to travel to play with a steelpan band, that she would do it. Luckily for her, Exodus Steelpan Band was only a 10-minute walk from the UWI campus.
“One day I went there and I asked if I could play with them. They asked me if I could play – I was like yeah and they said okay, and that’s how it went from there.”
Smith initially found playing with Exodus “intimidating” due to the fact that she was with people who had been playing the instrument from “birth”.
“So, here I am, this Bahamian, just came here, saying I can play the steelpan. It was very intimidating,” she recalled.
Smith, who is classically trained and reads sheet music, says the main difference in learning to play steelpan at home, and then learning to play in Trinidad, is the faster pace at which they play, as well as their learning style.
“I’m not going to lie, it was very hard at first in terms of their learning style – like they would say the notes for you, and you are supposed to play it like that. I’m more of a reader and would physically have to see my notes, but eventually I was able to put that aside. I’m not 100 percent play-it-by-ear, but I’ve started to develop it. When I came back home, I would hear songs and I’m much better at saying, ‘Oh, that song is in a certain key.’ And they play at an upbeat in Trinidad; here we play more at a downbeat, our music is a tad bit slower.”
When she picks up her sticks to play the steelpan now, it’s a freeing experience for her.
“It’s freedom in terms of being able to express yourself… Like yeah, you can read the music, but once you know how to add and just put your all into it, you get a beautiful sound.”
Learning to play from Trinidadians, she says, has also boosted her confidence in her playing, as well as her personal life.
“I was more of a shy player before Trinidad… I’m just shy on the whole, but after the learning experience, I was more outgoing in the way that I play.”
Smith has plans to eventually open a steelpan school.
“I always have persons asking me if I could teach them the pan, or where they can go to learn the pan, so it’s my goal to open a school where people can learn the pan and share the same love I have for the pan,” she says.
Smith, who was also a past member of the Bahamas National Youth Choir under the late Patricia Bazard and Audrey Dean-Wright, says she can also see herself composing her own songs. She has recorded with Colebrooke and added her own twist.