We regular mortals release our pent-up frustrations by plain old talk, talk and more talk. When Derron Ellies has something to say, he plays it; a quiet, gentle voice, provoking opinions and hell on a steel-pan.
Yours truly has known him since our university days together and I was excited to interview him about his musical origins, journey and where his career is taking him. So here we go, delving into the musical mind of Derron Ellies.
Upful: So Derron how long have you been playing pan? Where did it all begin?
Derron: 20 years. My musical training began at age 10. I was always a musical child but never got a chance to get involved in music till the Manzanilla Police force launched their pet project, the Manzanilla Police Youth Club, which was geared toward helping youths in underprivileged areas.
I moved to Port-of-Spain, clear to the other end of Trinidad and attended Queen’s Royal College, with Music as a subject. Then pursued a Certificate in Music Specialisation in Pan at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine campus.
This is where I met you. You used to perform in U.W.I in those days as well, right? Who did you perform with?
I had the opportunity to perform with Kindred, General Grant, Andy Venture, Homefront with Ozwald “OzyMajiq” Merrique. All of them from the Kiskidee Karavan days.
I know of General Grant and Kindred but what is the Kiskidee Karavan? I’m ashamed to say I never heard of it.
The Kiskidee Karavan was a group formed by Robert Amar, a local millionaire who wanted to promote local Rapso artists in the early 1990s. It was great to meet and get to play with them and learn.
*(I did some research and it turns out I am familiar with some music from the Kiskidee Karavan. Anybody recall the Soca song “Rollin” by Homefront in 1995 or “Dan It Up” by Yard Fowl Crew?)
Along with the steel-pan, do you play any other instruments?
Derron: I play the cuatro, drums, a little keyboard and a lot of different types of pan. I can play the single tenor, the double tenor, the double second tenor, the triple, guitar pan, four bass pan and the cello pan.
So how far does the steel-pan really take you? Where have you travelled to?
I was 13 when I toured Washington DC and Maryland in the United States and also Canada with the Manzanilla Police Youth Club. That was the first flight I ever took out of Trinidad. I’ve also been to New York, Virginia, London and Martinique and Jamaica as part of the U.W.I Steel Ensemble.
I went to India in 2011 as part of a business delegation for tourism, along with Orange Sky. [I also went to] China in May 2012 to help pan musician Noel La Pierre with the Percussive Harmonic Instrument, the synthesised pan. As a matter of fact, I was the musical director of the band Rhapsody Next Generation for the last four years until this August and the entire band uses the PHI’s.
*The Percussive Harmonic Instrument (abbreviated PHI, pronounced “Fie”) was created by the Steel Pan Research Laboratory at the University of the West Indies and launched in 2008.
Impressive! I take it you love the international performances?
I loved it! And you don’t get to see too many tall, black people in China (laughs). They really love our music. You could see how excited they get by new cultures.
How do you think you as a musician fare locally?
It seems like other countries appreciate our music more than our local audience does. I would say I struggle locally to perform and definitely don’t get paid substantially. People might know my face, but don’t know my name and how long I’ve been performing. That’s why I love to perform internationally. There’s always somebody that never saw or heard a steel-pan and would want to come out to see it. They flock in their hundreds and thousands to folk-shows and performances.
I recently played at Martin’s Piano Bar in Port-of-Spain with Roger Boothman and while the show was well received by the audience, there wasn’t a big turnout. I also played in November at All Out Sports Bar on Tragarete Road, Port-Of-Spain for their Session Sundays, which had a bigger, more enthusiastic audience.
Locally, we have quality but don’t treat our artists like quality. We need to change this.
What’s in the future for you?
I have plans for my own album; a mixture of steel-pan, song and poetry. Also I’m interested in participating in the pilot steel-pan programme in Australia where pan arrangers and players are establishing themselves.
To Listen to Derron’s music:
Check out Suns of Dub featuring Derron Ellies at:
and his collaboration with Andy Venture; “Sound A Trinidad” at:
ONE LAST COOL FACT:
Remember when Nicki Minaj came to Trinidad to shoot her video for “Pound The Alarm”? Remember the steel-pan intro to the video? Those hands dancing across the steel pan in that intro belonged to Mr. Derron Ellies!