Music to dance to: Planet Pan visits two islands

by | May 18, 2023 | News

Color photo of teenagers stand behind steel pans. They wear bright purple t-shirts and are beating the pans with mallets.

Down at Steamboat Wharf, the music is bumping and a crowd gathers. It’s around 5 p.m. and eleven steel band musicians rhythmically drum the familiar tune of Take on Me by A-Ha. On the little island of Matinicus, the resonant, cheerful melodies float up Harbor Road and islanders can hear the music well past the post office.  

This week, the steel band Planet Pan will travel aboard the Sunbeam to perform on Matinicus and Swan’s Island. By the end of the trip, they will have played for over 100 islanders and taught 25 elementary students. Planet Pan is made up of young adults ages 14 to 18 who hail from the Blue Hill area. Their songbook includes music in the Calypso and Caribbean traditions as well as modern pop hits. Led by expert instructor Nigel Chase, the band practices a few days each week and perform throughout Maine.

As the band plays, Steward Jillian cooks on a barbeque grill as people chat and shimmy to the music. Sunbeam nurse Simone Babineaux spins a hula hoop alongside residents of this remote island 20 miles offshore. “The Mission’s Island Outreach program offers activities to islanders that they may not otherwise experience,” says Director of Island Services Douglas Cornman. “Visiting specialists, artists, and educators ensure islanders receive services and enjoy events where they live and in-person. With guests like Planet Pan, they can share in experiences to strengthen existing community ties.”

The people who live and thrive on Matinicus and Swan’s have deep roots and meaningful relationships within their communities. For much of the Mission’s history, community participation has been integral to its programming. Outreach efforts by Mission staff—whether on islands or through the Mission’s 63-acre Downeast campus—connect individuals and deepen existing relationships within their communities.

So why a steel band and how did a tradition of steelpan performance end up in Maine?

Developed in Trinidad during the early to mid-19th century, steelpans are chromatically pitched percussive instruments. Used almost exclusively with Calypso until 1962, steelpans have grown in popularity and are used in many different musical genres around the world. Nigel’s father, Carl Chase, became enamored by steel bands while traveling in the Caribbean in the early 1970s. He spent time learning the instruments and brought the tradition of steelpan to the Blue Hill peninsula. From starting a community steel band in the 1970s to kicking off music education in the 1990s, the Chase family has ensured the performance, education, and celebration of steelpan music in Maine for more than five decades.

Planet Pan’s 17 pans cover a wide range of notes and are made of up of bass pans, cello pans, guitar pans, double second pans, and tenor pans. Nigel explains, “Each instrument varies in size, pitch, and number of notes. When we talk about a note, we refer to the oval impression within the pan. The bigger that oval, the lower the tone will be. A note’s pitch corresponds directly to the size of the note in the pan.” Rounding out the band are other percussive instruments of a cowbell and drum kit.

Visiting an island can be an equally unique experience for a steel band too. Off-stage, these young performers explore the islands and chat with residents. In conversation over lunch aboard Sunbeam, several comment on the beauty, resilience, and isolation of living on an island. One student notes, “People who live in remote places rely on each other but are also self-sufficient. Another remarks, “It’s crucial they get along and it’s amazing what they have created in such a small community. Did you see the Matinicus library?! It’s amazing!” The musicians also adventured to beaches, a quarry, and the well-known Fisherman’s Wife Gallery. 

“I hope we can bring more steelpan music to other areas served by the Mission,” shares Nigel. “Music brings people together and the Planet Pan musicians get the chance to meet and learn from other Maine communities.”

Learn more about the Island Outreach program and visit the Pan Institute website to enjoy a Planet Pan performance this year.

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