The steel pan is more than a vacation sound to Joy Lapps — it’s about the joy of self-expression

Lapps is one of the few women to specialize in steel pan or steel drum. She will share her passion with the Toronto Jazz Festival.

By Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

Quiz time: what sunny-sounding percussive instrument that invokes the sound of the Caribbean is forged from a 55-gallon industrial drum?

The answer: the chromatically pitched steel pan, which is front and centre of Joy Lapps‘ first full-length album of original material called Girl In The Yard.

Lapps, a Toronto native of Antiguan and Barbadian descent, has been one of the few women to specialize in an instrument that up until fairly recently was largely restricted to men.

It’s one of the reasons she lists one of her professions on her web page as “creative womanist.”

“For me, it’s about – in whatever work that I do  – to seeing how I can center woman’s voices,” Lapps, who will be appearing with her seven-piece Joy Lapps Project at TD JazzFest on June 30 ( The Fest actually opens Friday, June 23.)

 “In the earliest steelband days, women were not allowed to play. They were not allowed to even date a pan man. Parents didn’t want their daughters associated with people who played in steelbands. 

 “So, for me to be able to be a woman who is composing, consulting and teaching any instrument where the tool is a steel pan is such a big deal. Because, even now, there aren’t many pan players who are operating in the space that I’m operating in.”

 It’s certainly a fascinating instrument – one that is central to Afro-Caribbean and calypso music – and Lapps reveals that she plays several variations of steel pan, depending on the situation.

 “I use a lead pan traditionally known as a’ tenor’ pan,” she explained. “That’s one drum. 

 “However, if I’m popping into a steelband, I’ll play a telepan – that’s four pans –  and I’ve also played double second – two pans. I’ve even played a six-bass, which is  six different drums. 

 “So, when I play in a steelband, I say to the arranger – what do you need and I figure it through.  But if I’m playing in my own ensemble, I’ll play lead. And I’m working on my chops on my double second.”

 An Afro-Caribbean church is where she first caught the steel pan bug.

 “They offered lessons,” Lapps recalled over the phone a few weeks ago. “And my godmother came running with her chequebook to pay for my first four lessons. 

“That’s exactly how it started. So, when other kids, after church, were running around or playing, I wanted to go to the steel pan room and get more practice in because I just loved it. And that’s how it’s been for me.”

 Her second and third albums – Praise on Pan: How Great Thou Art and Make a Joyful Noise – paid homage to her spiritual roots,  and Lapps finally featured her own Latin and Afro-Caribbean-fused compositions on her five-song  2014 EP Morning Sunrise.

That evolving self-expression seems to have fully arrived on the uplifting Girl In The Yard. It’s a largely instrumental album with some wordless singing attached, which Lapps says really emphasizes melody.

“When I’m writing, I’m still thinking about popular song forms,” she admitted. “Sometimes there are songs I’ve written where there are actually words included, but I don’t put a vocal part in the song, so you’re just hearing the melody and only I know what it’s about, while the listener never will.

“I’m also thinking about how my Dad was a DJ growing up, so I listened to a lot of music.  I’m always thinking of a singable, catchy chorus or  melody that somebody can latch onto. You’ll notice that in most of the songs on Girl In The Yard – something that will stick with you.”

However, she’s not sure she agrees with her interviewer’s assessment that all steelband music generates a happy, joyful sound.

“That’s a really common thing that people say, but there are some songs on Girl In The Yard that are a little bit more intense in nature,” Lapps countered. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that they’re sad, but I wouldn’t characterize them as happy. 

“I do definitely feel that because the steel pan is coming from Trinidad and Tobago and predominantly in the Caribbean and started in that region, a lot of people associate that steel pan sound with the beach,  sunshine, vacation and freedom – even though I think I’m connecting it more to carnival art and the expression of that – the joy that comes out of that opportunity to really express oneself. 

“We’re almost unconsciously making that connection, but I would also say that in comparison to other sounds and other instruments, it makes me relatively happy, yes,'” she laughed. 

Also bringing a thrill to the Joy Lapps Project camp was the appearance of one of her mentors, Andy Narell. The steel pan legend guests on “Josie’s Smile” and Lapps, who describes herself as a “perpetual student,” actually studied with the master thanks to an Ontario Arts Council grant, after falling in love with one of his albums when she performed at a festival in Antigua.

“I stayed with him and his family in Paris, and it turned out that he was going to be in Trinidad arranging for a steel band, so my husband and I went out there as well.

“Andy is a really kind, approachable person and really has a heart for sharing the music that he’s made, the people he’s done music with. He’s always giving.”

Lapps said there were several reasons she wanted to study with Narell – not all of them involving steel pan technique.

“One of the reasons I reached out to him was because of the sound he was achieving,” she explained. “I also took note that he had achieved a level of success – there were things that he was doing where his music was being played by steelbands across North America and across the world – and he was also working as a clinician with steelbands and his music has been placed in movies. 

“These were all things that I wanted to do. 

“But I think the thing I took from him that was most impactful was how he worked with his wife. As a young Black artist, I wanted to be able to understand how he made that work, because as much as I really want to have a fruitful career as an artist, I also want a very fruitful personal life. So, that was the biggest thing to see that when we were in Trinidad, his wife was right there – maybe she’d be there filming the process, or working on her own art and still collaborating with him – and they would also spend time apart because he would travel. I just needed to see different situations where people have partners.”

For the record, Lapps’ husband is Larnell Lewis, drummer for popular U.S. jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy.  And the duo will be combining their talents and hosting a late-night Afro-Caribbean jam at The Pilot (22 Cumberland St.) at 10 p.m. on June 30, following Lapps’ own set at the OLG Grove Stage (91 Charles St. West) at 6:45 p.m.

A recent recipient of the Toronto Arts Foundation Award – and the 10,000 smackers that go with it – Lapps is also an educator who holds an IBBA Honours Degree from the Schulich School of Business at York University and a Master of Arts in History, Development and Composition for Steelpan in the Jazz Ensemble at York. 

She’s currently working with the York Region District School Board, the Toronto District School Board and also with Humber College and The University of Toronto in Scarborough, as well as numerous corporations – to show the power of uniting community through steelband music.     

“The thing what I like about the steel band and the steel pan is that we can get in there and play,  achieve,  build a song and have it sound like something really quickly, which is really effective in a team-building situation. 

“It’s a community of people that are showing up for each other.”

The TD Jazz Fest  – which runs through July 2 – offers more than 1500 musicians over 10 days and perennially draws 500,000 people to city events.

Jully Black kicks things off at the TD Main OLG Stage on June 23, and she is among the many headliners offering  free concerts throughout the Fest, now in its 36th year.  You can check out Ashanti (!), BadBadNotGood, Eliana Cuevas, Jane Bunnett, Ross Wooldridge featuring Alex Pangman, Haviah Mighty, Clerel, Tanika Charles, Molly Johnson, Begonia, and a Phil Nimmons Tribute Band honouring the legendary local clarinetist, bandleader, composer and educator who celebrated his 100th birthday on June 3.

Ticketed headliners include international stars and superstars: Brad Mehldau/Avishi Cohen (Koerner Hall, June 26;) George Benson (Elgin Theatre, June 27;) Colin Stetson (TD Music Hall, June 27;) Melody Gardot (Elgin Theatre, June 28;) Snarky Puppy (History, June 28;) Herbie Hancock (Meridian Hall, June 29;) Cimafunk (The Axis Club, June 29;) and The Bad Plus (The Horseshoe Tavern, July 02.)