The hypnotic sound of steelpan music is iconic in the Caribbean, where it evokes images of carefree days in a tropical paradise.
The steelpan is not an instrument normally associated with classical music, but Earl La Pierre, Cayman’s steelpan musician extraordinaire, isn’t an artist confined by “normally.” The attendees of the 25th Annual National Arts & Culture Awards Ceremony on Feb. 21 at the F.J. Harquail Cultural Centre were able to hear proof of that for themselves.
La Pierre, who was awarded one of four Cayman National Cultural Foundation Gold Star for Creativity awards during the evening, performed an inspired steelpan version of Johann Strauss’s famous waltz, “Voices of Spring,” much to the delight of the audience.
“I’m a classical music nut,” said La Pierre the next day. “I love classical music and I grew up listening to it.”
Those who have been following La Pierre’s long career — which has spanned parts of six decades and three countries — might know about his love for classical music. His 1996 recording, “Classics in the Sun,” features nothing but steelpan versions of classical compositions, including “Voices of Spring” as well as pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Schubert, Chopin and others.
La Pierre, who was born in Trinidad but grew up in Toronto, moved to Grand Cayman in 1986 to participate in the Pirates Week festival and while he was here, found a job teaching steelpan in Grand Cayman’s schools. He subsequently also started his own school for steelpan. Since his arrival on Grand Cayman, La Pierre said he has taught upwards of 3,000 children how to play steelpan, which is one of the main reasons the music form has become prevalent here.
Over the years, La Pierre, sometimes along with this band, has won dozens of competitions — including the steelpan competition at the annual Caribana festival in Toronto 30 times. He has also received several other prestigious awards, including the Trinidad and Tobago Consul General’s Diaspora Award For Excellence in Culture and Community Development, Through the Promotion of The Steel Pan in 2008; the Gold Caribana Tribute Award in 2010; the Lifetime Achievement award at the Canada-based Caribbean Music, Entertainment Awards in 2018; as well as receiving other accolades in Canada, Trinidad and the Cayman Islands.
Despite his many accomplishments, La Pierre remains humble and expressed his joy at receiving the Gold Star For Creativity award from the Cayman National Cultural Foundation.
“I will cherish this award for the rest of my life,” he told the audience. What the audience didn’t know was that La Pierre had been in Trinidad performing at the pre-Carnival events there. Instead of having a family member collect the award for him — as a couple of other award recipients who were off island did — he flew back to Grand Cayman specifically to receive the award, and then flew back to Trinidad the next day.
“It means a lot to me,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone else to collect it for me.”
Thirteen other awards were presented at the ceremony, which kicked off Cayfest 2019. Joining La Pierre in receiving Gold Star For Creativity awards were performing artist Rita Estevanovich, and visual artists Joanne Sibley and Janet Walker.
Bronze Star For Creativity awards were bestowed upon fashion designers Jawara Alleyne and Isy Obi, as well as upon dance/choreography instructor Melisha McField.
Gold Heritage Cross awards were given to Maxine and Maureen Bodden and the Crighton family for their annual Christmas “Wonderland” installations and posthumously to musician Melvin Augustine.
Silver Heritage Cross awards were presented to Elsa Annie Rose Scott, Elvie Lizabeth Walton-Thompson and Keino Daley.
Cayman National Cultural Foundation Chairman Martyn Bould also presented Winston Salmon with The Chairman’s Award for his many years of supporting the foundation as a volunteer.
Cayfest runs through the end of March with the island-wide “Dress of Culture” competition running from March 11-15 and ending with three nights of Stogie Kenyatta’s one-man show about African-American musician/actor/activist Paul Robeson on March 29-31.
For more information, visit www.artscayman.org.