Who / What is a Panjumbie?


If you are not from the Caribbean you probably wondering who or what a panjumbie is.  The term has two parts:  Pan and Jumbie.

Pan refers to the musical instrument, the pan or steelpan.  In many parts of the world, particularly in the United States, a steelpan is often called a steel drum.  Steel drums are one of the most recent acoustic musical instrument inventions.  The instruments were invented in Trinidad, an island in the Caribbean, in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Much of the early development of the instrument was done by what some might refer to as disadvantaged young people who wanted to make music but could not afford to purchase "professional" instruments.  Nowadays, quality pans are made by highly skilled and trained "pan tuners" and cost as much as or more than many other instruments.

Pan has spread all over the world, both with the migration of "pan players," and with the interest of people who traveled to Trinidad (and later anywhere pan was played) and brought back the desire to enjoy the instrument when they returned home.  Watch this site for more on the instrument and its history, soon to come.

The word "Jumbie" is of African derivation.  In Trinidad, it has historically referred to a spirit, sometimes malevolent in nature.   When someone becomes deeply involved in a particular activity, Trinidadians will say "Ay, the jumbie bit you," meaning you are "hooked" on that activity.  Thus a person deeply involved in steelpan is often referred to as a "panjumbie."  There are many of us.

Most pannists have traditionally been taught the music they play by rote.  The leader or arranger dictates the notes or demonstrates them on a pan, and the pannists play them, over and over, until they have learned the whole song. 

I do not play the pan.  I can't keep a beat and consider myself "rhythmically challenged."  At my age, by the time the arranger has given out the fifth note, I've forgotten the first note.   I know where the notes are on a frontline pan and can play the scales. Just don't ask me to play a melody! 

I've been involved with pan in many other ways.  Ever since the jumbie bit me, I have enjoyed listening to pan music, particularly when performed live.  There is something about the energy, the vibes, the spirit of a live pan performance that catches me. And I'm not talking just about a solo musician.  Steelpan comprises a whole family of instruments playing  melody, harmony and bass line.  A steel orchestra may comprise of a few to more than 100 musicians playing together.  Whenever pannists have a concert that I can attend, I do.

I am also involved in pan "behind the scenes,"  I have worked with a number of steel orchestras, transporting musicians to rehearsals and gigs, organizing the "panyard" (rehearsal space), assembling and dismantling the racks that hold the instruments. You name it, I've done it, as long as it doesn't involve playing a pan!  I leave that to my very talented musician friends. 

Most recently many of these efforts have been with the Adlib Steel Orchestra, from Uniondale, Long Island, NY, whose panyard is a few miles from where I live.  The photograph at the top of this page is of Adlib performing at the 2014 Brooklyn Panorama competition.

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