Female Musical Trailblazers revisited: The first “All Girls Steel Band” in Guyana – By Lear Matthews

Celebrating Women’s History Month in MARCH

It was the early 1950’s. The nation of Guyana (then British Guiana) like some other Caribbean countries was in the initial stages of the struggle to shed the yoke of colonialism optimized by the first national, multiethnic political party. The dawning of Massa Day Done!

As with the political scene back then, “beating pan” was a male-dominated activity. However, despite the normative cultural credence and challenges faced by women, pioneering genius and history-making were afoot.           

The phenomenon of a female Steel-band emerged. Steelband playing was considered a lower class activity attracting young men. The bands were notoriously described as “santapee bands”. These male urban youth primarily from economically deprived communities, aka bad or rough neighborhoods, practiced and honed their craft diligently. To many people they were “hooligans” living in “tenement yards” sometimes referred to as “dee pan yard”. Viewed within that context, initially Steel band was not socially accepted as a legitimate genre of musical entertainment. Instead, it was considered crass and thus unworthy of invitation for performances at any prestigious venue such as the Town Hall or the then Governor’s Residence.

Yesobel Daisy Ross

Against this backdrop as we celebrate women’s accomplishments in history, one could envisage the idea of a female steel band during that period as an ambitious if not presumptuous artistic endeavor. The first two such bands in Guyana were founded by Yesobel Daisy Ross, a “home maker” and Iris Leitch, a school teacher, both of whom ingeniously organized groups of teenage girls, marking the birth of the All Girls Steel band, considered the initial pioneering breakthrough in women’s musical entrepreneurship.

All-girls Steel bands had already existed in Trinidad and Tobago, but with this unprecedented local initiative, a unique juxtaposition was unfolding in Guyana.

Undoubtedly these trailblazers had to be both charming and bold as they competed with their male counterparts, rattling engrained gender and cultural barriers. With grit and confidence, the two pioneering women harnessed the necessary resources to launch their respective bands, undaunted by the stigma associated with the Steel band movement. Among the trainers were a steel pan “wizard” named Bertram DeVarrel, who was the leader of the then popular Tripoli (all-male) Steel-band and Ranny Phillips, a mild- mannered “first-pan” specialist. In order to truly capture the essence of this historic, transformative experience, I interviewed Joan-Davis Rose (JDR) former band leader and band member Iva Matthews-Homer (IMH), both of the Ebony All Girls Steel Band, founded and managed by Yesobel Daisy Ross, a first in British Guiana. One informant indicated that the second such Steel band, founded by Iris Leitch was named Blue Gardenia.

LM: Hi Joan! What do you remember about how the band started?

JDR: Your mother (Yesobel Ross), a very courageous woman started the band, first of its kind in British Guiana. She got the idea from a similar group in Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of Steel band. Our uniform was white blouse and burgundy skirt with the hem below the knees.

LM: Which pan did you play?

JDR: I played the “jam pan”(second tier pan).

LM: How did your parents react to your participation in the band?

JDR: Some parents were OK with it. Others were upset and tried to stop or limit our involvement. They said things like: “You’re not going to beat no oil drum….education is more important. You’re not going to ruin the reputation of this family”. It was tough.

LM: How many band members were there?

JDR: About ten, plus trainers, who were “Pan Men”, very respectful and decent (important considering the pan men’s public reputation at that time). I am still in touch with some band members: Iva Matthews-Homer, Cynthia George and Edith Abrams.

LM: Where did you practice?

JDR: We practiced three times a week under a “bottom house”(beneath a stilted residential home)in D’Urban Street, Wortmanville.

LM: What was it like being a member of the first All Girls Steel Band?

JDR: It was certainly a new experience. As teenagers we were excited to be in the Newspapers. Many people loved to hear us play. We were proud of our accomplishments.

LM: Where did the band perform and how were you received?

JDR: We performed at the League of Colored People (LCP) Fairs and other popular venues such as Elsie’s (Catering) Hall on Durban Street; the Promenade Gardens; the Girl Guides’ Pavilion; and popular venues in the town of McKenzie. But “tramping” (i.e. dancing or ‘flouncing’ through streets of the town to the beat/music of the Steelband) was not allowed. That was for the “all-male” bands only. We played in neighboring Suriname, touring with leading calypsonians from Trinidad and Tobago and the girls were chaperoned. We had many avid supporters. Audiences loved us.

LM: Were there critics?

JDR: People criticized our parents. They asked: “How could you allow your daughters to do such a thing?

LM: Would you like to say anything else?

JDR: It was a good experience while it lasted. We made history. It was a different time, different values.

We have come a long way. Steel band is now recognized around the world, with no gender or age discrimination. I am glad that you are doing this because many Guyanese and others from the Caribbean are not aware of it.

 LM: Hi Iva! What do you remember about the band?

IMH: The thing that stands out the most is I remember my father being very much opposed to my playing in the band. He stated with stern disapproval, “Not a bit of it!”

LM: How did you react to that?

IMH: I was disappointed, but perhaps because my mother was the founder and manager of the band, I was allowed to perform at several local events. However, I was not permitted to travel overseas for performances such as in Surinam (former Dutch Guiana) where the band played to “sell-out” audiences.

LM: Which instrument did you play?

IMH: I played the base-drum.

LM: You and the other band members are certainly musical pioneers. Not only did you make Guyanese proud, but you made history, broke barriers and I am sure that your story will live on. Thank you!

From “bottom house” to world stage

While the musical history of Guyana and the Caribbean is richly reflected in multiple ethnic traditions, women Steel-band players represent a unique dimension of this musical genre which has been accepted and embellished by a vast cross-section of the population at home and in the diaspora. Although their creative spirit made an impact and inspired others, their contribution to the Steel band movement has been vastly undervalued. Today there is a significant number of All-Female and mix-gendered Steel band orchestras ranging from High School to national and international levels. Girls and women of various ethnicities and cultures world-wide participate as avid, talented, enthusiastic performers. We celebrate this odyssey with unwavering pride and gratitude, a musical heritage founded, humanized, diversified and performed by our cherished trailblazing female musical ambassadors whose life we must honor.

For further discussion on the history of Steel band in Guyana, See:

Al Creighton, “A Look at Steel band through the years”, Stabroek News, Feb. 28, 2021.

Godfrey Chin, “Rise of Steel band in Guyana”. Up Close. Panothenet.com/news/2010/Mar/Guyana-3-24-10htm).

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Comments

  • Francis Quamina Farrier  On 03/09/2021 at 9:42 am

    Thanks for this piece of important musical history, Dr. Lear Matthews. Nations are partly built on the backs of its pioneers, and their contributions must always be recorded.

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