He is generally acknowledged as one of the top pan soloists in the world. In 1974, at the age of 15, he joined the Hatters Steel Orchestra of San Fernando and in his first year was selected for a tour to Minneapolis in the US. One year later he began experimenting with arrangements of tunes for the group. As time progressed, his talents as player and arranger was so impressive that by 1982 he became musical director of the popular south band Fonclaire, one of the nation’s top steel orchestras. In his first ten years he led them to six finals. In 1985 “Professor” did his first album—Our Heritage, which features a mixture of his version of jazz classics like Mr Magic and Stardust, together with pan instrumentals of some popular calypsoes. He was requested to play for Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Trinidad and Tobago that same year.
Since 1987 Philmore has produced 17 albums. Pan Calypso, Love in Steel, Pan Jamboree, Pan by Storm, Pan Ecstasy, Pan in the Party, All Night, Graduation, Jump up in the Road, Carnival is We, Mélange, Love for T&T, Proud Supporters, Cruizin, Time to Breakaway, Hooked and Perfect Combination, his most recent. Five of these albums featured lead vocals by none other than the “Professor” himself. He has also achieved two National Panorama victories (2007 and 2008) in the medium category. His 2008 victory being with his very own composition, Hooked. He has performed and recorded with several international artistes such as Tito Puente, Ella Fitzgerald, Phyllis Hyman, Nancy Wilson, Tina Turner, Andy Narrell, Ralph Mc Donald, George Howard and jazz great, Lionel Hampton. The year 1989 was a memorable one for Philmore. He was honoured by the ruling steel pan association, Pan Trinbago, as the most outstanding musical arranger. In New York, he received a special award for his contribution to music by Mayor Koch. Following his successes in Los Angeles and standing ovations at Madison Square Gardens in New York, “Professor” was invited by Mercer Ellington to join the prestigious Duke Ellington Orchestra for their tours to Europe and North America.
On their album, Music is my Mistress, Ken was the featured soloist on the selection “Queenie Pie Reggae”. Outstanding live performances continued unabated—Washington DC Pan Jazz Festival, St Croix Jazz Festival, Atlanta Jazz Festival, Barbados Jazz Festivals, Tobago Jazz Festival, Guyana Music Festival, Boston Symphony Hall among others.He is the first Trinidadian artiste to be featured at BET Jazz Central, where he was interviewed by Vanessa Rubin and the legendary Lou Rawls. He finished this session with a scintillating performance before a live audience. Apart from Trinidad, he currently arranges music for steel bands both in New York and the United Kingdom. Young pannists and arrangers try to imitate his style. His impact on the pan arena has been nothing short of phenomenal and there are audiences yet to be exposed to his unique combination of dexterity and soothing runs on his “steel piano”, as he calls it. In December 2011, South Africa held its first Carnival in Abuja. He was instrumental in the launch of this Carnival and accompanied a contingent from Trinidad to make this possible. He also was invited to Nigeria in November 2011 by the Nigerian Government to be a part of their Carnival celebrations. He is also looking forward to being the opening act for the upcoming Temptations In Concert, as part of their world tour, here in Trinidad.
Q: How did you get the title ‘Professor’?
A: (Laughing)…Well as a young fella I used to wear these nerdy bone-framed glasses and the folks in the Hatters pan yard at that time thought I looked like a professor, and there you have it.
How do you best describe the type of work you do?
Hmmm…Different, exciting, youthful.
What else would you be if you weren't a pannist?
A professional football player.
What inspires you to do the type of “work” you do.
When I perform abroad especially and see the overwhelming response and appreciation for our artform, I am inspired to take it to even greater heights.
When and how did you get into playing the steelpan?
That goes back to J’Ouvert at age seven and seeing live steelbands, I was so fascinated that I could focus on nothing else.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Vistabella and grew up in Pleasantville, San Fernando.
Who were the people who have influenced you the most (outside of your immediate family) in your career and in life in general, and how did they?
In the early days my first influence came from Calypsonian Squibby. He invited me to perform with him at the calypso tent. Then came Lord Kitchener, who I also performed with at the tent. After that, I performed and toured the world with the Duke Ellington Orchestra (under Mercer Ellington) for a number of years. It was with them I was able to develop my skills in the jazz genre.
Tony Bartholomew was instrumental in my first stint of “arranging” in the ’70s with Kalomo Kings steelband of Pleasantville. I must also make special mention of Fonclaire and Hatters Steel Orchestras.
Of all your shows, recordings, concerts, performances…which would you like a first time audience, listener, viewer to experience?
My interview/performance at BET Jazz Central in Washington DC with Lou Rawls and Vanessa Rubin. You can view this on my Web site www.kenprofessorphilmore.com
What are a couple of your most memorable and satisfying performances?
Performing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl. Also, performing at the first 96.1 WE CAN Concert at the Queen’s Park Savannah, appearing between Beenie Man and Buju Banton and seeing a major local newspaper front page headline the next day which read “Professor Philmore outshines Beenie Man and Buju Banton”.
Who were your heroes growing up (fictional or real)?
As a youth growing up, my idols were Bob Marley and jazz icons Joe Sample and Bob James.
At what schools/institutions did you receive your education?
San Fernando Boys’ Gov’t School, San Fernando Technical Institute and of course, The School of Hard Knocks (the streets).
Which is your favourite calypso/soca song of all time and your favourite piece of music or songs (non-calypso)?
Memories by the Mighty Sparrow and For The Love of You by Isley Brothers. Most recently, The People’s Champion by Benjai has absolutely blown my mind.
What advice would you give to the young people of Trinidad and Tobago?
Education holds the key to success. Also, always respect yourself and others, especially the elderly.
If you could dine with anyone in history who would it be and what conversation would you have with that person?
Without a doubt, Nelson Mandela. We would talk about the 27 years of imprisonment due to apartheid and his great achievement in eventually becoming President of South Africa, a place I was privileged to visit in 2011.
If you could pick any singer and/or band to perform just for you (non-Trini), who would you choose?
Hmmm, let me see, that would have to be Earth, Wind and Fire.
What daily motto/credo do you live by and what is your recipe for success?
My motto is “Humility Brings Great Power”. My recipe for success is hard work and my belief that one can never stop learning.
What are your most prized possessions: one tangible, one intangible?
My most prized intangible possession is the gift of music I got from God. Most prized tangible possession is my wife and family.
If you had to solve the ills that prevail in T&T what would you do?
Get all children involved in music and sport from a very young age. Make music mandatory in all schools from kindergarten level, after all, it is the food of love. Also, parents need to teach their children to pray and to have good values, regardless of adverse circumstances in their lives, and when they grow up they will not depart from it.
How do you balance your family life with the demands/challenges of your job?
My family is heavily involved in my job, which makes it easy to balance.
What goals and/or ambitions do you still have?
To win a Grammy Award and letting the world know about our great national instrument.
If you had an opportunity to meet anyone in the world, who would it be?
Michael Jackson. Since this is not impossible, I look forward to meeting him in the “next life”.
What is the best compliment you have every received?
“You have never changed”.
What would you like people to know about you that they probably don’t know or are probably misinformed about….ie what do people generally not know about you?
My life is an open book, sometimes too open. There is nothing hidden.
What are your “pan related” plans for the future?
To do a gospel album, which is long overdue and to have a pan school upon retirement.
Oh and I recently finished a 15-track “easy listening” album entitled Perfect Combination which features singer Jerome Bissessar, a young, phenomenal local vocalist. I consider this my best album to date, with some of my favourites like My Girl and Rock With You which, if I may say, would make an ideal Mother's/Father's Day Gift. It is available in music stores.
Thanks to you and the folks at the Sunday Guardian for giving me this opportunity. It is greatly appreciated.