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Female pan pioneer, 79, still going strong

Published: 
Sunday, January 14, 2018
Daisy James-McClean receiving her Humming Bird Medal in 2005 from T&T’s fourth President, the late Prof George Maxwell Richards. Photo by:Charles Kong Soo

To say that pannist, lecturer, pan pioneer Daisy James-McClean has paid her dues in the steel band world is an understatement. The 79-year-old passed through the infamous bottle and stone pelting steel band wars from the 50s, with bands such as Casablanca from Belmont, Invaders from Woodbrook and Tokyo from John John, dodging hails of missiles, running and hiding from police with her brothers in an era where men were stigmatized as “bad johns” in steel band. It was a rarity in the early days for a woman to be playing pan, getting licks with a broomstick and pot spoon from her mother and running away in secret to play the instrument she loved.

She started with Casablanca, Starlighters, City Syncopators and today, James-McClean leads the Harlem Syncopators Steel Orchestra on Quarry Street, Port-of-Spain.

James-McClean said with delight that the bottle and stone pelting pan wars were replaced with music wars between pan sides—when her band City Syncopators heard another band like All Stars passing, they would go to meet them down the road to "crumble them" playing syncopation on their pans in a musical duel.

According to James-McClean, who received her Humming Bird Medal in 2005 from T&T’s fourth President, the late Prof George Maxwell Richards, she wanted to have a programme where children can come and learn to play pan for free in a safe environment and keep them off the streets.

Despite the band having no official sponsor, its young members played in their first Panorama finals in 1999, one year after it was formed and made it to the “Big Yard” on several occasions.

Appeals for sponsors to help children band

It is this lack of sponsorship that is affecting the band and its members who are in dire need of instruments, the facility lacks a water tank, the roof needs extending to protect players and spectators when it rains and the walls need painting.

To compound her woes, James-McClean's husband, John, who helped her with the running of the pan yard, meetings, painting the pans, passed away on December 7, 2017.

Speaking to the Sunday Guardian at the band's headquarters on Tuesday, James-McClean said “I sacrificed and saved, using my pension money to buy the land. We are grateful for the subvention for pan round the neck bands from the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and the Arts, it helps.

“But people like arrangers charge $10,000, tuners are expensive too, $3,500 for transport for Carnival Monday, insurance and inspection of our bus.

“If only we could get some corporate sponsorship to come and advertise, put up their billboards and paint the walls.

“They don't have to give me anything, just place their logos, maybe get a “little change” so we could buy pans for the 20 children and six adults.”

She said equipment was also expensive, even pan sticks. In her days she used to pick a branch off a tree and make the pan sticks.

James-McClean said to save money, the band resorted to recycling their T-shirts from last year.

She recalled one occasion a company printed T-shirts for them on the same day of competition with the company's logo on the back and omitted the band's name on the front.

James-McClean's cellphone is temporarily out of service, but when it is back in operation, people wishing to help can contact her at 399-0083.

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