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Mass bands of steel

Published: 
Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Pan players unite to form ultimate musical fusion
The mass steelband performs at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis, Indiana.

One of the more unique phenomena on display at many steelpan events in the United States in recent years are mass steelbands in which individual players or smaller pan ensembles come together as one large steelband to perform scored pieces of music. Players learn the musical selections on their own via notated scores before coming together in mass with usually only one or two rehearsals prior to the concert. This method, which is common in the United States, has also become increasingly popular at steelband festivals in other parts of the world from Australia to Holland.

The latest major mass steelband event occurred recently at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) which was held in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 11. Organised by Professor Rick Kurasz of Western Illinois University, the focus of the PASIC mass steelband 2017 was to present new scored music written specifically for school steelbands in the United States.

The PASIC 2017 mass steelband featured over 50 players comprised primarily of professors who teach steelpan at universities and colleges across the United States from California to Florida. The concert packed ten compositions into the one-hour performance. The set list presented a variety of musical styles, many of which had little connection to traditional Trinidadian material.

After only four hours of rehearsals the night before, the performances were tight, much to the delight of the exuberant convention audience of hundreds. Virtuosic pan player Andy Narell, who had been inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame two nights prior, took a special solo on one of the pieces that simultaneously awed the audience and enthused the steelband.

Convention ballrooms are not normally the most steelband friendly spaces for performance; nonetheless, Kurasz was delighted the sound in the big convention hall came off so well, noting, “this space turned out better than I hoped.” Kurasz and others this type of event that should happen regularly so that new music for steelpan receives the kind of exposure it so richly deserves.

The 2017 PASIC event marked an important anniversary as the first ever mass steelband occurred exactly 30 years prior at the 1987 PASIC convention held in St Louis, Missouri. It was the vision of professor Thomas Siwe of the University of Illinois (who Kurasz had trained under) and was on the conference board.

He called Robert Chappell and Al O’Connor at Northern Illinois University to put it together. They included a Cliff Alexis arrangement of David Rudder’s classic The Hammer. Robert Chappell recalled the enthusiasm of the participants. “I believe that I called the directors of the bigger bands and asked if they were interested. Almost all came. Northern Illinois University, Akron, Illinois, and North Texas. These groups did the heavy lifting on the tunes as the music was difficult. Cliff arranged everything…It was quite an entourage.”

The events were not without its difficulties, though as Chappell notes that organising PASIC mass steelband 1987 was “a pain in getting all of the groups and their instruments into the ballroom, by elevators, through smelly kitchens.” This particular mass steelband was stocked with Trinidadian talent as Len “Boogsie” Sharpe was a featured soloist and Leonard Moses led the engine room on drumset.

Since the first PASIC mass steelband in 1987, such events became regular occurrences at PASIC as well as other regional steelpan festivals, gatherings, and competitions around the United States. At PASIC 2000 in Dallas, a group of high school and university steelbands from the state of Texas, a particularly fertile steelband region, combined for a mass steelband that presented new steelband music written for secondary school.

At PASIC 2015, Tracey Thornton organised a Pan Rocks mass steelband to perform his arrangements of classic rock and heavy metal tunes. Declaring it an unqualified success, Thornton proclaimed, they “rocked PASIC!” Thornton drew a lot momentum from this PASIC performance in 2015 and has since regularly travelled across the US performing his Pan Rocks charts, often for mass bands.

Beyond PASIC, several regional steelband festivals implemented mass steelbands, the first is likely the PANFest at the Virginia Arts Festival held annually in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Dr Anthony Hailey who founded the event, recalled, “It was in 2004 that I implemented the mass band workshop idea. I contracted Tom Miller to do the arrangement for that first year and several succeeding years during my festival tenure. It never would have been possible success without a score. We distributed the music in advance then worked on the tune in three sectionals (tenor pans, doubles, cello/bass) at the workshop prior to bringing it all together.”

Perhaps the most important element of organising the mass steelband is getting right the engine room. As Tracy Thornton notes, “You have to have a great and strong drummer.” Similarly, Hailey focused on the engine room. “We had an engine room workshop at the beginning of mass band to help all the sections understand the groove.”

CJ Menge organises mass steelbands in Texas and Oklahoma and he focuses on the importance of a unified engine room for mass steelbands. “I send out tempo markings to the directors to help with issues related to having different directors drilling the band. Also, we use just one drum set player and have the engine room players from all of the programmes set up together, in the centre of the band, to help keep the rhythm on track. I’m also clear about form ahead of time so that everyone learns the same ‘road map’ of the composition’.

There has not been much of a history of mass steelbands in Trinidad. In August of 2012, PanTrinbago organised a mass steelband for the 50th Anniversary of Independence. Amrit Samaroo transcribed his father Jit Samaroo’s arrangement of Sniper’s Portrait of Trinidad and distributed the score to the participating steelbands. For the event there were 15 stage sides stationed on trolleys including Trinidad All Stars, Renegades, Phase II Pan Groove, Exodus, Desperadoes, Skiffle, Supernovas, Arima Golden Symphony, Harmonites and Silver Stars.

Amrit Samaroo noted the hard part was having Supernova’s trap drummer, Sonalal “Killer” Samaroo, mic’d and fed through monitors to the other engine rooms. “We only had two preparatory sessions.”

A few weeks later in London, billed as the Thousand Pans celebration, a mass band was held at the end of the 2012 Olympics. Pan players rehearsed the scored music on their own and came together to perform the song Brazil as a sendoff to the next location for the summer Olympics. As the growth in musically literate steelpan players increases, no doubt mass steelbands will continue to grow in their popularity while also bringing sweet steelpan music to new places.

Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.