08/04/2018 09:50 EDT | Updated 08/07/2018 15:57 EDT

Playing Steel Pan Has Changed My Life And Opened Up My Musical World

You haven't heard jazz until you've heard it played on a steel pan. I promise you.

HuffPost Canada

Soca music has been in my life since I was old enough to remember it. I've been jumping up at Caribana since I was a kid — my parents are from Guyana and I was born in Hamilton, Ont.. But, I had never paid much attention to steel pan, it was always something that was in the background for me. Until the first time I visited a pan yard, where bands practice playing steel pan. It was a life-changing night.

A friend had invited me to a practice of her steel pan band and although I didn't know much about the genre, I was up for a new experience. I grew up playing the trumpet, which I loathed, but had never touched a steel pan. For some reason, the band trusted me with a tenor pan, two playing sticks, and notes to a song I'd never heard before.

Ron Rambarran
Performing at "Impromptu", the Souls of Steel Orchestra's spring concert.

Imagine trying to practice a song you've never heard before on an instrument you've never played before with more than 20 people practicing repetitively at different volumes and speeds. It sounded like a "Game of Thrones" sized-wall of noise. I thought, "Maybe this isn't for me."

Then, this guy knocked his stick against the rack (a steel structure used to hang pans on) very loudly. Some people stopped playing, and others just kept doing what they were doing, oblivious to what the significance of that knock was (such as myself). I was promptly told that that meant, "Stop playing and listen." So I did.

Eventually, there was silence. He told us we would all try it together, and I froze in fear. All I kept thinking was, "I'm going to screw this up and everyone is going to look at me!"

He started knocking his stick again, this time in a pattern that counted down towards the beginning of the song. When the band played in unison for the first time, it was a moment of true euphoria for me. The melodies, harmonies, bass and drums combined to form a song I eventually learned was called "Like Ah Boss." It was a moment I've never forgotten. I instantly fell in love with the instrument.

At first I only listened, and didn't touch my pan, I was too afraid of messing up. I studied the notes my bandmate beside me was playing, and eventually I put together a small piece of the song. Whenever we'd start over, I waited for it to come up and would only play that part of the song. A few hours later, I managed to learn about 20 seconds worth of the music.

On my second day, I began showing other new players how to play the part I'd learned, and as they say, teaching is the best way to learn something yourself. I was allowed to start taking my pan home after a couple of practices. I practiced every night. By the end of my first season, I got the hang of striking the pan!

Riaz Mohammed
Pan band practice!

It was intimidating stepping into a world where most of my band mates had many years of experience. There were times I felt like quitting because I constantly compared myself to them. I felt like I'd never measure up. However, some very good friends made sure that never happened.

Today, I'm about to enter my fourth season with the Silhouettes Steel Orchestra. I consider every single member of that band to be family. I've also joined a second band, the Souls of Steel Orchestra (SOSO). Over the last two seasons with SOSO, I've formed relationships with some truly amazing, musically gifted, dope human beings that connect me to this city's Caribbean culture.

Everything in my life changed when pan entered it. Most people who are unfamiliar with steel pans immediately associate them to, "The Little Mermaid," or calypso music. While they're intrinsically linked to both the film and the music from its island of origin, Trinidad and Tobago, it's so much more than that. You haven't heard jazz until you've heard it played on a steel pan. I promise you.

Pan has opened up my world. It's exposed me to the West Indian music scene on a level I hadn't experienced before. While pan doesn't hail from Guyana and 95 per cent of my bandmates are Trinidadian, I can't help but feel like I'm helping to spread awareness of these often overlooked musical instruments.

Getting a glimpse into the creative processes that happens behind the scenes, and the countless hours spent rehearsing our craft has been eye opening. Preparing ourselves for the "Superbowl" of the pan community (an annual competition known as "Pan Alive," based on the original competition that takes place annually in Trinidad called "Panorama") is a bonding experience of the highest order.

We sink or swim as one. One band, one sound.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories — join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at

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