Jimi Phillip: Master Pan Tuner, Innovator.

Jimi Phillip is a well-respected, highly decorated steel pan tuner, who hails from Chaguanas, Trinidad. He has received numerous awards and accolades for his contributions to the continued development of the steel pan instrument and for his innovations produced in the process.


Photo taken from The Amazing Jimi Phillips And His Steel Pan

Some of Jimi’s innovations arose from his experimentation with using sheet metal instead of  the traditional steel drums to produce steel pans. In the course of this experimentation he has succeeded in making instruments of fine tonal quality with structural differences. These instruments posses very small skirts in comparison with the regular pans.

Additionally, portability has been another factor that has influenced Jimi’s creativity. In this regard he has developed a collapsible pan stand, which can be folded like some music stands. He has also produced a set of six-bass pans in which each pan of the set has a skirt the size of that of the traditional tenor.

The following article, written by Joel Julien, was published in the the Trinidad Guardian on Saturday January 14, 2017.

Jimi Phillip: The man with the hammer

When Jim “Jimi” Phillip was six years old he fell in love with pan music.

“I loved to hear how the pan sounded and I started to play music on Milo tins mimicking what I saw the panmen doing,” Phillip said.

Some 50 years have gone since Phillip first fell in love with pan music, but his passion for it has not dwindled. Instead of beating old milk tins with sticks Phillip has now moved to actually making steelpans.

On a regular afternoon in Chagua­nas if motorists listen carefully when they enter Rodney Road, off the Uriah Butler Highway they can hear pan music emanating from Phillip’s workshop. “From six years old I fell in love with pan. It really touched me. I not lying it really did something to me and since then, I have just kept going,” Phillip told the Sunday Guardian.

After beating old milk tins Phillip said he eventually graduated to be­ing accepted into one of the area’s panyards and allowed to play on real pans. It was a dream come true.

“I started playing and in those days you just played exactly what they showed you. They told you to play this and play that and you watched and then you did what they showed you. We were not learning music the­ory or anything like that, we were just learning to hit here and hit there,” Phillip said.

Phillip said he kept at it.

“When I turned about 20 years I started to look into learning more about the pan and this guy named Henry “Bendix” Cumberbatch, he started showing us chords and so we started to learn more stuff,” Phillip said.

“And then, later on, I started to read music on my own and started to ask questions and things like that. The passion just stuck with me.”

Phillip said his decision to learn about tuning steelpans was made more as a result of practicality than anything else.

“I used to see steel bands travelling around the world and when they used to travel it was big fanfare and when they came back into the airport it was a big media thing,” Phillip said.

“So I said to myself, if I travel and my pan goes out of tune what will happen because at that time they didn’t have pan tuners all about, so I said I just want to learn to tune it back,” he said.

So Phillip started to teach himself.

“So then I got a drum and I started to sink it by what I saw the tuners doing in the panyard. And I started to sink it and groove it and cut it and tune but it was not best because I did not know what I was doing. It was rough, I was grooving and bussing it and all kind of thing but I tried,” Phillip said.

In 1970 Phillip said pan tuner Wallace Austin came to Chaguanas and he was taken under the wings of the “top tuner”. “Austin came Chaguanas to tune for a band and he wanted people to work with him so I went and I hooked up with him and I already knew how to sink so I just had to improve, so I became his right-hand man,” Phillip said.

Austin, who last tuned pans for Ex­odus, died last month and his funeral was held a week ago. After being trained by Austin, Phillip started making pans.

“By trying to learn to fix my pan I started making pans. And in making them one wouldn’t come out good so I tried to make a next one and I tried to make it better and tried to improve, and then a friend came and asked me to make a pan for him and I did, and then I made another one and then I got professional and it became like a job and I never wanted to be that,” Phillip said.

And like every professional Phil­lip makes the exceptional sound mundane.

“You get the steel drum, you use the bottom of the drum, you take a hammer and you sink it and it gets like a bowl, then you draw out the notes, you groove it, you set it back, you cut, you burn, after you burn you clean it and then you start to put in the sound, that is where your ears are important,” Phillip said.

Phillip tunes his pans by ear. The entire process to tune a pan takes about half a day, he said. Phillip said the most important tool for him in the process was his hammer.

“Really and truly all pans are dif­ficult to tune, there are some pan tuners that like to tune the bass pan more although they can tune all the other pans, there are some that like to tune front-line like the tenor pan and then there are some that like to tune midrange. But, then now, the master tuner is the man who will tune all the pans good. I doing that,” Phillip said.

Phillip said he believes pan tuning was in good hands in this country. He has a school that trains tuners and singled out Augustus Peters as one of those who is keep­ing the skill alive.

Author: Ken Archer

I am an ethnomusicologist, who obtained my doctoral degree at the Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio. My areas of interests include the musical, ritual, and celebratory traditions of the circum-Caribbean and the African Diaspora. I worked as a lecturer at the Columbus and Marion Campuses of the Ohio State University, where I taught classes in World Music, Rock and Roll/American Popular Music, Western Art Music, and directed the OSU Steel Pan ensemble.