Emmanuel Riley – Pan Tuner and Renowned Pan Soloist

An April Spring Saturday in Brooklyn, New York, heralded the first-time visit of
Emmanuel ‘Corbeau Jack’ Riley – steel pan soloist extraordinaire and, master pan
craftsman and renowned pan tuner – to the When Steel Talks studios for an
exclusive and candid interview. In his own words, the soon-to-be Lincoln Center
honoree gave insight from his beginning love affair with music, to his present
day activities.

As an integral member of the steelband culture and movement, Jack Riley wears at
least three hats. He creates the pan instrument – hammering and shaping by hand
discarded 55-gallon steel drums then turns to the next phase – tuning the pans
and finally turning out a fully handcrafted musical instrument. Jack is a great
improvisational steelpan player and renowned soloist. Having received accolades
as a creator of and performer on the steelpan, he has the unique distinction of
one who can truly be hailed as the “Master” of the Steelpan instrument.Emmanuel ‘Corbeau’ Jack Riley told how in the 1940s, as a child of only three
years, he went into a store and was fascinated by a musical instrument. He grew
up surrounded by music and delighted in listening to his father’s comprehensive
record collection, which was to have tremendous impact in his musical style and
finesse. He found himself drawn hypnotically to the steelpan so much so that
this family moved him around to keep him away from the bands, only to find there
was one practically around the corner wherever they sent him!

In those days the instrument had just four or five notes when Jack and friends
joined their first steelband – Hell’s-A-Poppin’ Port Royale. Mere teenagers,
they soon tried to join Invaders, but were thought too young and so formed their
own band – Green Eyes, which eventually became Sombrero. Beginning as a repairer
of the pans when the police found them and punched holes through the drums in an
effort to destroy the instruments, Jack Riley eventually became more rounded and
extended his tasks to ‘tuning’ pans, bringing them back into musical shape. He
and friend Mike Schneider started tuning for other bands, the first being
Renegades. They eventually did join Invaders as teenagers, where he met Ellie
Mannette who showed him how to refine his tuning skills.

Jack remembers how an Invaders’ pan player by the name of Sterling first came up
with the concept of playing two pans together (forerunner of today’s “Second
Pans” or “Double Seconds”), and brought his two pans which he wanted to play to
Ellie, who went away and came back with a more refined concept of his idea -and
the rest is history. He himself started out as a Tenor player and recounted one
of his most memorable moments, though young and very shy, as playing a solo,
back in the day when the orchestra played seated with the pans secured about the
neck. Jack had to stand to render his solo. Later his pan instruments of choice
became the Double Seconds.

He tuned for Invaders Steelband and eventually did the same for Desperadoes (he
credits their leader the legendary Rudolph Charles aka the “Hammer” – for
teaching him even more about the art of pan tuning). He also traveled with
Desperadoes to Africa in the early 1960s. He was also part of the National
Steelband of Trinidad and Tobago and toured with them to such places as North
America, Europe and the 1967 World Expo in Canada, as both player and resident
pan tuner.

Eventually his love for tuning pans won out, especially when he surmised he had
reached his peak as a great pan soloist renowned for his dedication and
dexterity. Pan tuning is a laborious process because of the initial sinking of
the steel drums, and while he himself is accustomed to the work, he acknowledges
that it would be encouraging and less daunting for would-be pan tuning
apprentices, if there was a mechanical process for sinking pans. It would also
have to be economical and basically accomplish that first phase with outcomes
similar to those from the methods employed by Ellie Mannette with his own line
of pans.

These days, occasionally Jack can be caught playing a Six-Bass at different
events, while enjoying his work as a pan tuner, primarily for New York’s Moods
Pan Groove. He is looking forward to receiving his award as one of the two
honorees at the June 20th Tropical Sensation’s Pan Jazz concert being held at
Lincoln Center in New York.

Catch the full interview with Emmanuel Jack Riley at When Steel Talks… Click

By CP – Basement Press Release Writer