Date of Birth: 1 Nov 1951
- Chaguanas Government Primary School
- The Anthony Williams Award for Technological Innovation in Arts & Culture, NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Rudolph Charles Pan Innovation Award ,WITCO, 1988
- Rudolph Charles Pan Innovation Award, WITCO, 1986
Pan musician, pan tuner, pan inventor, pan innovator, pan teacher
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
Jim “Jimi” Phillip is a pan musician extraordinaire whose early fascination with our national instrument fired his passion and led him on a journey to become an internationally renowned pan maker, pan tuner, arranger, teacher, author and innovator. With over 40 years of experience in the field, his pan tuning skills have been much sought after by schools and steelband groups in Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean and beyond. He has also taught the playing of pan and conducted pan workshops for the Ministry of Culture, The University of the West Indies and The University of Trinidad and Tobago. Phillip is a strong advocate for music literacy for pan players as he believes all players of different musical instruments must be able to relate and communicate with each other.
NIHERST interviews Jim Phillip
Q: What was your childhood like?
A: I grew up like any other kid. We lived in Chaguanas off Caroni Savannah Road. When we were small, my siblings and I used to play hide and seek and cowboys and Indians. I went to kindergarten in Chaguanas and then I went to Chaguanas Government School. My dad, Ancil Phillip, worked with the Caroni sugar factory and was a pan tuner for a while and my mother, Ferris, was and still is a home maker.
Q: Would you share with us some of your first memories of pan?
A: When I was about two or three years old I saw my father with this thing on the ground and he was knocking it. I didn’t realize it was a pan. Later on, I got to know that my dad was a pan tuner and had his own band. Then, when I was about five or six, I saw this steelband in Chaguanas called Wonderland Steelband. I just got into a trance while they were playing.
Q: So how did you actually get involved in playing the pan?
A: Well, after seeing Wonderland I spoke to my sister who knew one of the guys in the band and they took me into the band and that is where I started to learn how to play. So I really got involved in pan from the age of six.
Q: Who were your early influences or role models in pan?
A: Yeah, well I came out under, I have to say, the late Henry “Bendix” Cumberbatch from Chaguanas. He was the
teacher and arranger for the same Wonderland and I learned a lot of the musical rudiments from him. Then when I got into the making of the pans, which was in 1967 when I was 16, I met Wallace Austin. He is a tuner for Exodus right now and I learned how to tune under him. The reason I started to make my own pans was that if I were somewhere and the pan went out of tune I would be able to fix my own pan. After I made one I made another one to try to better it. Then someone wanted a pan and I made it. So making and tuning pan became like a job.
Q: Was it challenging for you to do?
A: When I got into tuning I was doing it from what I saw other pan tuners do when they came to the panyard, but I was making a lot of mistakes. The pan wouldn’t sound good. The grooving wasn’t good, the notes were not set good
and I didn’t know how to get it to sound right. But it was when I met Wallace Austin, whom I mentioned earlier, and I started to work with him that I learned the way to properly tune a pan.
Q: What is involved in the making and tuning of a pan?
A: First, you get a drum and you take the bottom and hammer it until it gets into a bowl shape. Then, draw in the notes; shape and groove the notes; then final shaping and setting. Then the length of the skirt is measured and the pan is then cut off from the drum. The pan is then heated on a fire, taken off and cooled (which is called tempering). After that, the pan is cleaned and ready for tuning. Tuning is a very technical thing. If someone is going to get into tuning he or she must have an ear for music and sound and notes because you won’t be able to hear when a note is at the level.
Q: What are some of the challenges involved in tuning a pan?
A: Well, I always say that tuning a pan is unpredictable. I can’t say that I am going to tune this pan and I will finish it in one hour. It might go to three or five hours. It’s an art where the person who is doing it has to use a lot of strategies.
First you have to lift up the note up from behind and get it like a hump and then you have to hammer the hump, shape that hump and carry it back down. There are so many points to hit. Sometimes you hit this point, the note starts to sound good and then you hit that point and it goes totally out. So you have to find ways of knowing how much to lift, how much to hit, where to hit it, at what time, how hard. That is why I said no matter how skillful a pan tuner is, there can be problems with a note. Plus, for each drum, the material is slightly different. So each drum has its own feeling or its own flexibility.
Q: So no two pans are alike then?
A: Well, similar but with different vibes. Every pan you make you have to get the feel of it. And how we get that feel
of a pan is when we start to hammer it; we will feel the material. It’s a feeling. You have to be experienced to feel it. If we select a drum, we hit the drum – boom! And we hit another drum – boom! We hear a slightly different tone with each drum. So then, depending on what we hear, we will take the drum and make a double second pan or take another drum and make a soprano pan.
Q: What innovations have you made to the steelpan?
A: My first innovation was in 1968, a year after I had started making pans. I wanted to see a pan with just what I
called the belly, without the skirt which is the broad edge that borders the circumference of the pan. So my first innovation was a skirtless pan also known as the porta pan. The porta pans are much shorter, and are easy to transport because they take up less space and can withstand pressure, so they are not easily distorted. The tone of this pan is also more sonorous. Another innovation was the collapsible pan stand. I saw people going out and they would have this big stand and it could hardly fit in a car trunk and I knew something had to be done. So I made a stand that could be quickly broken down, folded and fitted into a sack to be carried.
I moved to Canada in 1975 and lived in Vancouver for two years, then moved to Edmonton, then Montreal. During this time, I was making pans and tuning them as a business. People were asking for pans, but you know in these countries if you buy a guitar, you get a booklet. And they want to buy a pan but how are they going to play it? At that time there were no books or anything so I decided to start writing a book and I wrote a book on how to play the soprano pan. I also wanted to see the bass pan, which is the full barrel pan, shorter because there are lots of problems when you are travelling, when you are loading the pan and they take up a lot of space. So my idea was to cut it shorter. That is another innovation.
Q: What about inventions? Have you invented anything?
A: Yes. Sometimes when you are hanging a pair of pans it is like one instrument. Two drums make one instrument because of the range and size of notes. But when you look they are not hung level. I came up with a device – a pan balancer – to show where to bore the hole so that when you hang the pans they will be level. Then another invention of mine was the pan note measure. It is a precise measuring device that a pan tuner uses for drawing the notes on the pan when it is being made. Before, notes used to be placed by taking the measurements from other pans which involved a lot of moving back and forth. This device makes it less complicated.
Q: How do you get your ideas? What is your creative process? How do things come to you?
A: To me, when you have a problem, instead of crying about the problem, you have to try to find a solution. So if I have a problem with something, I will try to find a solution to see if I can fix it. And then, I will think about it, go to sleep thinking about it, wake up, look at this, look at that. I like to look at things that move. I like to look at movements and things like that. I think, I look at this and I get pictures in my head. Then I will go and do a little sketch and then go to sleep, wake up, walk, think. Think, watch and just start to put things together.
Q: Which of your innovations or inventions is your favourite?
A: The skirtless pan because of how it looks. Some people don’t respect the pan because it looks like an oil drum that is common. You know, when you tell somebody the price of a pan, they find it is expensive because it is only made from a drum. I say, well a piano is made from wood, a guitar is made from wood but you don’t see it as a piece of wood! So people see it more as an instrument without the skirt.
Q: With regard to technologies that could be applied to the further development of pan and pan making, what do you think would have the greatest impact?
A: Well we have to look into electronics. We have to find proper ways for putting mikes on the pans to get that impact when you play a pan, like the impact you would get from a guitar or a keyboard. So we have to look into electronics to get it right. But it requires understanding of the instrument because of the way in which sound comes off the pan – how it vibrates, whether the sound is better from above or below (the instrument).
Q: Do you think it is important for pan players to have formal training in music?
A: Yes. In fact, I learnt to read and write music on my own. I did this because I needed to be a musician and you have to know about music and what’s going on. I couldn’t be a musician and I’m talking to another musician and not understanding. I can’t be a pan player and not be able to relate to a sax player. I must be able to talk to them and talk about the same thing. I’m not separate as a pannist. I’m an instrumentalist just like them. I needed to learn music so we could all communicate.
Q: If you look back at your life now, is there any other field you would have wanted to go into?
A: I would have liked to do electronics. I fiddle around a little bit with diodes and resistors. I have a book with electronic projects and I made a little amplifier.
Q: And what is your philosophy with regard to your life and work?
A: Well, if you want to have a go at something, I think you go at it and you keep going, and you see what you could achieve. So if somebody says, I want to play pan before I die, I say you better start now because you never know.