Mary Genis is the award winning founder and Artistic Director of CultureMix Arts Ltd, a not for profit organisation, providing highly respected UK wide carnival education service in steel pan music and carnival arts. She’s based in Berkshire and also leads Reading All Steel Percussion Orchestra (RASPO). Mary’s got a long career going back through WOMAD, Glastonbury and of course Notting Hill, so I’d like you to give her a big warm welcome to the stage.
Thanks very much for your nice warm welcome.
I wanted to talk about my experiences of being a woman not just in steel pan but in music. Just a little bit about my background, my family emigrated here from Trinidad back in the 1950s. They had no interest in steel pan, they were interested in Trinidad culture, as in the family culture, but not in the music, in the sense of the steel pan, which at the time, as Alex was saying, wasn’t considered appropriate for finer folk, especially women, so it certainly wasn’t encouraged. I had a passion, which I got from my parents, for music nevertheless, and also for art, and to some extent for carnival.
My first experience of steel pan, I suppose, was when I told a neighbour I was originally from Trinidad. He said to me, ‘I’ve got a couple of old steel pans in the loft’, I said, ‘have you?’ and he said, ‘yes’, and I was really beyond excited. Anyway he brought down this tatty old pair of guitar pans and I just rang everyone I knew, all my musician friends, anybody I knew that would be vaguely interested, and told them that I had a set of guitar pans. Within a very short period of time I was in a band.
Interestingly enough this was back in the early 90s, maybe even before that, late 80s. I joined a band, an all-girl steel band in London, I couldn’t play a note, I didn’t know how to play the steel pans, but they said, ‘we need somebody who’s got a pair of guitars and is prepared to learn.’ I lived in Berkshire and it took me 2 hours to get there, but I went twice a week because I was so absolutely desperate to be part of this, what was something to do with my culture, but I didn’t get any of that information from my family, and it all set off from there.
At the same time, I’ve been a fashion designer for 20 years, I got involved with fashion, with carnival, where I lived was very near one of the largest art centres as well, and I had been a musician. I first started as a musician playing a cello when I was at school, I learnt piano, and I learnt several other instruments like drum kit, percussion, bass guitar, and then this situation with steel pan.
As a result of my musical connections I got some work as a tour manager with an organisation in France, and I did quite a lot of work there. One of the things they asked me to do was to bring over steel bands and reggae bands from the UK, because it was much cheaper for them than bringing them from the Caribbean, so that’s how I kind of got into this world, into the steel band world, that’s how I met people from Mangrove, people like Matthew Philip and Bubbles, who joined me to do these gigs abroad. This was hugely important because this was my first foray, if you like, although I was playing with this all-girl band, working with people like Matthew was my first foray into the real underground world of steel pan music.
One of the experiences I did want to mention was when I was doing the touring it wasn’t necessarily as a steel pan musician. Prior to that I had been working with artists like Bow Gamelan and Ensemble, Jean-Francois Pauvros; these were underground performance artists, who Tim who’s speaking later in this will know about, performance artists I work for. I was always the only woman on tour, always. I would have to lock my bedroom door, we won’t go into those details, but you can imagine. I hated it. I loved the fact that there were opportunities for me to tour and to perform, but I really didn’t like the fact that I was always the only woman. I later on set up my own band, and ever since then, ever since I had the courage, because it did take courage to set up my own band, I’ve always made sure that any band I’m involved in has women and men in it, young and old also.
I just want to briefly tell you how I got into the professional arena of music, how I became the Artistic Director of CultureMix Arts. It was a dream I had.
I came from, if you like, not to be too clichéd, a poor immigrant family from Trinidad who came to the UK with the dream of bringing opportunities to their children, better education, career, all those things that I found, to be honest, really inspirational. I was amazed, astonished when, as I got older, I realised that my mother and father had travelled 10,000 miles from this really nice hot place, with palm trees and steel pans, I found this out later because I went there in 1991, and I couldn’t work out why they would want to leave such a fabulous place and come here. It took me quite a while to understand that it is about poverty, about opportunity and about education.
Thanks to my mother I had a good education and had opportunities, but one of the things I didn’t have was the opportunity, or the understanding, of setting up my own business. There were no role models in my family. I didn’t know anyone that ran a business, I didn’t know how. I was really inspired by steel pan music, by music in general, by the arts, by carnival, by fashion; I was really inspired by wanting to share that.
I wanted everyone, I was absolutely obsessed with wanting everyone to get as excited as I did about playing music, whether it was playing bass guitar, whether it was playing drums, but especially steel pans, because steel pan music and steel bands really encapsulated the whole diversity of its surroundings. Wherever the steel orchestra or the band were they would be a reflection, there was no age limit; it wasn’t like urban music where you needed to be between the age of 16½ and 18½, and anything outside of that made you redundant.
Performance art music, I have to say I was very involved in performance art for many years, also crossed barriers, but steel pan really touched me because it touched my culture, it touched this place which I didn’t know anything about, this place that my parents had moved away from, that I, as a result of being born in this country, developed just an almost fascination with, an obsession to find out more about it.
Thanks to people like Pax, who’s here with us today, and many others, a lot of women too, who became role models for me, and I started looking at people who had set up businesses, finding out more, and thanks to those people I was able to set up my own organisation.
I didn’t have the skills at first, so I got a job at the local authority as an Arts Development Officer. I later on got to work at the Arts Council. I’d being doing some work with the Arts Council before that, but I went to work at Arts Council South East, and really it was to gain the skills I needed, and then I took the step and actually left the Arts Council and set the business up as a company limited by guarantee. I didn’t do it cold, I did it gradually, so I started working with it part time and then I set it up, deciding to leave the Arts Council and work for the organisation full time.
My main objective for setting up CultureMix, and it remains the main objective, is to create employment, that’s all I was interested in doing, but I was fascinated by how captivating, if you like, music was to most people, particularly steel pan. It’s a new instrument, it had come from the home of my ancestors, my parents, it was unknown, it was underground, it was enigmatic, you know where could you buy steel pan, you couldn’t, the only one I got was from my neighbour’s loft, and the other one I got was from the girl in the all-girl band who sold me her tenor pan.
I finally got more involved but I wanted it to be more accessible, so I felt it was a really good tool to use, to generate employment, to set up an organisation and create opportunities for people who wanted to develop as musicians, and hopefully to consider becoming semi-professional working with the creative industries. For me the power of pan was a key factor in that, creating employment and encouraging women. By having a woman as a leader it would encourage, it has, and it does, encourage many women to join our organisation as musicians.
The future, for me it’s really important and this is relevant, if you like, to the discussions we’ve been having about archiving, that we log what has been going on with carnival, as was being said before, with women in pan, but my interests lay in education. I work in education, I run a team who teach in about 26 schools every week; we sell pans to music services; we do everything and anything to do with steel pan music, we collaborate, we work together, we nurture county ensembles, orchestras wherever we’re asked to do it.
For me what isn’t there is information about pan development, in terms of education in schools. We know about Gerald Forsyth, we know about the work of Sterling Betancourt, we know about the people that initiated those activities, particularly after Trinidad Steel Percussion Orchestra came here in 1951, and some of those people stayed behind and helped pan to happen into schools.
I’ve just done some research, it was just sample research of what’s going on in schools just in my area, I live in Berkshire, and I’m looking to take that forward and really capture the power and impact that steel pan music has had, not just on my life but on the lives of the children in the next generation. As a woman in pan, as much as it’s been a challenge for me, I’ve stood up and fought my way forward because I feel confident that music, creativity, and the arts is for everyone, man, woman, young, old, anybody. Thank you.
Mary thank you very much for giving us your presentation. Mary’s going to continue over lunch to take some questions, but I’ll take two questions if you’ve got them for her now?
You talked a lot about women being empowered, about committing to being all we can be, or all they can be, and for you was this journey of reclaiming part of your heritage that you didn’t know the female you could be, you know following your heritage, your family history?
It most definitely was as a result of my heritage because my mother was a very strong woman. She in fact discouraged, she didn’t want me to go into music or the arts, she wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer, possibly in education at the very least, but I had a passion for music and the arts. I wanted to vindicate her journey from Trinidad, she left her mother, she left both my sisters behind and it took her 6 years to get them here, so I wanted to vindicate her sacrifice that she’d made, that really inspired me. It wasn’t just about being a woman, it was about doing what you want to do, having the convictions of your ambitions so you can really achieve them and have fulfilment and success.
I just wanted to know if the PowerPoint is going to be made available for people to use, email out, and also some of the guest speakers’ details, because I think there are opportunities in other places for you to lead presentations to young people, from my point of view to have peoples’ contact details.
We will confirm that with the speakers and leave it with Carnival Archive.
Mary’s happy to take more questions over lunch, but please give her a warm thank you.
What we’ve heard today just shows you the critical importance of archiving, which is essentially capturing the stories that we’re hearing and making them more widely available for a wider group of people, because these are living histories that we really need to capture, the rich content we’re hearing of today.
I just want to draw your attention to the book that you can buy outside, ‘The Advent of the Steel Band’, please do, make sure you capture as much information as possible, do support the Archive Project because it’s really important that we don’t let this just fade away.