If you talk to a young pan player, his mother and his music teacher/ pan-yard drill master, they will all say the same thing about their involvement with the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra -
it’s the best steel pan band in all of Antigua and Barbuda. With seven bands competing at Antigua and Barbuda’s national Panorama 2023 competition during the Carnival week this summer in August, Hells Gate Steel Orchestra was a cut above the rest.
Becoming the 4-time in a row champions of the Panorama competition, one of the oldest steel bands in the region also claims to be the band with the most wins in Antigua. Founded in 1945, Hells Gate has weathered the past 75+ years in rhythm and in groove.
When Khan Cordice, master pan-player, took over as pan master of Hells Gate, he levelled up what was already a pretty impressive band. Khan, who is currently the Director of Culture with the Antigua and Barbuda government, levelled up his own craft as a pan player first at the CXC school-leaving exams when he did a steel pan arrangement for his CXC music exams. He then studied music at the University of the West Indies (St. Augustine campus in Trinidad) and then he studied a Masters in Music under the legendary Trinidadian Liam Teage at Northern Illinois University, the only advanced degree in pan music at the time.
If you visit the Hells Gate pan yard at Villa School in the Point community in St. John’s, Antigua, you are guaranteed to see a pan practice happening after school hours. This is one of the not-so-secret strategies that Hells Gate uses to be more than a cut above the rest of the pan bands on the island. Hells Gate practices for 360 days of the year when other pan yards open up for abbreviated times throughout the year.
The grassroots development throughout the year is astounding. Small islanders, in many spheres, often have a reputation for being disorganised and undisciplined although full of potential. However, this small island pan band, is anything but that when it comes to elevating the skills of their players to reach their potential.
Young pan player, Kéjual Peters, explains that he got sucked into the pan world during one of Hells Gate internal pan competitions. Soon after he had learned the basics of playing pan, he was recruited into one of the four groups who were to compete with each other within Hells Gate. Each group was led by two novice arrangers.
Fostering that internal fire within the band through competition raises the standards of play as the young arrangers set out to prove themselves and the new and upcoming pan players vie for a place in the band to play at nation-wide and sometimes region-wide competitions and different paid gigs around the island.
Kéjual’s mother, Ramona S. Samuel, can see her 17-year-old son having music as a viable career pathway. Hells Gate encourages their players to play out at gigs year round and being able to see that there is money to be made in this line of work is reassuring.
Furthermore, with the role models he has in his teachers, drill masters, the captain and also the director of Hells Gate, she feels confident that he has the mentors to guide him along a career path that is suited for him.
As a mother of a teenage boy, safety is a big concern for her and making sure he is surrounded by positive influences. One of the things she very much appreciates about Hells Gate is the care they provide for their pan players. Making sure that each player gets home safely at night using school buses for drop-off when pan practices in the lead up to Carnival can go as late as 3:30am after starting at 5pm.
They make sure the players are fed and watered with enough breaks to keep them alert and well-functioning. For drillmaster, Kareem ‘TJ’ King, as a music teacher who has training from the University of the West Indies and Northern Illinois as well, precision and working collaboratively are key principles underlying how he works with Hells Gate. As a drillmaster, his job is to make sure the arrangement of a song is delivered well on the pan instruments.
This means working with the players to bring to life the arranger’s vision of harmony and melody. When something seems off, he’ll ask the arranger if the sound that is being played is what the arranger desires. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isnt. In either case, he takes care to maintain respect for the different roles in the pan yard and assists where he can to contribute to the success of the band.
And successful the band is. If you are itching to catch a tune from the Hells Gate Steel Orchestra, then there is plenty of opportunity to hear them play. They are active on Facebook and also have a presence on Bandcamp.
Check them out for a taste of their greatness: