When You Really Love Pan

ORVILLE WRIGHT Continues His Interview Series with Steelband Arrangers

Seion Gomez, arranger for Buccooneers from Tobago.
Seion Gomez, arranger for Buccooneers from Tobago.

Seion Gomez is one of the young arrangers on the Panorama scene in the 21st century.  I’ve watched him grow as an arranger ever since he earned his undergraduate degree from Northern Illinois University (NIU), and might be the only arranger- or one of a select few- to have earned a graduate degree in music (NIU) and arranging for the Panorama competition. A couple of years ago the Junior Panorama was in tribute to him. For the 2010 Panorama season, he arranged for two bands, and I was fortunate to have gotten hold of him when he came back from Tobago where he is arranging for Buccooneers.   The following interview was conducted on February 10, 2010 before the Panorama finals of Feb 13.
Which was the first band you started arranging for?
SG: My first opportunity at arranging was for a primary school.

Which was?
SG: Diamond Vale Government Primary School.

What year was that?
SG: I believe it was around 1991 or something like that.

At that point, what kind of musical training did you have? What was the catalyst for your wanting to get into arranging?
SG: Y’know, I really don’t know.  There was a point where I just came out of secondary school, and I was doing really well at architecture—technical drawing and stuff like that—but I was also doing well with music.  So when I graduated from secondary school, I actually had to stop and look at crossroads to see which one I will be, and a lot of people thought that I should go and do architecture, but something just drew me towards music.  So, it was either John D. or UWI to do music. I registered for John D. but I also registered for UWI, and I woke up one day and I said ‘yuh know what?—music!’.  Now, a lot of people were upset with me but I thank my parents for allowing me to make that decision.  Well, this is where we are now.

While you were in secondary school, what kind of musical training did you have? Did you have theory classes?
SG: I was doing music lessons on the side.

What kind of music lessons were you doing? Were you focusing on any particular instrument?
SG: Piano and theory. So I was actually doing graded practical exams with the Royal Schools of Music. But you know at 15 – 16 yuh eh want to go to music lessons and play no piano and them kinda ting, so I was really focusing on the theory.  The piano—I could have played it, but I really wanted to play pan.  My father used to play with Phase II and I was all wowed with Boogsie (Len Boogsie Sharpe), and I used to go to the panyard with my father and I  looked at how Boogsie used to operate.  He stood in front of the band and just call notes, and at that time I did not understand what perfect pitch was and I said to myself, ‘that is a level of musicianship that he has where you don’t even have to think about it—it just comes to you—and I have to get to that level!’  At that point, Boogsie was my musical mentor, and I played in Phase II and tried to analyze everything he did.  When I got home after practice, I tried to figure out several things he was doing. Why he used that line; how he got this line; from which chord; and how come he was using notes that may not have been related to the chord and things like that.  So over the years trying to understand what he did took me to different areas of music.  I did my certificate course at UWI and when I left UWI I got a scholarship to Northern Illinois University (NIU).

How did that scholarship materialize? Who was responsible for your getting that scholarship?
SG: Actually, it was my godmother.  Dr. Iva Gloudon (head of UWI’s Sports Department). She and Cliff Alexis are very good friends and met while she was at school and she called him and told him that she had a godson here doing music and did not want him to make any wrong decisions and get in trouble. So I auditioned for NIU and passed the audition.

Did you audition on pan?
SG:  Yes, I did.  I had to do some recordings here and send it to the school. Everything was clear for me to go but money became an issue.  So I was here moping around the place for like a year to a year and a half, feeling real frustrated about what was happening to me. I approached the Ministry of Culture to help me with some sort of funding.

At that time, who was the Minister of Culture?
SG: Merle Albino DeCoteau was the Director of Culture at the time, and when I wrote the letter, I was told that my venture was too small.

What did they mean that your venture was too small?
SG:  I don’t know, I don’t know. We have a letter saying, sorry, they can’t help because my venture was too small. (Orville chuckles.)  Further frustration—my godmother came to the rescue again—she had a friend who was an associate with a company in Germany.  As a matter of fact, that company started the MIC program here which is involved in welding among other engineering fields, and she asked if they could get involved with assisting this young music student.  These people never met me, these people didn’t know me, they just wanted to give something, and these people gave me a scholarship.

Was this a scholarship for the entire four years?
SG:  Yes it was.  When I got to NIU, I met a gentleman by the name of Lester Trilla who was a big part of the scholarship program at NIU in terms of money.  He owned a drum company where Cliff Alexis used to go to buy drums to make pans.  One day he saw Cliff and wanted to find out what Cliff was doing with all the drums that he was buying from him.  Cliff invited him to a concert at NIU and at that time Liam was the only pan player at NIU and Liam played at the concert.  When the concert was finished, Mr. Trilla walked up to Cliff and asked “how could I help?”, and Cliff pointed to Liam and told Mr. Trilla: “That young man has no money to continue his education.  Help him.” And from that time, Mr. Trilla started a scholarship program for Trinidadian students coming to NIU.

That is a great story.  I recall after you got your undergrad degree, you and I had a conversation about music and much of what I was talking about (terminology) you were not too familiar with in terms of arranging.  Do you remember that conversation?
SG: Vaguely.

You have since gotten a graduate degree. What was the degree in?
SG:  It was in performance.

How many bands are you are you arranging for now?
SG: Two. Merrytones and NLCB Buccooneers from Tobago.

What are the categories of those bands?
SG: Merrytones is in the small and Buccooneers is in the medium.

Seeing that you are a schooled musician, do you score your arrangement or do you go into the yard and get inspiration.
SG: I write my arrangement on the computer using Finale. (Finale is a music notation software used by a number of professional musicians.) I sit in my room, close my door and write.  When I am finished, I turn the volume up and play the arrangement three, four five, six times.  If I need to change something, I would change it there. For me, using Finale to arrange for steelband, you have to have a very good imagination because Finale wouldn’t give you rolls and things like crescendos, so imagination has to be there.

Let me interrupt you for a minute.  When you set up your instrumentation, do you access a pan sound?
SG:  Yeah, yeah, yeah! When I get to the panyard at night, having the music there helps to cut down on the amount of time in terms of giving the music, and if I put music down and I realize that it is not sounding how I would want it to sound, I would make a change right there, and then write it in on the score.  A lot of the times when I put it down, it sounds exactly like what I want it to sound like.  That came over years of practice and experimenting and trying this and trying that to find my own way of voicing my sound.  Today, I have eight of my arrangements that are fully scored.

(Orville’s note: Music companies like Roland, Korg and Kurzweil sell modules with samples of most musical instruments that arrangers and composers use professionally, and a steelpan sound is part of those instruments in the module.)

When you talk about voicing, do you make a conscious effort to, for example, assign the tri-tone of a dominant chord to any particular family within the steelband instrumental family?
SG:  Wow; that is funny.  You know last night we did the Panorama in Tobago where Buccooneers won, and I did a radio interview and was asked the same question. How do I decide what goes where—in my head I have a sound that I want to hear so I would not give it to the basses because they do not have that clarity per se, so I would use the cellos, the quads or the seconds just to give it that body.  It depends on the part—how strong I want the part to come out, how loud I want the part to come out, how subtle I want the part to come out—that’s when I decide where it will go.

Let’s go back briefly to your experience at NIU.  Did you study arranging as part of your education?
SG:  To a point—not in detail—I think I did one minor class.

Was that a choice you made or was it because of the program of study you were enrolled in?
SG:  The program—I had so many different requirements tying my hand and that did not allow me to do much there, and that was my undergrad.  When I did my masters, I think I could have done it, but I really don’t know why I didn’t go for the arranging.

Do you think, especially now that there is a programme there for Trinidadians coming after you, that it might be a good idea for the administration at NIU to re-structure the curriculum so that there is an inclusion of arranging so that students can come back here and be more experimental with arranging.
SG: In terms of the program at NIU, it is not really a pan program.  It is a normal music degree and the instrument of choice is pan.

The issue of choice of tune is important as far as an arranger is concerned.  Do you make that choice or does a committee make that choice?
SG: The bands I’ve worked with so far, I have been fortunate in that they have allowed me to make the decision and I am thankful for that because it’s hard, it’s hard doing a tune that you don’t really feel.

The issue of adjudication is one that ignites a lot of acrimony after each Panorama round including the finals.  When you get your score sheet back from the adjudicators, can you talk about your process of evaluating what you get back?
SG: To be honest—I don’t read it.

(Seion and I chuckled quite a bit after this response.)

 2010 Panorma champs Silver Stars. —Photo: ROBERTO CODALLO
2010 Panorma champs Silver Stars. —Photo: ROBERTO CODALLO

That’s fine. You are not the only person who has had that kind of response.  Why don’t you read it?
SG: Because I would get comments like great job with introduction, well thought out and this and that and the other; very good use of motivic development, but the marks are not reflective of the comments.  They are also not telling me where you (the adjudicator) thought I went wrong or what you heard.  Instead, you are trying to guide me with what you want me to do, and not what you are hearing and trying to correct. I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying.

I know exactly what you are saying.  Remember I did an analysis of a number of adjudicators’ score sheets last year, so I am in agreement with what you are saying.
SG: As an arranger, as a musician, you will know the faults of the music, right, you will know where you need to strengthen parts of the arrangement—you know.  The most I will do is look up marks, and if I get thirty-five out of forty, I have room to improve here.  I don’t really believe in changing music every round of the competition. I believe in doing a solid tune and working it through the competition—cleaning it up, tightening it up, smoothening it up, making it forceful, making it more musical—that is what I believe in. 

OK.  Give me an example of cleaning up.
SG: As I said, you will know where your band is falling short.  As simple as this—you will have a phrase, and at the ending of a phrase you would have a rhythm like this and just imagine somebody is playing
(Orville’s note: From a visual perspective, I hope non-musicians are able to notice that there is a subtle difference with these two rhythms; from an arranger’s perspective, one has to have a very good ear to recognize those differences during performace.)

Now, two or three people might be playing the second rhythm, and that muddies the music, so you want everybody playing the first rhythm, and you work to clear up that muddiness.  You might have an intricate run that everybody is not getting so it’s muddy, and when you go into it, the problem is not that they don’t have the skill to play it, but proper hand positioning.  So you help them create the easiest way to get to that passage, and  you go through the arrangement step by step and try and take out the knots and create a smooth flowing piece of music.

Do you have a drill man or do you do the drilling yourself?
SG: For Buccooneers from Tobago, I have Ben Jackson with me and he will do all the cleaning up.

Is that because of the back and forth from Trinidad to Tobago?
SG: Yes.  Ben and I have been working together for a long time and I met him at Sound Specialists, and as a matter of fact, Sound Specialists was the first band that I worked with for Panorama. Mr. Forteau came to NIU one year on some official Pan Trinbago business and observed one of the ensembles at the university. He heard an arrangement I did and approached me about doing a tune for his band when I came home for the summer. That led to arranging a calypso for the festival, and coming out of that, they asked me to work with the band for Panorama.  So I worked with Sound Specialists for about five years.

What kind of success did you have with that band?
SG: Well—first band in school—and you know when you in school you hearing all kind’a thing, all different kinds of music, and at that time, I was not Panorama mature. So I was hearing a lot of music crammed into the ten-minute period, and we made finals once or twice, but it was always the big bands—and then Sound Specialists.  If they were picking twelve, we were always thirteen—always around that area.  I would say that a lot of it was due to my immaturity in music—not in music but in arranging for a steelband for Panorama.  That discipline to know how much to put in an arrangement—it comes after a while.
You mentioned something about big bands.  Allow me to preface this question by telling you know about an interview I did with an arranger last year. He has not been able to break that ceiling and get into the higher echelon of the steelbands in terms of competition in Trinidad, and he also had this thing about the big bands.  My question to you is, what is your perspective on these so-called big bands? Do you see them always coming in 1-2-3-4-5 all the time for Panorama Competition?
SG: Not necessarily, you know. You see, the big bands were once small, and these bands have worked hard through the years and probably acquired the best instruments, the best tuners—a lot of them are very well organized—bands like Exodus, Renegades, All Stars, when you go into those bands, you see structure, and it shows during the year. If you see then at a play-out/gig, the way they look, the way they sound—they are well organized—and that helps in terms of Panorama.  I wouldn’t say that it is because they have the Boogsie Sharpe and, yeah, that is an asset too, but these bands went through what ever they went through, and they have gotten to the point where they have the numbers, they have the instruments, they have the arrangers, so they are doing well.  So at that point, the smaller bands now have to try and get to that level—it’s going to be hard.  A tenor pan right now is $6,000—it’s a lot of work, sponsors are not like before so it is a lot of work to get to that level.

What would it take to get you to read the comments on the score sheet?
SG: Don’t get me wrong eh. I would drift through it, I would drift through it.  But you see, read it to help me fix my tune—nah! It really doesn’t help.  I honestly think a lot of the music that goes through the savannah passes over the heads of a lot of people.

I am not putting words in your mouth but when you say a lot of the people, who are you talking about?
SG: The adjudicators.  I remember having a conversation with one arranger one time and he did an arrangement that had a three/four Castilian in the arrangement, and he said not one judge mentioned it in their comments.  I would think that is something you would comment on.

I totally agree with you.
SG: I mean, my arrangement this year with Buccooneers—I have two time changes.  One is not that obvious because of how we presented it, but the other, you know for sure that the time has changed. Nobody even said, ‘ok, you made a mistake at this point, or the band made a blunder at that point.’

Let’s just expound on this time change. Most Panorama arrangements are written in cut time, when you say you had a time change, can you—in order for the person who is reading this that does not know anything about music—explain what a time change is?
SG: I write my music in four-four—1-2-3-4: 1-2-3-4—not cut time.

Why do you write in four-four?
SG:  Well, once I started writing my arrangements I wrote in four-four and I just stuck with that.  So it was like an influence that became a preference. I go through an argument a lot of times with people who say calypso is supposed to be written in cut time and it can’t be written in four. I disagree.

Well it is not that it can’t be written in four, it is because of the pulse of the music that it is written in cut time.
SG: You could achieve the same thing in four. 

I agree but the pulse is different.
SG:  Yeah, yeah, It’s just a preference.

OK: So when you say you change the time, tell one of the ten thousand judges out there what you mean.
SG: I have a modulation—chromatically—where I use arpeggios starting with A, B flat, B, C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E. So we moving from 1-2-3-4: 1-2-3-4 to 1-2-3: 1-2-3: 1-2-3:1-2-3-4:1-2-3-4. Now if you’re sitting tapping your foot as you are going through the three-four, you have three measures of three-four, and then one measure of three-eight, and given the pulse of the tune as you continue to tap your foot, your beat will go off somewhere. Talking about the layman here—your beat will go off. So if your beat goes off at that point, and I’m a judge—I judge you for the preliminaries, the beat goes off: ‘Alright, I ain’t say nothing—probably I missed something.’ Then I judge you for semi-finals—the beat goes off: ‘Nah! Something wrong here!’ I would mention something, you know—even if you don’t realize that it is a time change. ‘You make a mistake here’ Something, something!  Nothing from the judges.
(Orville’s exercise for readers: For the reader to get a sense of what Seion is talking about here, sing, The Road, and tap your foot or clap your hand on the pulse of the tune. That would be the 1-2-3-4: 1-2-3-4. Then, I want you to sing the theme from the movie Dr. Zhivago [which is now technically in three-four time, and that would be 1-2-3: 1-2-3. Now I want you to alternate singing The Road and Dr Zhivago keeping the same pulse.] After you have done that a couple of times, you need to sing Dr. Zhivago but sing it twice as fast as you were singing it in three-four. That is now going to be the 123: 123 in Seion’s explanation of a time change. Technically, the value of the beat or the pulse that you were tapping your foot or clapping your hand for on the fast Dr. Zhivago has now changed, and this is what Seion is talking about. When you put all those nuances together, you will achieve a time change.)

This year there are quite a few bands coming from Tobago for the finals and you are the arranger for one of those bands.  You are up against some big guns in terms of arranging experience.  What is your mind-set coming into these finals?
SG:  Yes, as a matter of fact all the medium bands from Tobago (were) in the finals and I’m up against “Boogsie”, Carlton Zanda, Kareem Brown and Edwin Pouchet.  We are not focused on coming first, or second or third; we try and get the players’ minds into performing, and performing well.

I am delighted that you made that statement because one of the issues I have with the whole Panorama thing is that there is a perception that every arranger who enters the competition, goes in thinking that s/he should win and that is just not possible.
SG: Nah, it’s not possible. You see, my purpose, my goal is different from other arrangers, because part of me—I real love steelpan—I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it, and I think my purpose in music in Trinidad & Tobago in steelpan is to spread the word of steelband. I mean—yes we have to live, because we live in this kind of world now, but my purpose is to spread the word. I have a little core of players who would move with me from band to band, and I asked them what is the purpose of just coming to play for Panorama—just to make a few dollars that would finish before carnival finish, anyway?  If you want to be a musician, set yourself up from now so that twenty years down the road there could be an exchange of ideas and the passing on of knowledge—no matter how much or little you know—you never could tell what could happen.  Pass it on, help somebody else, help them understand that this is just not about dollars and cents, but it is a gift that we have, and we need to continue with that gift.

Let me ask you one final question—Pan In the Classroom, Pan In The Schools—I tried to get your attention before you began your deliberation on Sunday for the Junior Panorama where you were an adjudicator for the Under 21 group. What are you thoughts on the whole Pan In The Classroom model?
SG: Well, I don’t really have a grasp of what they are actually doing.  But the idea—if I am thinking of it, how I am thinking of it—the idea of Pan In The Classroom is supposed to be a natural lesson in the classroom and not an extra curricula activity.  That way, we get more out of it as opposed to, come and play some pan nah boy.  I feel if it is just that, come and play some pan nah boy—we have a problem.  If it’s a lesson just as we would do Math, Social Studies, English, Steelband, Steelband history, Music, Theory, then we have more to gain down the road.

Editor’s note: Buccooneers placed sixth with 266.5 points in the medium band category in the finals of the Panorama competition which was won by Steel Xplosion with 280 points.

Orville’s note:
Of all the interviews I’ve done with arrangers, Seion was the youngest both in terms of age and maturity as an arranger. I must say though, that Seion provided a mature approach to his craft, and mirrored some of the challenges and frustrations that the other more experienced arrangers expressed. I am confident—as long as he remains on this path—that inyears to come, he will be a force to be reckoned with. This was the first transcription where I was driven to use musical notation to demonstrate what an arranger was trying to say, and I trust readers were visually able to connect with Seion on this. 

NEXT MONTH: Arddin Herbert, arranger for Invaders.

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