By Ray Funk and Dr. Andrew Martin
For the last six years, Diatonic Pan Institute has been hard at work creating and honing a different model for steelpan focused on youth empowerment. In the process this band from Siparia, located in the South of Trinidad, has made its hometown proud. The Diatonic Pan Institute is the vision of founder Keith Byer, who along with community leaders, sought to offer Trinidadian youth a positive way forward in troubled times, teaching life skills through steelpan.
Keith Byer is no stranger to steelpan. A retired oil company engineer, Byer played with Siparia Deltones in his younger days and later managed the band. He also served as chairman of the south/central region of Pan Trinbago, Vice President of Pan Trinbago, General Secretary of the Caribbean Steelband Association, and managed Silver Stars Steel Orchestra for three years.
With his wealth of experience and desire to give back to his community, Byers wanted “to reach out to the youths, especially in the light of the trending for youths to be involved in serious crime and the lack of love for one another.” He sought out two old friends from Deltones, Vernon Dimsoy and Janelle Paris, who agreed with his vision and were committed to translate it into action. They formed a non-profit corporation and received a long-term lease for a panyard in downtown Siparia, a safe place for the youth to learn, practice, and trust one another. From the beginning, the primary goal of Diatonic Pan Institute has been to teach the members of the steelband more than just musical proficiency and literacy, and this includes life skills such as band management, event management, broadcasting, magazine production, and more.
The Diatonic Pan Institute steelband has three weekly rehearsals and performs regular gigs every month. They also offer free music literacy classes and a vacation steelpan camp during the summer. Initially, they hired an instructor for the steelpan camp but, as Byer notes, “we had the kids working with him. Last year was the first year that the kids ran it on their own. Now they know what to do, they have the experience and they don’t need any help.”
Unlike most steelbands in Trinidad and Tobago, the Diatonic Pan Institute does not perform in Panorama—though some members perform with other steelbands, instead they perform at a variety of other events. In addition, the Diatonic Pan Institute on their own created a new steelband competition in Trinidad called Steel in Motion just for single pan bands.
The competition is held in Siparia on the third Saturday after Easter in conjunction with the local religious festival celebrating La Divina Pastora, the patron saint of Siparia. Participating bands perform two songs on the road. One is a religious number and one is by a chosen calypsonian who changes each year. In addition, the young people create a magazine that celebrates the city of Siparia, the chosen calypsonian, and the yearly activities of the steelband. They learn event management skills by tackling everything from publicity to managing the flow of steelbands on the street.
Beyond Steel in Motion, the Diatonic Pan Institute also hosts concerts in their panyard bringing in calypsonians from across Trinidad to perform and recently recorded a double album of Christmas classics.The steelband received further national exposure by creating a syndicated steelpan television show. Created, starring, and produced by the band members, the first season of fourteen episodes featured Diatonic Pan Institute members visiting and interviewing steelband leaders and band members from across the country.
Most exciting for the members has been touring internationally. Their first experience abroad was to the United States in 2011 for a nine-day tour of five cities in Indiana when they helped start two steelbands there in addition to performing. “What we did is leave some of the pans with [Indiana Wesleyan University] and some with the community steel band”. For their efforts, Diatonic Pan Institute was presented with the Indianapolis mayoral certificate of appreciation and the governor declared the week of their visit steelpan week in their honor.
In 2014, Diatonic Pan Institute attended the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Independence celebrations. St Vincent has a program called Pan Against Crime. As Byer recalled, “They felt that our program could compliment their program. So they brought us up for their Independence celebration and the idea was that the youths would see our performances and gravitate to the steelpan.”
Also in 2014, the steelband attended Folkmoot, an international folk festival in North Carolina. Diatonic Pan Institute so impressed the local mayor there that he gave the band the keys to the city. It was at this festival that they were spotted by officials who invited them to Taiwan.
Finally the summer of 2017 the Taiwan tour was realized. They traveled to Taiwan for three weeks and performed alongside 26 groups from 20 different countries at the Yilan International Children’s Folklore and Folkgame Festival. Besides performing, the Diatonic steelband embarked on a partnership with the Taiwan Ministry of Culture and held workshops teaching kids at a local elementary school and leaving a starter set of steelpans. The collaboration was a great success and they now have an ongoing relationship with the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture.
More recently in Trinidad, the Diatonic Pan Institute has introducing their youth members to dramatic arts. The steelband presented a show entitled ‘Remembering Christmas” which tells the story of Christmas past and present as celebrated in Trinidad. The program is a combination of cultural exchange as well as highlighting changes in children’s attitudes and has received great reviews from the public.
In only few short years, the Diatonic Pan Institute has created much more than a steelband, they’ve fostered what they believe will be the future leaders of tomorrow. In its efforts, Diatonic has successfully developed its member’s skills in steelpan playing, music literacy, event management, dance, drama, broadcasting, and team building. With their newfound confidence, leadership skills and positive attitudes, the youth members of the Diatonic Pan Institute are ready to go forth and achieve their dreams.