I never considered myself to be all that musical. I took piano and guitar lessons as a kid but only achieved a mediocre level of playing and music reading. Despite my lack of personal expertise, I never ceased to be moved by live music. Thus, during my college search, Oberlin stood out given the vibrant musical atmosphere.
As a prospective student, I was lucky to have an older sister already attending Oberlin. I visited her when I was a senior in high school. She was generous enough to let me stay in her dorm room in Talcott, join her at co-op meals at Old B, and sit in on her favorite classes. It turned out, however, that a musical performance would have the biggest impact on my visit.
My sister suggested we see Oberlin’s steel drum band, OSteel. Despite the chilly October weather, a sizeable audience huddled outside of the science center. As soon as OSteel began playing, several other students and their families flocked to the scene. The band members jumped with joy as they hit their pans (also referred to as steel drums) and performed synchronized dance moves. The crowd matched OSteel’s energy with enthusiastic cheers. Much to my embarrassment, my sister and her friends rushed to the front of the large audience and danced like nobody was watching. Little did I know that I too would dance at OSteel shows just as freely in my years to come.
As a kid, I had actually played the steel pans and seen steel bands perform a few times, but I had never seen any performance quite like this one. The music, the dancing, the performers—all components of the show emanated pure joy. I hadn’t overlooked, however, that OSteel was quite advanced musically, so it never even crossed my mind that I could actually be a part of this music ensemble.
When it came down to my college decision, I largely chose Oberlin due to the abundant musical opportunities, concerts, and performances, with OSteel’s performance still at the back of my mind. I had no idea what my role in music would be given Oberlin’s outstanding musical reputation and my lack thereof.
Once at Oberlin, it took me three tries to finally get accepted into the steel drum ExCo, one of the most popular classes offered in the Experimental College. Students must take the ExCo in order to apply to the band, though applying was not on my mind at the time. I saw the ExCo as my chance to recreate the joyful show I had seen as a prospective student. Throughout the semester, the class explored the rich history of the steel pan, an instrument originating in Trinidad and Tobago influenced significantly by the musical traditions of Afro-Caribbean Carnival. We learned four songs, with each student playing both steel pans and auxiliary percussion (aka the “engine room"). I was so captivated by the music that I ended up spending several hours outside of designated rehearsals in the panyard each week.
Our ExCo’s final concert at the Cat in the Cream still ranks as one of my best nights at Oberlin. I felt like a rock star playing and dancing on stage and did not want to imagine my Oberlin without OSteel. I applied to the band and, much to my surprise given my lingering musical insecurity, was accepted to be a member!
While I have only been a member of the band for three semesters, I have participated in experiences that felt truly unreal. I performed on the stage of Finney Chapel with pan virtuoso Leon Foster Thomas. I played on a float in the annual Big Parade at Oberlin. I road-tripped to Austin, Texas, and New Orleans on OSteel’s annual spring break tours. Perhaps most notably, I traveled to Trinidad and Tobago for winter term in 2015 and participated in PANORAMA, the largest pan competition in the world. (I don’t have enough words to get into how amazing Panorama was, but our blog has some).
OSteel has not only been my main musical outlet at Oberlin, but also an incredible source of support and learning. Band members share an interest in the history of the steel pan and the culture of Trinidad. Most members are not of Caribbean descent, so we regularly discuss the politics of representation and appropriation. We attempt to integrate such conversations into our performances, rehearsals, and ExCo classes. All of these events have been incredible learning experiences and have inspired a more multi-dimensional exploration into steel pan. And, in the past year, OSteel has provided me with leadership opportunities. I taught the steel drum ExCo for two semesters and was elected to be one of the new directors for this coming school year! If only high school Maya knew she would one day direct a musical ensemble!
This band represents to me so much more than just a means for musical expression. It is a group that fosters intellectual curiosity, learning, and immense social support.