Tour With Oberlin Steel
Keeping BEAT with a time-honored tradition
and photos by Peter Meredith 02
a muggy Georgia afternoon, and the 16 members of Oberlin Steel are
sweating their way through an outdoor performance at an Atlanta
elementary school. The students are excited; although the principal
had asked them to stay seated during the concert, several have rushed
the stage and are dancing wildly, their flailing arms barely missing
some amused teachers. As the band finishes, the kids cheer enthusiastically
and crowd around the steel drums, jostling each other for the chance
to bang away.
This is a typical spring break for Oberlin Steel, which embarks
on a weeklong tour each year to schools, clubs, and parks in cities
such as New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. This year, the band
ventured deep into the South, with gigs in Atlanta and Savannah.
excited response from the elementary students isnt unusual;
audiences have been wild about this band ever since its first performance
in 1980, when three Arts and Sciences students formed the group
during winter term. Each had played in a high-school steel band
called Calliopes Children and together had brought eight pans
(as the instruments are called) with them to Oberlin. Here, they
called themselves the Can Consortiumafter the CC
painted on the pans by the high school bandand played their
first show in a Warner Hall dance studio.
we were, a bunch of peoplemost of whom had only recently taken
stick to panplaying this concert that was wildly and enthusiastically
received, recalls charter member David Dunn 83. People
were screaming and dancing. It was amazing!
Since then, the band has been altered a bit. Its larger now
and changed its name to Oberlin Steel last year. But the musicand
the funremain the same.
another sunny afternoon in downtown Atlanta. Dwarfed by skyscrapers,
Oberlin Steel is set up in Centennial Olympic Park, where bandleader
Patia Maule 03 leans over her pan to talk to the audience.
have four main types of pans, she explains to the business-attired,
lunch-hour crowd. She points to the smallest instruments. These
are the leads, the highest pans that generally play the melody.
her way down the harmonic spectrum, she introduces the seconds,
the cellos, and the bass, a huge instrument consisting of six 55-gallon
oil drums. Finally, she points out the engine room,
the four-member percussion section featuring a drum set and three
sound of a steel-drum band is harder to describe than its instrumentation.
The soca beat is fast and energetic, with rhythmic accents on two-and
and four. The pan parts are interlocking and continuous,
rarely giving the players (or audience) a chance to rest. The leads
tirelessly beat out melodies and solos, while the cellos and seconds
vigorously strum syncopated chords, mimicking an unrelenting guitar.
The whole thing is undeniably loud. A full Trinidadian steel-drum
band during Carnival has hundreds of pan players, creating a powerful
sound thats inescapably danceable.
a sound that Oberlin Steel works hard to replicate. At a time when
many U.S. pan players are favoring lighter, cleaner, and quieter
arrangements, Oberlin Steel takes pride in playing party music.
The band is a mainstay at campus parties, outdoor celebrations,
and Illumination. A pan clinician who was recently on campus characterized
its sound with terms from the big-band swing era. Sweet
bands, he said, played light and syrupy songs, but hot
bands played hard-swinging songs that drove audiences crazy.
Oberlin Steel, he said, is definitely a hot band.
a tree-lined street in Savannah, the band members sit on a hot,
cracked sidewalk, discussing hotels in which to spend the night.
The conversation lasts half an hour, as members debate the importance
of a kitchen versus larger beds.
are decisions in Oberlin Steel made quickly. The band has a democratic
process reminiscent of Oberlin cooperatives. Though the group elects
a leader, he or she serves more as a discussion facilitator. At
a school where many musical groups are led by faculty, this is a
rarity. Oberlin Steel, though, has a culture of its own, perhaps
not surprising in a group with no Conservatory performance majors.
to other bands Ive been in, this one is very concerned with
communication and cooperation, says Joaquín Espinoza
Goodman 02. Its not just about getting gigs or
is a real sense of camaraderie here. Perhaps its due to the
amount of time the group spends togetherfour hours a week
throughout the school year and 24-7 during the spring tour. As a
result, the band has developed its own set of inside jokes and catchphrases,
a dialect all its own.
members, for example, acquire nicknames by which theyre known
during rehearsals. Nicknames are generally not of each members
choosing; theyre bestowed by the band for embarrassing moments,
endearing qualities, or for their potential to irk their namesake.
Some members wear their numerous nicknames like a badge of honor.
One bandleader, by the time she graduated in 1999, was known as
Kristin Disco Hotpants Ritchie Limelady Captain Carrot
in Atlanta, Oberlin Steel is playing one of the tours few
air-conditioned gigs, a show at the retirement home of a band members
grandmother. Its an interesting environment: the audience
is largely African American, while most of the band members are
white, something many would consider ironic given steel drummings
Its creators were working-class Trinidadians of African descent.
Their music was historically suppressed by the countrys British
rulers who, starting in the late 1800s, banned drumming, dancing,
and other traditional forms of expression. Afro-Trinidadians responded
with ingenuity, creating new instruments out of bamboo sticks and
food tins. In the 1930s and 40s, they incorporated steel oil
drums into their bands after finding they could tune pitches into
them by bending and warping the lids.
the music changed, white aversion to it continued. As steel scholar
Kristen Batson writes, Members of the upper classes showed
great distaste for the steel-band movement and viewed its members
as disruptive social forces
resistance which in some cases
if anyone at the Atlanta retirement home found Oberlin Steels
racial make-up striking, they didnt speak up. Students at
Oberlin, however, have been less sympathetic. The band has been
accused of cultural appropriation, owing largely to its predominantly
white membership. But many Oberlin Steel members deny this claim.
I dont think the fact that were a largely white
band necessarily means we are practicing cultural appropriation,
says Anne Siegler 02. We are very aware of the origins
of the music, and we always try to educate ourselves about Trinidadian
culture. We want to perform the music in a way thats as authentic
to tradition as possible.
The debate isnt likely to be resolved soon, either for Oberlin
Steel or the myriad other steel bands springing up worldwide.
11 p.m. on a snowy Oberlin night. The students arrive home and begin
unloading gear into their basement rehearsal room in Hales Gym.
The roomcalled the Panyardresembles the inside of a
giant concrete shoebox, with windows near the ceiling. Walls are
covered with the multicolored, spray-painted nicknames of band alumni,
who each sign the wall as a last rite before graduating. Any space
left over is plastered with pictures of band members and Trinidadian
pan masters. Generations of pan players have now called the Oberlin
Panyard home, a sentimental realization for many alumni.
people in the band now who were born while we were in it
incredibly humbling, says charter member Dunn. The most
meaningful and joyous musical experience Ive ever had was
in this band, and Im grateful that 20 years later, students
can still feel that joy.