Cool ocean breeze, the boardwalk and sand steps away, the sound of steel drums, and a whiff of jerk chicken in the air. It was enough to take me to the islands on a cloudy Saturday morning. Almost but not quite.
I was in Virginia Beach, at the 24th Street Oceanfront Stage for the Virginia International PANFest, presented by Virginia Arts Festival.
The PANFest is over for this year, but put this one on your calendar for next year. It’s fun, it’s free, and it’s family friendly.
Virginia International PANFest has been part of the Virginia Arts Festival for 17 years. The VAF offers both the traditional and unique. There are always some free events. There are always some unique events. The Handlebards, a British troupe of Shakespearean actors will be performing for free on a bike trail near you, beginning this week.
The PANFest is one of those free, unique events. Steel drum groups come from as close as Virginia Beach to as far away as St. Croix to learn from the best pannists and to compete with each other.
A steel drum musician is called a pannist, a panist or a panman. There were lots of panwomen up on the two stages at the foot of 24th Street on Saturday morning, having fun and playing their hearts out.
A steel drum is also known as a pan. Pans were developed in Trinidad in the early 20th century, making them one of the newest instruments around. Pans were made from 55-gallon oil drums that were hand-hammered and hand-tuned.
You probably think of the song Yellow Bird when you think of steel drums. That is classic calypso music. On Saturday morning, I heard classic calypso, but I also heard Bruno Mars and Michael Jackson played on the pans. It was terrific.
Virginia International PANFest begins on Friday night with workshops and master classes taught by world-class pannists. Last Friday ended with a performance by Shawn Thwaites and the Shawn Thwaites Rebel Quartet on the 24th Street Oceanfront Stage. Shawn is a Trinidadian-American and educator from Washington D.C. He mixes traditional pans with brass and strings to form a fusion of jazz, R & B, hip-hop, afro-beat and calypso.
I was on the lawn of the 24th Street Stage Saturday morning. Bring a beach chair, lawn chair or blanket. It was cloudy last Saturday but don’t forget sunscreen, a hat and something to drink. It can get hot out there.
Saturday morning was all about the younger pannists, the pankids.
Elementary and middle school steel band groups compete for the grand prize in their division. There were some little kids up on those stages, and they were amazing. Sometimes serious, sometimes adding dance moves to their drumming, those girls and boys could really play.
Steel drummers rarely use sheet music. They memorize all their music. How did these young kids get so good, so quickly? I spoke to proud mom, Carmen, who was there to cheer on her son Khari. Khari is a 6th grader from Suffolk who plays with Rhythm Project Portsmouth Rising Stars. He’s been playing the pans for two years, but the group only practices once a week for two hours. They were really good.
Carmen says Khari is “musical”. He plays piano and trombone, but she had no idea how the adults in charge manage to get such performances out of middle-schoolers. Have you ever heard a middle school band perform? It can be rough. Not these kids. These are little kids with big mallets.
Maybe it’s because the directors of the groups make it fun. The CAFÉ Rhythm Starters from Mitchellville, Maryland
performed Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, complete with black fedoras and dance moves. There was a little guy playing a couple of giant steel drums that never stopped jumping up and down for the whole song. So much fun.
Turns out there are steel band groupies. I sat next to a couple that drives down from Maryland every year to attend the PANFest. I thought they were proud grandparents, come to clap for their grandkids. They were pleased to see a few groups from Maryland, but they didn’t know any of the performers. It turns out they are just big fans of pan music. They also love “marching bands and sea shanties of any kind.” They loved the venue. They loved the music.
Storms arrived on Saturday afternoon, when the high school groups were scheduled to compete. The VAF was prepared. They gave the audience plenty of notice to pack it up and move to the Holiday Inn. The show must go on.
High school groups, followed by private studio groups and community groups performed indoors through Saturday evening. Then local favorite, Jesse Chong Band performed. Prizes in each division were announced. Shawn and Sheldon Thwaites and Rebel Quartet rounded out the PANFest.
Follow Virginia Arts Festival on FaceBook to find out about upcoming events and the schedule for next year’s PANFest.