Hailing from the Paddington area of London, Debi is of Guyanese/Irish parentage. Her first involvement with music was at her primary school, St Mary Magdalene, where she started playing the violin, before changing to the guitar because of the freedom of interpretation that Latin music offered. Her introduction to pan came at Paddington Comprehensive School under the guidance and tuition of Zack Herbert, who also taught Matthew Phillips (manager of Mangrove steelband). Much to Debi’s embarrassment she admits that the first tune she learnt was, ‘Yellow Bird’, but was quick to point out that the second tune was Mozart’s ‘Eine Kilene Ncht Muzik’.
Debi’s pan playing career took off when she joined the Groovers steel orchestra of Battersea led by Terry Noel. Her father disapproved, because of the stigma attached to pan at that time, but she continued nevertheless. In 1980 the Groovers travelled to Calgary in Canada, to perform at the Commonwealth Games and over the next ten years the band travelled extensively all over the world. With the sponsorship of British Airways, the Groovers visited Australia, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Kenya and Trinidad as well as numerous states throughout the Persian Gulf and all over Europe. On her many journeys Debi met and performed for the Sultan of Brunei and played alongside Tamla Batra and Junior Gill, both of whom now reside in Switzerland.
In 1988, Debi began playing pan with Ebony steel orchestra and worked with Augustine ‘Pepe’ Francis at the National Steelband Music Company, which was funded by the Arts Council to organise festivals ad promote steelbands. When funding was withdrawn, she worked for the Tabernacle Community Association in Ladbroke Grove, West London for a year before taking up a position with the Ebony Steelband Trust as its administrator/fund-raiser.
In 1995, the two bodies responsible for the development of pan and its music in the UK, the London Brotherhood of Steelbands (LBS) and the Pan Players Academy (PPA) merged to become BAS – the British Association of Steelbands. The amalgamation owed much to Debi’s impartiality and supportive nature. She is the secretary of BAS and served as the steelbands representative on the board of the Notting Hill Carnival Trust limited for many years. She is particularly proud of this role and is respectful of the trust that the bands have placed in her. Debi currently holds the post of economic and planning manager for the UK Centre for Carnival Arts (UKCCA) and is the administrator for the Mangrove steelband.
Debi revealed that some of the difficulties she has encountered in promoting pan music lie in funding and the need to re-educate audiences on the ability of the instrument, the musicians and the arrangers. She pays homage to people like Matthew Phillip who is working hard to change the image of pan in the UK through his invaluable work with his Engine Room program of events. Debi’s vision of involving the youth in the administration activities of the pan culture has materialised through her laborious efforts in getting the British Association of Steelbands to set up their Future Development Forum which gives young people from BAS member bands the opportunity to pursue their calling in the administration and background activities of running a steel band and hosting steelband events.
She admitted that her favourite pan instrument is the four-pan cello because of its tonal quality and that Groovers will always be her chosen orchestra because they were and still are her ‘extended family’. Her favourite arranger? ‘All of them’ she replied.