'Pan Man' Ray Holman inspires BYUH students

A weekend feast of history and musical arts featuring Trinidadian composer, arranger, and performer Ray 'Soul of Pan' Holman enriched the BYU-Hawaii stage this past weekend, entertaining and educating audiences with the sounds and songs of another island culture.

As a native of Trinidad, a small island in the Caribbean off the coast of Venezuela, "Holman is perhaps the most talented proponent of his art form internationally," said music professor Dr. Darren Duerden, who introduced steel pan percussion at BYU-Hawaii and conducts the Shaka Steel Band.

The steel pan, born in Trinidad, is a drum cut and forged from metal oil drums, hammered, tempered, shaped, and tuned to produce multiple notes. Through years of development, this once simple street instrument has grown into an entire orchestra of drums, each with a wide chromatic range.

Holman was raised in Woodbrook, Trinidad, home of the widely revered steel band, The Invaders, led by the "father of steel pan," Ellie Mannette. He started playing at age 13 and in 1963, still a teenager, revived, played in and arranged for a band called Starlift in the very first Panorama, Trinidad's Carnival steel band music competition limited to locally composed music. "It was so exciting!" said the smiling Holman, now a major composer for many famous steel bands and two-time Panorama champion.

With support from the BYUH Center for Instructional Technology and Outreach (CITO), Performance Series, and the History Department as well as sponsorship from the Percussive Arts Society, Dr. Duerden pulled together the 2008 Hawaii Day of Percussion, featuring Holman in workshops, master classes, and lectures. Participants learned more about the history, culture, and unique music from islands on the opposite side of the globe.

During one such master class, Shaka Steel students played Holman's music that they had been studying all semester "He stood over my pans and watched me play two measures," said music major Mia Pasi, a double second player. "I really played like my life depended on it, because he was the guy that wrote it and so that gave an added pressure."

Ray Holman plays with BYUH Shaka Steel Band
Ray Holman plays with BYUH Shaka Steel Band

In the hands-on workshop students learned to play a steel pan song by rote. In the true Trinidadian way, Holman would call out notes and sing rhythms to the students, some of whom were playing pan for the very first time. "It was pretty cool to see him stand there, sing the song in his head, and then tell you what parts to play off the top of his head," said student player Kristi Dudoit, an aspiring composer. "I was like, wow, I think he made that up right now!"

Holman's second workshop was more personal and informational as he explained early forms of the instrument and Trinidadian music. For example, he inspired listeners with stories of pan yards, competitions, learning to play by ear, and learning to read and arrange music through his seemingly accidental and simple exposure to music and pans. Holman explained that at first, "I didn't have a clue. I was a complete dunce." Eventually, he was able to turn his knowledge of a few songs and basic exposure to the guitar into a familiarity with harmony, arranging, and composition. "He really encouraged everyone" Pasi recalled.

Music major Scott Dimond responded, "It was really interesting to see how he composes songs... He just plays the guitar and writes these pretty mellow love songs that seem simple on the guitar and then transforms them into panorama tunes that last 20 minutes… He inspired me to write my own music. It just made the whole song writing process seem a lot more basic and doable."

Ray Holman plays with BYUH Shaka Steel Band

That night, Holman joined students and players from around Hawaii in a mass steel band performing some of his original pieces. He also treated the audience to his unique stylings with a small jazz and calypso ensemble featuring student and faculty musicians Jennifer Duerden on tenor pan, Scott Campbell on saxophone, John Smart on electric guitar, Kristi Dudoit on electric bass and Dr. Duerden on drums.

"Ray Holman was amazing... You could tell that he loved what he did and he wanted to share it with whoever was there," said audience member and vocal studies major Lora Butler. "He was very friendly but very professional at the same time."

Joining with Shaka Steel, Holman played a number of his own pieces. "I was surprised, I'll tell you, that I would have such a good band!" Holman exclaimed. The night ended with a premier of the very first Panorama piece played in Hawaii, and Holman's favorite, entitled Plenty Lovin. "What? Could they play that?" Holman wondered when he had heard that they would be playing that selection. "I was shocked... but he [Dr. Duerden] said that they could do it, and they did."

Dudoit explained that playing with Holman, "made all the work we had put into learning [the piece] real... Having someone actually there from Trinidad, the home of the steel pans, was just really amazing... I've actually experienced some of Trinidad because he was here."

The following Tuesday, Holman was the guest lecturer for the History 202 World Communities class. There, weaving musical performance and technique with narrative, he explained the history behind the music he has lived through, including the social currents and sub-culture associated with the popular Trinidadian style of music. For example, this now well respected and widely studied music genre was once commonly associated with violence. "Steel pan music is straight from the ghetto," explained music major, John Smart. "So it's kinda' crazy that we're studying it in a university now and Ray Holman's life has been part of the process of bringing it from there to everywhere else."

"It was surreal," Dimond said. "He's literally the living history of the steel band and so it was cool to hear it right from the horse's mouth... to hear him tell all these stories about how it was invented and how he came to be interested."

Holman had captured a way of life in his music and shared his story and culture with the students in song. "All the songs that he would sing us on his guitar, a lot of them were about pan, about preserving the culture of Trinidad, that that's their legacy, the steel pan. It just makes you feel how new it is, that he was around when it was being invented," Dimond added.

"This man is an amazing musician," Pasi said. "He has the ears and eyes of an eagle and he's a very humble guy."

By Leilani Miller
— Photos by D. Errol Miller