When the Oberlin Can Consortium plays, its beat and lilting sounds are irresistible. Even the shadows dance.
Performing in the tradition of the great steel-drum bands of Trinidad, the long-standing Oberlin group also kicks out arrangements of mile-a-minute salsa, calypso, and popular tunes, as well as rolicking numbers written by band members.
"When we play, a kind of overwhelming energy comes out of the Can," said band member Rhian Davies '96, a classical flute and Russian major who recently served as the group's business manager.
"The music that we play really pulls people together. Just playing with the Can--having people listen and dance--you get the feeling of making people so happy!
"There is a certain kind of joyful silliness that goes on during rehearsals: it's a give-and-take thing that's hard to balance. If there were none of that, we would be absolutely tight. But we wouldn't have any soul."
For years, the exuberant ensemble was one of the college's best-kept secrets, playing regularly at commencement, Mayfair, the college's discotheque, and the Cat-in-the-Cream Coffeehouse.
The Can's fame is increasing, however, thanks to its recordings--This Feeling Nice (1988), Caught Steelin' (1991), Panhandlin' (1993), and a cassette Jus' Yenjai (1996); numerous performances in Ohio; a solid presence on the Internet--in fact, every page on the World Wide Web having anything to do with steel-drum music now has a link to the Oberlin Can Consortium (http://www.oberlin.edu/~cconsort/)--and annual tours to East Coast cities, colleges, and public schools.
"Nobody knows exactly how old the group is," said Davies. "The lore is that sometime in the early '80s, six people all played pan in high school, and when they came to Oberlin they brought their pans with them. That's how it started."
Recruitment for the ensemble, which is self-perpetuating, is no problem: "People hear us around campus and they like the music, so they inquire and take the Experimental College (EXCO) course in steel-drum music taught by band members. For the 18 slots in the semester-long, non-credit course last year, there were 100 applicants."
Interested students then audition for the permanent band. "Typically about a third of the members are in the Conservatory, but almost everyone also plays another instrument. If you have musical experience before, it's not at all difficult to learn," said Davies. "But it is a big time commitment."
Members rehearse twice a week for two hours in the basement of Hales Gymnasium, in a small room known as the "Panyard." A considerable amount of practicing goes on outside rehearsal--at least five hours a week, and that's minimal, particularly in a member's first year, which is devoted to learning new instruments. On top of that the group has gigs, business meetings, and recording sessions.
"For those of us with classical training, the challenge is getting past playing the right notes and really getting a groove going," said Davies. "Steel-drum music, more than anything else, is about being creative with rhythm.
"When you're improvising and you're trading solos with somebody else, and you totally know what the other person is doing, there's a connection--it's the time when we play our best. It's very much a spiritual experience for everybody. We wouldn't do it if it weren't.
"The Can is one of the things that has made my experience at Oberlin very positive," said Davies, who won a chair in the U.S. Army Woodwind Ensemble in an audition last spring and is now stationed in Germany. "I can't imagine my college career without it.
"It provokes a very strong reaction from everybody in the band. You go into rehearsal and you start playing and you're like, yes! This is why I'm here! This is why I'm young! This is why I am!"
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