Steel pannist brings the tropical drum to the limelight
From keyboard and accordion players to vocalists and dancers, Montreal’s metro stations feature a wide array of talented artists all year round. Montrealer Ukpöng Etang is looking to add a splash of diversity to the city’s music scene, both underground and above, with one thing—his steelpan.
When Etang first began playing Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument at Coronation Elementary School at the age of 9, it was far from a passion.
“A lot of my friends started playing pan before me,” said Etang, who also goes by the moniker Mr. Pöng. “I remember being in the third grade at our school’s spring concert with my mom. All of my friends were on stage in the band, and she asked me why I wasn’t in it as well. I didn’t know what to tell her.”
The following year, the half-Nigerian half-Jamaican Montrealer became the newest member of the school’s steelpan ensemble.
While Etang had taken piano lessons for two years—from age 7 to 9—the traditional music lessons were cut short as a result of his newfound love for steelpan. Etang was taught by a renowned pannist and music teacher: Trinidad and Tobago-born Salah Wilson.
Etang’s talent, which was first nurtured through his piano lessons, quickly revealed itself as he sought out advanced, extracurricular lessons. This led him to Salah’s Steelpan Academy in Montreal, where he was able to hone his skills and passion for pan with countless hours spent practicing and participating in competitions. Regardless of Etang’s somewhat limited musical knowledge and prior pan training, it was his musical ear and drive to learn that allowed him to improve at the rate he did.
Etang had to step back from playing when school became more difficult, though he began busking in the metro in 2015, after getting his own pan. Busking was a way to earn some extra cash and do what he loved while studying commerce at John Molson School of Business. It was a success from the start.
“I remember my first metro gig was in Namur, close to where I grew up,” Etang said. “I played for 30 minutes, went home, and counted up $40 in change. It was dope.”
It didn’t turn out to be as easy as the first day made it seem, though. Etang went through ups and downs, learning the ropes of the busking world: which metro stations are better to play in than others and what time of day is optimal for business. Busking in the metro in Montreal is divided into two-hour slots, between 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Only select stations are available to play in, such as Jean-Talon, Place des Arts, and McGill, and it’s organized on a first-come first-served basis.
Etang later gained entry into the audition-mandatory Étoiles du métro program, which is responsible for the “recruitment, selection, integration and management of the chosen artists.”
On Feb. 19, 2018, Anthony V Tao, a singer-songwriter and new Montreal resident, came across Etang’s pan-playing in the bustling McGill metro station after a long day of work. He was so captivated by the unique, tropical sounds of the steelpan that he couldn’t help but stop to listen, even filming a video on his phone.
“His music is very uplifting, and I think people including myself respond to that,” Tao said. “The other thing is he just has a really nice energy about him. He’s very gracious and when people gave him money, he thanked them, and you could tell he was really making a connection with people.”
While Etang is extremely thankful for his experiences in metro, his horizons have continued to broaden over time. The last thing he wants is to be confined to any barriers or locations—especially underground.
As stated on his personal website, Etang has performed at 27 community events, 14 private/corporate events, and 10 weddings. He recently purchased a license to perform on the streets in the Old Port. This was one of his longtime goals as a public performer with a proclivity for outdoor performances. These venues are made special by their natural beauty, openness, and heavy flow of cheerful pedestrians in the summer, according to Etang.
Since the release of his debut cover album Echoes Between a Rock and a Hard Place on March 30, 2018—a compilation of personally memorable tracks—the pannist has vowed to work on more original work while continuing to pioneer the slowly-but-surely growing steelpan movement in Montreal.
Etang visited Trinidad and Tobago for the first time in 2017, as a long-awaited graduation gift to himself. It allowed him to build an ever deeper connection to the instrument he had spent years learning about.
“When I went to Trinidad, I saw how important steelpan was to the musicians and to the culture, but I still feel like more could be done to support [the pannists], especially financially,” Etang said.
Etang’s dreams of expanding the steelpan culture and diversifying the music scene in the city are ever-growing.
See him live at the Rialto Theatre on May 7, at Raw Montreal’s Natural Born Artists showcase.