CRITICALLY acclaimed pannist and musical genius Johann Chuckaree is no stranger to the stage. He has played at 18 Panorama competitions with Phase II Pan Groove and has performed alongside T&T’s best known artistes at home and around the world. In this era of coronavirus when most of us are stuck at home, Chuckaree and his equally talented sister Johanna otherwise known as ‘D Piano Girl’ have turned their living room into their stage as they perform with infectious enthusiasm for audiences online. On April 9, they took part in the Digicel Cameo Concert series and performed again on Facebook and Instagram live on Friday.
The brother and sister exude such positive energy online that one might get the impression that they were back in the Savannah in the middle of all the Carnival excitement.
The siblings’ decision to take their performances online is their response to the waves of negativity that have left people here and around the world feeling overwhelmed with anxiety. It’s their hope that through their music they could inject some joy into the lives of fellow citizens.
Chuckaree concedes that this is a very trying time for him and other entertainers and all the support services in the entertainment industry.
“There is so much that is impacted in terms of the entertainment industry that a lot of people don’t see — besides the artistes there is the band, management team, sound person, lighting person and audio visual companies,” he says. “Personally on my end, I can easily say that all my performances for the next 12-14 months have been cancelled, it’s a huge impact on myself and Johanna as we had a couple of events lined up outside the country. I was supposed to be in Grenada last weekend, I was supposed to be in Barbados two weeks from now and we were expected to do St Kitts Music Festival in June, so there have been a lot of things that have been cancelled. It’s a very tough spot to be in especially when one has financial obligations to meet.”
The harsh reality, said Chuckaree, is that there will not be any mass gatherings for the foreseeable future, which could mean that Carnival 2021 may be postponed to later next year.
“I would love to be the optimist but maybe it will not be held in February/March 2021 but if everything goes well and depending on how we as a society and the world are able to respond to this crisis, maybe it can happen,” he says.
There is a mix of emotions among many of Chuckaree’s colleagues who work in the fickle world of entertainment. Some were anticipating a good year with many international gigs. A quarter of Johann and Johanna’s bookings were at international events; for others, 75 per cent of their performances were outside T&T. Now any projected income for the next six to eight months has been completely cut and the artiste’s monthly income has been reduced to zero. It has put many who have car loans, mortgages, bills and families to take care of in financial turmoil.
As grim as the situation is, Chuckaree says artistes have the responsibility to share a positive message to their fan base and the wider society. With their online concerts, Chuckaree and his sister have been breaking the monotony and reaching out to persons using the universal language of music.
“With the uncertainty of what’s going on right now it is really easy for anybody to feel depressed and hopeless. But from an entertainer’s point of view, we have a responsibility to our people and fans to spread that positivity and give people a glimmer of hope that we will return to some semblance of normalcy eventually,” says Chuckaree.
All for love
Their foray into live online concerts began a few weeks ago when Johanna decided to uphold a cherished family tradition. The Chuckarees were raised as Catholics and started playing music at St Theresa’s Roman Catholic Church. They’ve been involved in the church’s music ministry for well over 20 years. Playing music for people is what brings them joy and happiness and it was their custom to play for Mass at St Theresa’s every Saturday evening. But with the restrictions on mass gatherings in place, playing in church was no longer possible so to fill that void Johanna began ‘Spiritual Saturdays’ where she plays inspirational music live on her Facebook page. Things evolved from there.
The siblings have since performed for the Ubersoca cruise quarantine online cooler party which got a massive response. They were then contacted by the Digicel Marketing Department for the Digicel Cameo Concert and on Friday night they streamed another 45-minute concert on Facebook and Instagram live. Johann and Johanna will continue to host more online performances. Johanna has even started online piano classes.
Pan is me
It’s not enough to say that the Chuckarees love music when the reality is that music is as important to them as the blood that runs through their veins. At the urging of their parents, Johann began piano lessons at the age of four. In the meantime his sisters Christine and Johanna were in a pan side at St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain under the direction of Anthony Prospect. They brought home a pan so that they could practise and Johann was intrigued. It was at that point that he picked up the musical instrument.
“I do love the piano and keyboard and I play them wholeheartedly as well, but the pan sought me out,” he says.
Because of their geographical location (the Chuckarees grew up in Woodbrook) their parents took them to the panyard regularly. Being a part of that cultural hub had a great influence on Chuckaree.
At the age of 13 he became the protegé of Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe and began playing with Phase II Pan Groove.
“Music is ingrained in my soul, music makes up a major part of who I am,” he adds.
That inextricable link that Johann and his sisters have with music explains why it’s so important for them to use music to bring people together in these trying times.
“Music is a uniting and rallying force and I think it’s something that brings a level of positivity into an uncertain time. We are seeing an unprecedented number of people dying and being economically affected in these dark times. So we want to bring some positivity and light into people’s lives and make sure that people remember who we are as Trinbagonians,” says Chuckaree.