She’s used it in concerts, recorded it in albums and even has had the music she’s created with it featured on The Weather Channel.
But next February, if she can raise the funds, Bickley Rivera will face the ultimate challenge involving her favorite instrument, the steelpan: She will compete against natives of the country that invented it.
She’s going to Panorama, the world’s largest steelpan competition, taking place in Trinidad — a competition that rarely welcomes outsiders. Yet Rivera, who lives in Land O’ Lakes, along with fellow performer Tom Berich of Medford, Ore., will trek to the Caribbean island nation to take part in the competition. And they’re taking a documentary film crew with them.
“We’re going to be the outside eyes looking in,” Rivera said. “And we’re having that all put on film.”
There, the two will each join their own band that could feature as many as 120 performers, or “pannists” as they preferred to be called. They will practice for up to three weeks in the country, performing near-nightly concerts for spectators attending the festival.
Since this is a competition, it is possible that either Rivera or Berich could be cut at any time — even the night before the finals.
“You’re really at their mercy,” Rivera said of the judges. “Basically, if you’re bad at any time, you could be pulled. We tried to pick bands that are regularly in the top 10, so we’re hoping that at least one of us makes it all the way through to the end.”
Chances are that Rivera and Berich won’t receive any music or other preparations ahead of their trip. They will step into roles equipped with only their steelpans and skills. It’s a high-pressure environment that should create plenty of real-life drama for the camera crew filming it.
The making of ‘Beat Pan!’
The documentary itself, called “Beat Pan!” will explore the experience of the competition from the perspective of each of the bands that Rivera and Berich are performing with.
Each band has its own musical culture and history, with many stories ready to be shared about their love of steelpan.
The goal of “Beat Pan!” is to introduce more people back home to the art of steelpan, creating a deeper appreciation for the percussion-based art in the United States, where such instruments are still considered novel.
Even before the trip, Rivera has worked to bring steelpan more into the mainstream, incorporating it into various genres of music including reggae and smooth jazz. That has made it tough for her to perform at different jazz venues around the country, because promoters are not always looking to change things up.
“What I’m trying to do is really kind of different,” Rivera said. “It’s really hard for them to accept it. They want to hear saxophone and guitar, so I incorporate a lot of that into my act, and then slowly move to the steelpan, as I get the audiences warmed up.”
Making the trip and producing the documentary is going to cost money, and both Rivera and Berich have already begun fundraising both through PayPal donations and through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo. The goal initially is to raise $25,000, but she will likely need $50,000 for the complete project from start to finish.
“If this is going to work, people have to buy into this,” Rivera said. “We’re out looking for corporate sponsors and individual sponsors, and we’ll keep working until we get all the money raised.”
In the meantime, Rivera is focused on getting ready for the trip, which does have her nervous.
“I’m terrified actually,” she said. “These are people (in Trinidad) from the age of 5 who have learned how to play the steelpan. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. They know what they’re doing. They know what works and doesn’t work, and I have to find a way to fit in.”
For details on Rivera’s trip and how to participate, visit her website at www.bickleyrivera.com.
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