The steel pan’s cheerful yet melancholic chime has mesmerized Mike Kernahan since he was a young boy growing up near the oil fields of Palo Seco, Trinidad. It is in his blood, he says — his two uncles on his mother’s side were both pannists in Red Army, one of the first pan bands formed.
But in 1963, when Kernahan was just 14 years old, his mother, like most parents at the time in Trinidad, strictly forbade his playing the pan. He wasn't even allowed to listen to pan music. The instrument’s street origins had given it a bad reputation, and though in-group fighting had ceased since its introduction in the 1930s, the instrument had already been marked.
Kernahan, optimistic and determined, didn't let his mother's disapproval stop him. One night, while he was staying with his grandmother in St. James, he snuck out and approached his four older cousins who played in the group Tripoli. They quickly invited him to the pan yard where they practiced, with 28 handmade steel pans standing in rows underneath the natural fauna. After some trepidation, Kernahan’s cousin told him, "You won’t learn anything standing out here." Kernahan shook off his fears and began learning by rote.
“When my mom saw I was playing she started to cry, but my older cousin told her, ‘I’ll take care of him,'” says Kernahan. “It seemed like [the pan] would call you out, so when you hear it you have to go, you know?”
Kernahan has spent a lifetime heeding the call. He has toured with Liberace, performed on national television, and was once nominated for a Grammy. Today, his West Kendall studio tells the story of Kernahan's part in pan music's triumphant history. Downstairs, the walls are lined with photos from his years of touring; in one, he stands arm in arm with Liberace and the then-Prime Minister of Trinidad, Eric Williams. Upstairs, covered up in a back corner, Kernahan still has the original pans from his performances with Liberace in the late '60s. Every now and then, he'll take them out to show students how the sound has evolved from mellow to bright.
In 1965, Tripoli won the Independence Festival, performing a local composition called “Voice of the Pan Man,” a buoyant calypso, and the classic “Midnight in Moscow.” They won sponsorship from the oil company Esso and toured the Caribbean and North America. Playing at Montreal’s Expo 1967, they caught Liberace's attention.
“He was always fascinated by the music,” says Kernahan.
The pan originated as a means of communication among enslaved Africans brought to Trinidad by the French in the late 1700s. The instrument was quickly outlawed by the slave masters. But Africans kept experimenting with different musical forms, such as the tamboo bamboo, and eventually the pan evolved into its current iteration — handmade from 55-gallon oil drums. Pans can be tuned to create distinct-sounding instruments amongst the steel pan family, which together form an orchestra. It is no surprise that the pan can be heard in almost every genre of music today, and is used by artists from Jamie XX to Donald Glover.
"It was a trash-to-treasure story," says Dr. Dawn K. Batson, former director of Florida Memorial University's steel band and chair of the visual and performing arts. "Those who played wanted to play the music of the world to get recognition.”
The versatility of the instrument hooked Liberace, who was a fan of Tripoli's classical performances. He spoke to Hugh Borde, the leader of the group, and made arrangements for the steel band to go on his next tour.
“It was overwhelming in the sense that coming from Trinidad, we didn’t expect to come to America and fall into that groove,” says Kernahan.
Touring with Liberace for a year and a half, the group became part of his world. Dressed in apparel that matched Liberace's flamboyant style, Tripoli performed on The David Frost Show, The Mike Douglas Show, and The Ed Sullivan Show, among others. In one episode, they played music while the cast of the Brady Bunch did the limbo.
“They were the hit of the fair, and one of the most exciting musical performances of its kind in the world of show business,” said Liberace during a performance on Frost's show.
After the tour, the group signed with Warner Brothers, where they recorded on a Hollywood lot just a few stages down from Earth, Wind and Fire. One of their records was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1972 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording.
“We didn’t win anything, but being nominated was a big thing for us," says Kernahan.
Kernahan returned to Trinidad after the tour, where he continued playing with the Tripoli band and shadowed Allan Gervais, a master tuner whose style was often copied.
"He tells me, 'You're in charge; you have to take care of the pans while I’m gone,'" says Kernahan.
Today, Kernahan has become a master tuner in South Florida, making the pans for pannists and school programs across the country. He created the pans for Miami's John A. Ferguson Senior High School band, where Gente de Zona recently performed with the group, and the inaugural program led by Batson at Florida Memorial University, which was the first foreign group to win a competition in Trinidad.
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“For the instrument to move forward, you have to be given the freedom to create; that’s how it will continue,” says Batson. “It’s an instrument you get instant gratification playing, but to become excellent you have to work at it.”
The center of Kernahan's studio is his own pan yard, filled with instruments he's made himself. In recent years, he's partnered with the Carnival Arts program at Barry University, teaching children from the Miami Bridge. On the first day, he'll teach them "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by rote, just as he learned to play decades ago. By the second or third class, students are already freestyling, creating their own unique beats.
In the back of his studio is his workshop, where he spends days hammering, etching, and sinking in metal until it meets perfect pitch.
“This is my life, man. I be playing for so many years and I just can't get used to it,” says Kernahan. “It’s like a drug, man. It’s just in you.”