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The Business of Pan: Tameeka Garcia Harris

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Tameeka Garcia Harris is a veteran steel pan player from the legendary pan neighborhood Laventille in Port O’ Spain, Trinidad. She has lived in New York for the past twenty years, playing pan and performing as a soca artist, under the name Tami G. She c0-owns and manages the Brooklyn-based Steel-X-Plosion USA with her brother Freddy Harris III.

Morgan Greenstreet: Please introduce yourself.

Tameeka Garcia Harris: I am Tameeka Garcia Harris, I’m the manager of Steel-X-Plosion. We’re the youngest band in Brooklyn, the youngest-owned band. As far as style, we bring the American funk, jazz, into the soca. Freddy Harris [arranger for Steel-X-Plosion] is my brother. I’ve been involved in pan since the age of five. I grew up in the back roads of Laventille, Trinidad. I’ve been playing pan pretty much my whole life, from the big bands that you hear about in Trinidad: The Phase II Pan Groove, to the Desperadoes, school bands…I even played pan in the Virgin Islands, had some experience there. And I’ve been playing pan in New York now for the last 20 years.

Basically, Steel-X-Plosion, we’re a new band, only three years old, and we are a break-off of a major band that we used to be a part of, Sesame Flyers International. My brother arranged for them for quite a few years and I was playing for them. I guess one day he said, “Hey, it’s time to bring out Steel-X-Plosion,” which is full of history that we’ll get into later in the interview. He said, “It’s time to bring this band to life here in America.” We took a brave chance, and we did it one year; that year was a crazy year, because they actually didn’t believe we would do it. So other bands in New York actually voted us out of competition that year, because they felt that we wasn’t experienced to bring out a band, and they said they had a standard of competition that they wanted to maintain. But they didn’t realize that we weren’t just people trying to start a band for the first time, but we come out of a musical family, we come from a pan family, right, and we’re all musicians. Even though we might have been a new forming band in New York, we weren’t new to the actual business of pan. But the pan sides didn’t see it, so they actually voted us out our first year. This is gonna be our fourth year, and it’s amazing how we’ve grown and gotten more players. And it’s funny because this year is actually a trying year for many of the larger bands, and they’ve actually had to come to us, who they voted out years ago, for help in different things. So it’s amazing, I guess the underdog is now becoming the help-out band.

Why is it a trying year for some of the big bands?

So, the problem that’s going on in New York is the lack of players and the yard situation. Spacing is a big issue here in New York, and you know that from just a real estate perspective, being a New Yorker: hell, it takes forever finding an apartment. So you know it’s more challenging now, finding a large space, even just a lot, to house a band of 50-plus players, right? And then you’re talking about the rents being astronomical, then you’re talking about the residential areas and noise permits and all of these things, so.

Back in the day it was easy to just grab a piece of open property and set your band up and nobody bothered you, because a lot of time you had abandoned properties and spaces that were owned by people who were living outside of New York State. But now things are changing, regentrification is going on in Brooklyn and it’s becoming more and more difficult to find property and places to practice. And of course the pricing of things, right? $7,000 a month for a piece of land. So bands are becoming smaller and smaller, nowhere to practice, so it’s just been a difficult year.

Yeah, I hear that. So how did y’all find this spot?

So I had no intentions on bringing the band out for 2016. Last year we had a property that we had rented before, which was in a residential area not too far from here, and you know, it was kind of challenging; because of the housing, we weren’t able to go past a certain time…just a whole lot of different factors. And I spent a lot of money in actually building that yard, I spent like 14 grand building up that yard. It was a junk yard, I cleaned out my bank account to clean it up, only to have to walk away from it at the end of the year. That pretty much broke my pockets, so my goal was not to bring out the band.

But we always hold these band-launchings, and the security staff that we used called me and said, “Hey, what’s going on? We haven’t seen you guys at the other place rehearsing,” and I go, “Oh, we’re not coming out this year,” and he said “What’s the reason?” “We don’t have anywhere to rehearse.” He said, “Is space your only issue?” I said “Yes,” he said, “Well I manage, or I work with a couple places in Brooklyn,” and I was literally at work, and he was like, “Can you get here in an hour?” So I told my boss I had to leave early… He said, “I have a space,” and I said, “Well, please don’t kill me, because I don’t have a whole lot of money.” And I said, “Can it at least hold 50-plus players,” and he was like “Yeah, it can.” So I rushed over here, and it was just pure luck.

So, you say ‘the business of pan’— clearly there’s a lot of business, because you have a lot of people, a lot of money involved. How does it work? What does it mean to have a pan group, and bring them out and go to Panorama and all that?

Right, well, I always say there’s pan fun, which is the playing it, and then the pan business. So even to get the band together, the money, it averages about $15,000 to bring out a Panorama side. You’re not gonna spend any less than that, and if you do, that means you have it very much together, and that means you have a space where your rent is pretty much paid, or next to nothing; your pans are in good condition, which means you purchased and everything. You’re probably keeping your pans tuned all year round, which means you don’t need to bring in a tuner to do as much work, so you’re just doing slight blends to the pan. But if you have to do all of these things from scratch for the first two months, you’re going to spend about 15 grand. So that includes your tuners, paying up the arranger, some players may want to be paid, your rent, your uniforms, your flag people and just equipment, like blocks and racks and this can go up.

The first year we came out, I spent 24 grand to bring my band out, because it was bringing it from the ground up, so it actually dropped to 15 grand. And the prize money, if you win, is only 20 grand, so it’s not really so much coming out in the positive, right? [Laughs] And then you still have to take that money and reinvest in your band, and buy more instruments and different things like that. So even the prize money can’t even equate to the amount you spend just to bring out a band. So, you have to have the funding, first and foremost to be able to bring out a band.

And sometimes popularity plays a point, so it depends on the arranger. Sometimes you might be a talented musician, but nobody knows you, you might not get many players that year. So then you have to find yourself in a whole recruiting plan, like, how do you get your players? You have to travel from place to place, schools, colleges, social media, looking for players. We still do that now, being a new band, because our name is new and we’re not as popular. So there’s just so many components to it…and then finding a place to practice, finding dedicated people, it’s also really hard.

We’re a little small right now [as a band]. It’s because people have to work, you got a lot of kids going back to school. It’s also a challenging year for a lot of bands because sometimes you have kids that grow up and now they’re all gone off to college, and you don’t have them around anymore. And then you have working people, who can maybe make it today, not making tonight, so it affects your rehearsals as well, and getting on the stage and actually winning too.

It and it seems like it’s a major commitment, for people to make rehearsals every night.

Right.

So, how did you know that you should give this much of your time and your energy to pan?

Like I said earlier, I grew up in pan and I’ve always been playing pan, so I loved it. You will never do this if you don’t love it, and I don’t care what anyone says. Even if this was a major profit, you would have to really stay on the outside and work from a business perspective. But being a pan player and then starting a band, you must love it. So my love for pan, made me and my brother say, “Let’s try this on our own.”

I call it the business of pan because we have to stay up and running, so of course, in every love you gotta make money, and I wish love could pay for things, but love doesn’t pay the bills as they say, right? [Laughs] So of course you need to incorporate sales and T-shirts and mallets and different things, beers and juices and food and everything else, to try to keep the band functioning and that’s what will keep us funded for the year, but it’s my love and my passion for it.

Every year I say I’m not going to do it and it becomes like this bittersweet relationship, [Laughs] so I end up doing it, I don’t know…They call it the “pan jumbee” or the “pan bug,” you know. “Are you going to do this next year?” “Oh, hell naw, I’m not doing it next year.” And then as the summer starts to come in, and the spring flowers start to rise, you go, “I think the band’s coming out again next year.” And people go, “Are you crazy? This is suicide!” You know, but…You have to love it.

For sure! What was the pan scene like in New York when you first got here?

Because I’ve been in this for so long I would say—up to 10, 15 years ago, it was great, it was actually very similar to Trinidad. The pan sides would actually be out in the sidewalk: we had an area called Pan Alley, where, back in the day, you had all the bands lined up, and people cooking food on the side. I guess the laws were less stringent. New York was just more free, as a New Yorker, right? People had more fun in even like the Macy’s day parade, the Puerto Rican Day parade, the Irish parade. People just had more fun. Then [Mayor] Giuliani came in and stopped the liquor and all those things.

Twenty years ago, I would say it felt as close to Trinidad as we could possibly get it. With all the new laws now, it’s difficult. You have police shutting bands down by 11 o’clock, which is horrible, because you’re talking about working people, getting off, sometimes walking into the yard at 8, 9 p.m. We got a Panorama to win, as I said, and an owner spends $15,000 to bring out a band, and you’re shutting your practices down an hour or two later. And they want all these noise permits…it makes it very difficult to sell alcohol, because now they want all these licenses for alcohol, so how do really raise your money? So, you know, food protection law, with selling food.

So the New York pan scene in 2016 is not the greatest.

I remember going around yard to yard, just saying, “O.K., let’s go hear this band today, let’s go see this band today.” Now you don’t even know where bands are practicing. Most bands are practicing in rooms, and you just see people show on stage. Currently we probably have four bands out of 11 bands that have yards. That’s terrible! So people are looking for the carnival spirit of pan, and they can’t find them, and it’s due to police lockdowns, changes of laws, just everything has just changed it. So you do your best to try to create your own energy wherever you’re at, whether it’s a room or whatever, you just gotta try to bring the spirit of Trinidad wherever you go, you know?

So, as well as Panorama, there’s also the more street side of Carnival, J’ouvert.

J’ouvert is crazy! You got the rhythm, you got the iron, it’s not as stringent, you don’t have to worry about all these rigid rules, it’s just anything goes. You’re on the street, you’re having a great time. You get to play multiple songs, not just one long, continuous song for 10 minutes, and you just get to really enjoy yourself. And that’s the closest to Trinidad pan you’re going to get, right now, is J’ouvert morning. The powder, the mud, just everything; you have people that’ve never played pan, who might just jump between the pan and go, “Would you show me how to do just these two notes?” They might jump in and it’s just…it’s just, you just have to experience it.

What’s J’ouvert like for a pan group?

It depends on the band, but our band is a J’ouvert band. If you tell the band now, “We’re going to go to Panorama,” they’re like, “Uuughh.” And you can see the energy’s not that high. But you tell the kids, “You’re going to J’ouvert,” they want to be at rehearsals now. I love J’ouvert, I feel like when Panorama is over, and the stringent competition you go, the fun is beginning. Panorama feels like you’re almost going to a test piece, J’ouvert is fun, just mad fun! [Laughs]

J’ouvert is what drew me into Carnival, I’m always looking forward to it.

That’s what Carnival should be about right? At the end of the day, this interview should be fun! This is interview shouldn’t be like, “Oh my God, what’s going on with Panorama!”

Right, right.

This interview really should be like, “It is Panorama time!” Right?! But, instead it’s like… “O.K., it’s Panorama,” because of all the restrictions. But we all love it so much. What we’re doing now, is we’re meeting with a lot of politicians, we’re meeting with the [police] precincts, and different people, so we can try to brighten this back up to how it used to be. So with these meetings, we’re hoping we can work on these space issues. Maybe they can put us in Prospect Park somewhere, which would be kinda cool, right? Because it’s a huge park, and say, this band practices over here, that band over there; we’re not near nobody’s house, we can go all night, you can still set up your food vendors in there, and maybe…It’s just ideas that we throw out, and I think that’s what they should do for pan sides. I think it will save us in costs, and it will kind of bring back that spirit, that fun, and also draw the players to come back out again, and people not feeling as dull. You know, we’re trying, we’re praying on that. You know, hopefully, that’s our future goal, as a pan community, more than just a Steel-X-Plosion thing, as a pan community, we’re working on where we can move this, to get it somewhere where we can all have a good time you know.

I hope that works out! Pan should be protected, like an art, it should be exalted like the Metropolitan Opera in the park, they should have Pan in the Park.

You know, especially, most of the pan sides are in Brooklyn. Of course you have bands coming from all over, like this year we have Philadelphia Pan Allstars competing with us, we also have a band coming from Canada, Pan Fantasy…. Back in the days, we used to have more bands that were coming, like from Connecticut and different areas, but because of just the problem of New York, it has just lessened and lessened, the bands coming down here. They can’t even afford it! Where you gonna…? A band comes here right now, I talked to one of the bands in Canada, and they were like, “Where can we go?” Like they want to come, but you can’t just come and go onstage, you need a place to park, a place to at least to practice a night or two. Where can they put their band, when we can’t even find a place to practice? So it’s even hurting out of town bands from coming in and stuff, you know?

So, we’re working on it, and it’s our job as a pan community to like, continue to get by, keep the pan spirit going. I bring the band out every year because I don’t want to see it die. This is a beautiful culture. The great thing is this is not just a Trini thing: We’re here in America and it’s expanded to all ethnicities, races, everybody loves the instrument, everybody wants to play. So it’s an art form that’s definitely still growing. It’s actually a very new instrument when you think in conventional instrument perspectives. A lot of people still think it’s a garbage can, or what you hear on a cruise ship, or in the Bahamas, so we still have a long way to go. So it’s the fight to keep it alive, you know?

For sure! Why the name Steel-X-Plosion?

So, Steel-X-Plosion, actually my dad, Freddy Harris, Sr. came up with this name before even my brother and I were born, back in the ‘60s, ‘70s. So this band was actually around when it was a little combo side, with three or four guys. They started this in Trinidad, in one of the areas called Laventille. So that name Steel-X-Plosion has just kinda been around. When [my dad] left Trinidad, he gave the band over, not really gave it, but this guy from Tobago said he like the name, so he actually took the band and moved it over to Tobago, and now, in Tobago, it’s a winning, medium-sized band, that competes. It took a period of years and they grew and grew and grew. And now they compete and travel. And we’re now like the break-off of that band, and we’re now Steel-X-Plosion U.S.A., technically, so we’re the U.S.A. side.

We’re doing pretty well with it. The song we’re working on is called “Temperature,” sung by Machel Montano, that’s our piece. It has to be anywhere from 8 to 10 minutes long, we just want to have a good time with it, and hopefully we win! [Laughs] I will tell you, we might not be a big band for Panorama, but we’re definitely a big J’ouvert band. Our first time coming out in J’ouvert, we won, and the last two years we’ve come in, as long as we’ve been out, we’ve placed second, so we’re definitely a jamming road band.

And how do you find your new pan players?

So, we use social media; we actually have some college kids that give out flyers in their schools…What we want to do is, we want to hit Manhattan, it’s an untapped market. I don’t know how long Steel-X-Plosion will be a Brooklyn band. I think if we hit Manhattan we would rock, I don’t think we’d have a problem with players because no other band is doing it. They used to have a band back in the days called Harlem Allstars, but they disintegrated. So I think if we surfaced in the Manhattan area, we might be able to do some trouble, some real damage in terms of numbers and everything. So that’s our goal, probably, we might move the band, I’m not saying it’s 100 percent.

You’d have to find a yard…

Right, and we’re looking at Manhattan real estate. Which is why everybody also kinda focuses in on Brooklyn, but Brooklyn now is starting to become just as high as Manhattan, so it’s neither here nor there. We just need to hit a niche where it’s not everyone there, and I think our numbers will grow.

Because people come to what’s most convenient, what’s closest?

Right, and Brooklyn being so saturated, the number of players are scarcely scattered throughout, you’re talking eight bands. And some players are playing with two or three bands to support. So you might come here tonight and it might be empty, but you come tomorrow night and it’ll be packed. It’s like you’re sharing players, and it’s tough, you know.

Right. Thanks for taking the time! Anything you want to add?

Steel-X-Plosion is really a cool place to be! We’re an up-and-coming band, hot band, give us another year or two, we’re taking over, definitely [Laughs].

 

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