To the Home of Steel Pan

December 15, 2014

Rosalind Black

students performing on drums
Photo credit: Sela Miller

With a Finney Chapel concert behind it and a winter-term trip to Trinidad ahead, this year proves to be one of milestones for Oberlin Steel (OSteel), Oberlin’s steel pan band. During its performance in Finney December 3—its first in that space since 2001—the band was joined by steel pan virtuoso and composer Leon Foster Thomas, a Trinidadian native and a resident of Miami.

During his weeklong visit, Thomas taught master classes and workshopped OSteel’s repertoire before and after the Finney show. One of the pieces the band performed was “Action,” a composition of Thomas’ that falls under the genre of soul of calypso (SoCa), a popular style in Trinidad. OSteel learned the piece last year and brought it back for Thomas’ visit. OSteel learns a new SoCa pop tune, arranged specifically for the Panorama competition, which end up being 10 minutes long, every year for its spring project. “It’s difficult because they’re so long and so hard,” says Monica Hunter-Hart, senior codirector of the band and trip leader. “And we play them much slower than they’re usually going to be played, so they’ll be around 15 minutes.”

The band plans to speed things up when it travels to Trinidad this winter term to play in the annual steelband competition, Panorama: “The super bowl of steel pan,” according to Thomas. Steelbands travel from across the world to participate in the competition in the homeland of the steel pan, which takes place in accordance with Carnival celebrations.

Thanks to advice and support from various sources—alumni; the band’s steel pan tuner, Billy Sheeder; and Assistant Cross Country Coach (and native Trinidadian) Alisha Samuel—the band has made many contacts in Trinidad. For example, it connected with Birdsong, a large Trinidadian steelband that OSteel will perform with during Panorama. Most steelbands teach their songs by ear, but Birdsong, like OSteel, uses sheet music, making it more accessible to foreign bands. Birdsong will teach OSteel a new jazz arrangement, along with teaching master classes on practice strategy, playing technique, and performance style.

While living in apartments on the University of the West Indies campus, OSteel will begin rehearsing four hours every weeknight with Birdsong. During the day, however, the players’ time is their own. While they will be stationed in Tunapuna, located east of the coastal capital, Port-of-Spain, they hope to travel to bigger cities and even Tobago to meet locals, see the sights, and learn as much as they can about the context, history, and technique of steel pan playing by observing other steelbands.

Individual OSteel members have ventured to Trinidad in the past, but never has the entire band made the trip as a unit. “It’s always been a dream of ours because the steel drum comes from Trinidad,” Hunter-Hart says. “The history and culture of Trinidad are simply a part of what this instrument is.” Being non-native players, the members of OSteel relish the chance to learn from the land that, after a long history of resisting oppression through music, created sonorous, unique instruments out of 55-gallon oil barrels left over after World War II. “[The trip will] really help us understand what the steel pan’s role in America is and has become, and how to understand the politics of representation a little bit better, and our place within the steel drum world,” Hunter-Hart says.

“We have so many goals for this trip,” Hunter-Hart says, “but we hope to learn a lot about rehearsal styles and techniques; musical techniques; and things we can do to improve our playing. We hope to personally grow as players and performers. We don’t really focus much on performance skills in our band—we don’t really have a background in that even though many of us are musicians. But performing in the style of a steel band is not something that comes naturally to us.”

The trip will serve as a winter-term project for the 13 band members in attendance, sponsored by the band’s advisor, Tina Zwegat, associate director of the Student Union. To fulfill winter-term requirements, the band members will blog about their travels and plan to bring as much steel pan knowledge back to the Oberlin community as possible. “We definitely want to share this knowledge that we’ve gained, in particular because we’ve been so supported by the administration,” Hunter-Hart explains. “Just the help they’re giving us organizationally has been really great, so we want to make sure we don’t keep this knowledge all to ourselves, but make sure everyone can benefit from it if they’re interested in doing so.”

To make this trip a reality, the band had to raise approximately $23,000. OSteel has received support from a handful of sources, including a winter-term grant, a donation from the Conservatory of Music, the Julie Taymor Fund, the Alumni Office Crowdfunding Campaign, and an Indiegogo campaign.

As their departure date nears, the excitement of OSteel members grows as they contemplate the cultural and historical richness of Trinidad, especially during the weeks leading up to Carnival celebrations and the Panorama competition. “I think it will mean a lot to be in a country where steel pan music is such a big part of the culture,” says band memberJeremy Simon, a second-year student. “This festival is a really big deal and a lot of people come to see it, so I think it will be really moving to be there for that and to see what happens. I don’t know exactly what to expect.”

He does expect the trip will lead to some serious growth for each band member, as well as the band as a whole, that will last longer than just winter term. “I think it is going to be a really awesome experience for the band in future years because we are going to gain a lot of knowledge,” Simon says.

OSteel embarks on its journey January 4, culminating in a performance with Birdsong on February 1 during the semifinal round of Panorama. To read about their journey as it unfolds, visit the OSteel blog.

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