By Oil Means

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T hey’re “just not like anything else,” Debby Teason says. “They’re really magical.” 

She’s talking about steelpans. (Please, don’t call them drums.) The founding director of St. Luke’s Steel Band, Teason has been playing pans since she was a graduate student at Wesleyan University. Later, she taught children to play at Cold Spring School and Neighborhood Music School. Then, in 1999, she got a call from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Whalley Avenue.

The priest at that time, Father Victor Rogers, had raised the funds to start a steel band. “We bought some rusty pans from Brooklyn,” founding band member Ed Mapp remembers. “[They were] so full of rust that our practice room had red floors for about two years.” He laughs at the recollection. He’s still playing his original steelpans, but most of those first instruments have been replaced.

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Today the St. Luke’s Steel Band, under the direction of Kenneth Joseph (pictured first, center), offers up an eclectic repertoire of soca, calypso, samba, merengue, reggae, pop, jazz and classical music, playing a full schedule of concerts, festivals, benefits and private functions throughout the region as well as six St. Luke’s church services each year. The band has won two gold medals at the PANorama Caribbean Music Fests in Virginia Beach and has collaborated with both internationally renowned musicians and local organizations.

On a recent Saturday morning in the group’s rehearsal space—a converted garage next to the church with rubber floors and high, bright windows—Joseph plays in the front row, turning to call out directions to the band as they try out a rendition of the Marvin Gaye hit “What’s Going On.” The sound of the pans is, as Teason says, magical: bright and ringing with a mysterious hollow quality. Most of the musicians are on pan duty, but in a special percussion section known as the “engine room,” one man plays a drum kit and another conga drums. Within reach are a tambourine, a cowbell and an “iron,” a drum made from—well, a brake drum. Teason is still with the band, this morning playing a pair of pans called a “double guitar.”

“We’re gonna try to end with one that everyone knows,” Joseph says in his lilting Caribbean accent. He tells the musicians he wants them to be happy and leave feeling good. He counts them into “La Partida,” a piece by Chilean writer and musician Victor Jara.

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Growing up in Trinidad, Joseph didn’t think steel band practice was fun at all. He started playing when he was 8 years old but “despised” it. That year, 1990, there was an attempted coup, and martial law was imposed. “During that time, when we were under house arrest, I somewhat missed playing steel band,” Joseph recalls, “and when we resumed playing, it was a change for me.”

Compared to other acoustic instruments, steelpans are newcomers. They evolved organically in the first half of the twentieth century in oil-rich Trinidad, where 55-gallon oil drums were ubiquitous. One story about the pans’ creation, Joseph says, is that someone threw a rock over a fence and dented an oil drum. “And they’re like, ‘Oh. This sound on this side of the dent sounds different to this side of the dent,’” he recounts. “And then they began to experiment with two pitches… ‘If I got two, I can make three.’”

Teason tells another story: “There was an American Naval base on [Trinidad], and they had all of these empty steel [oil] drums,” she explains. Elliot “Ellie” Mannette, one of steelpan’s originators, “tells a story about timing the guards walking on the beach and swimming under the fence and floating the empty barrels out to sea and taking them back and making pans,” Teason says. The naval commander caught Mannette stealing the drums—and asked him to go to Puerto Rico to set up a steel band for the navy there. According to Teason, just a few years later, in 1951, the first steel band left Trinidad to play in the UK, where they performed not only traditional Caribbean music but also classical works.

All of the steelpans today, Teason says, are still made by hand from oil drums. They’re “sunk,” Joseph explains—meaning one end is made concave—and then tuned. Some are cut shorter for a higher pitch. Stories abound, again, about how the different types of pans were named. Those with the highest pitch are called “tenors” (rather than “sopranos”)—perhaps, Joseph says, because originally only men played them. Another type of pan is a “guitar” because it’s typically played in chords with a “strummed” rhythm. Different pans also hold different numbers of notes, with lower notes having greater surface area. Notes are played with wooden sticks, traditionally wrapped in bicycle tubes (for lower pitches) or rubber gloves (for higher), though some now use latex tubing instead.

St. Luke’s isn’t New Haven’s only steel band. Teason rattles off the homes of several others: Yale, Neighborhood Music School, Highville Charter School, Foote School. Either Teason or Joseph has had a hand in each of these. In addition to the St. Luke’s band that performs out in the community, Joseph directs classes at the church for young beginners, intermediate teens and adult beginners, all of which may feed the performing group.

St. Luke’s Steel Band is in fact an intergenerational group, including teenagers, old-timers and quite a few folks in between, connected by a desire to take old oil drums and make some magic.

St. Luke’s Steel Band
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church – 111 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 865-0141
www.stlukessteelband.com

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1-4 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 5 (of the St. Luke’s Steel Band during City-Wide Open Studios 2015) photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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