Expressing who he is second-nature to steelpan aficionado Jaison O’Connor. Although he has lived in the United States for almost 20 of his 38 years, he is Trinidadian at his core.
When asked to do a video clip for a virtual Christmas card to brighten the spirits of staff members in Boston, O’Connor could only be himself. He showcased his T&T roots to colleagues and friends via the instrument for which he carries a deep love and respect, against a backdrop of glistening fallen snow. It ended up warming thousands of hearts on social media.
“Someone commented on social media why it took a foreigner to make our culture look good, but it’s far from. This is who I am. I’m a Trinidadian. You carry your culture where you go. This is who we are,” he explained to Guardian Media.
O’Connor, who manages the Florida offices for the Barbizon Lighting Company—a 73-year-old business which specialises in providing lighting for the entertainment industry, with clients like the World Trade Centre in New York and Disneyland—had to re-locate to Winchester, a suburb of Boston from Miami three months ago, with his family of four.
The entertainment industry has been hard-hit by the global pandemic, he noted, and many of his company’s employees had to be let go.
Currently the company’s regional sales manager for northeast and midwest USA, O’Connor said as the sole West Indian and one of the youngest in a leadership position at his company, in his message and Christmas carol on pan, he simply aimed to uplift the spirits of colleagues and employees who were all affected in one way or another by the scourge of COVID-19. It’s part of him representing his heritage in his new environment, said O’Connor, who has a small flag of T&T and a mini steel pan on his desk.
An avid steelpan lover, O’Connor has played T&T’s national instrument since his childhood. His cousin, Lorraine O’Connor, whom he credited for her relentless work to bring global recognition to Caribbean music, gave him his first steelpan just before he wrote the then Common Entrance exam. He had much praise for his first music tutor, Natasha Joseph, who has been a composer and arranger for Phase II Pan Groove, as well as for widely-acclaimed Trinidad-born pan pioneer, Patrick “Panman Pat” Mc Neilly, of Toronto, Canada. Mc Neilly helped introduce steelpan studies to many schools and shaped O’Connor into an ambassador of the steelpan for this country, O’Connor said.
O’Connor said because of his interest in playing the national instrument, with Mc Neilly’s influence, his alma mater, the Maple Leaf International School in Petit Valley, became the first accredited institution to offer steelpan as certification towards graduation at the secondary level in T&T.
Under Mc Neilly’s tutelage, O’Connor and a group of about 12 of his schoolmates toured Toronto as cultural ambassadors, lobbying for the inclusion of the instrument on the curriculum of numerous schools. At 16, it was a “radical” and “insane” experience for O’Connor, especially when the group would pull up outside high schools to deafening cheers from their Canadian peers.
“I’ve always gravitated towards the steel drum. I think it’s something that we as a country should celebrate, it’s something we invented. It’s one of the only instruments invented in this century that has all the chromatic scales on one vibrating surface. This is a phenomenal feat that we were able to achieve in a small place and that’s something of which we should always be proud,” O’Connor said.
His high esteem for the instrument has its deepest roots in his family history. Music and creativity have been part of their fabric, he shared, reminiscing on the old days of growing up in Cascade when his father Bobby O’Connor, would take him to “the Village,” the panyard of Phase II in Woodbrook.
“My father was always involved in Phase II, whether as a sponsor or part of the group as a foundation member. He would put me in between the players and they would push the racks onto the stage. My dad was a huge influence in me enjoying the steelpan. He was very proud of me when I started playing the steelpan because he never thought anyone in the family would,” O’Connor recalled Guardian Media.
O’Connor’s elder brother Jonathan has always been more athletic, having played rugby at the Commonwealth Games and at a Rugby World Cup. Still, most of his family were creatively inclined and most family events would culminate in some form of musical expression, O’Connor recalled.
“Christmas get-togethers were about five-six guitars, drums, steelpans…anything and everything. Christmas was such a special time. We would go to our uncle’s place in Freeport, Ajoupa Pottery, which is a little cocoa estate and we would just spend the whole day eating and everybody would have an instrument, from the little toddlers to my grandmother and we would sing and play and be merry for hours and hours.”
O’Connor said he grew up writing songs and even did a recording with the former music bard Richard “Nappy” Mayers. Around the age of 19, he left Trinidad to study Music Business at Miami Dade College, where he took courses in sound engineering.
However, he said as other cares of life took centre stage, the instrument became sort of an ornament in his home. That was, until his boys, Luc, 12 and Eli, 6, started showing an interest in the instrument. Already possessing the ability to play piano with perfect pitch, their father said, Eli began showing natural prowess in the steelpan.
“So I brought out my steel drum one day and my little one, who was five at the time, stood up on a stool and immediately started to play…perfectly. It was quite a phenomenal thing. He clearly has something in him. When I took it out of the case, he studied it for about five minutes and played Mary had a Little Lamb.”
Elated at his children’s interest in the instrument, O’Connor continues to play the steelpan as a creative outlet and whether it’s at his company’s trade shows or to his neighbours, who would hear the strains of the instrument and pop over the fence to inquire, he takes pride in educating as many people as possible about his country’s national instrument.
He has just celebrated 10 years of marriage with his wife, Sarah, whom he met while at university and who hails from Palmiste. Sarah’s mother, Patricia, 61, who was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in 2019, is currently staying with them.
O’ Connor said although his Christmas this year will be different on many levels, he and his wife plan to rekindle the comforts and traditions of home.
“We’ll be eating Trinidad ham, we’ll be making sorrel we found on Amazon. My wife will make ponche-de-creme. We found a place that sells Angostura Trinidad rum. I never thought in my life that I would have a white Christmas. It’s extremely magical to see,” he said.
“No matter where you go in life you carry your family, a part of who you are, whether it be your culture, your cuisine. We’ll have the tastes and flavours of Trinidad while listening to parang, looking out the window and seeing the snow fall off the trees, and yes, I will have my steel drum.”