Salah Steelpan Academy in dispute with Cote des Neiges Black Community Association

By Egbert Gaye

These days, pan man extraordinaire, Salah Wilson is in a foul mood, as his emotions sway from extreme anger to depression.
As a devout Muslim, he is not inclined to swear words, but says this situation is testing him as he talks about the impasse between his steel orchestra, Salah Steelpan Academy and the Cote-des-Neiges Black Community Association, which has already forced the cancellation of his annual summertime steelband show and threatens to derail his participation in Pan Alive, the national competition in Toronto.
You see, more than any other person in Canada, steelpan is Salah’s life: as a player, arranger, teacher, author and PhD. student (Ethno Musicology) he is involved with the instrument, every single day, 24/7.
The summer is especially hectic for him as he prepares his group for the competition, where over the past five years they have been placing in the top three consistently, after winning it on at least four occasions.
But he describes an unnecessary conflict with the CDNBCA is putting it all in jeopardy.
He says after many years at the CEDA building in St. Henri, he was invited by Tiffany Callender, executive director of the CDNBCA, to bring the band to the association’s headquarters in Cote-des-Neiges, where a joint effort can ensure more people in the community learn to play the instrument, and the band can a have a secure place to rehearse and the resources to plan its events.
“For the most part, things were moving along OK, until this past February when she served us notice to vacate the premises,” he recalls. “This is in February, in the middle of Black History Month, and during one of the coldest spells in the year.”
Salah says his family and the other members of the group were “blown away” by Callender’s callousness, her “lack of consciousness towards community” and what appears to be “immaturity” as she goes back on her invitation to offer the band a secure place from which to operate.
When the issue first arose and The CONTACT spoke to Callender, she was adamant that her first obligation was towards the financial well-being of her association, and that the academy was not meeting its agreed obligation to run a cost effective steelpan program.
“They were not bringing in enough participants to the program and it ended up costing us too much to keep it going,” she told us in a phone conversation. “I have to balance the books.”
Salah is dismissive of Callender’s concerns, saying that she was well aware of what the Academy had to offer when she invited them to relocate to the CDNBCA.
She completely reversed on our agreement to form a partnership and instead wanted to start charging us rent as if she is the City Of Montreal,” he lamented to the CONTACT.
“It’s sad to see that one of our only surviving organizations cannot properly represent our community. Poor thing, the executive director is confused about politics and clearly does not understand anything about the well being of our community. She did the same thing to West Can.”
Salah’s reference to West Can pointed to the fact that the drumming and dance troupe also used the CDNBCA headquarters for rehearsals, but moved out when a similar dispute surfaced.
Salah says his group is currently searching for a place to store their instruments, which he says have been out of reach since “the CDNBCA took back their keys.” He is also hoping that they will be able to get a few rehearsal sessions in time for the Pan Alive competition.
“We were really looking forward to competing this year… the music is great and our chances were good… now this.”
He says the dispute has left such a bad taste in his mouth that he doesn’t think he can ever set foot in “that place (CDNBCA) again.”
“I can’t believe what our community has deteriorated into.”