Musical Panache

OSU steel drum ensemble taps into Caribbean rhythms

“Percussion departments have seen it as a nice way of bringing in world music,” says Bob Brudvig, leader of OSU’s steel drum ensemble. (Photo: Frank Miller)

OSU percussionist Bob Brudvig is leading a five-person ensemble in a practice session on the second floor of historic Benton Hall. It may be winter in Corvallis, but the music makes you forget the drizzle outside. It evokes palm trees, Caribbean sun and pre-Lenten carnivals. Brudvig works the melody on his chrome-plated steel drum, tapping out notes in rapid succession to an arrangement of “Gimme de Ting” by Trinidadian calypso legend Lord Kitchener. A bass guitar and marimba harmonize as bongos and drums carry the rhythm. Time to dance.

The group sometimes known as Dr. Bob’s Steel Drum Extravaganza, according to Sam Kincaid, band member and recording specialist in the OSU music department, has been bringing its energetic sound to Willamette Valley performance stages, weddings and other events for the past two years. Its repertoire emphasizes calypso and soca (an up-tempo dance form developed from calypso), traditions from Trinidad where its signature instrument, the steel drum or pan, was born.

“You know what it is the minute you hear it,” says Kincaid, who, as co-owner of RQM Strings, also builds and sells hollow electric guitars. “It is really bright. Some pans are a little more mellow sounding, but once you hit those high notes, it really cuts through. It catches people’s attention just like that. If we’re playing outside, maybe a marimba piece, people will notice and keep walking. When you’re playing the pan, it pulls their attention in right away.”

It’s a sound that Brudvig hopes to turn into new opportunities for OSU music students. “I think it could really take off,” says the assistant professor. “It’s not like the violin where you have to study first. Immediately you can play a note. The sound and the music that is performed are really infectious.”

Most of the ensemble’s seven to eight members get a single academic credit for their work, much less than their many hours of practice would justify. Money from performances pays for expenses such as new songs and instrument maintenance. Steel drums are notorious for going out of tune and have to be adjusted regularly, says Brudvig. “It’s kind of a scary thing. They (tuners) turn the drum over and take their hammer, wack them, maybe pop it back from the other side.”

Muffin Tins and Garbage Can Lids

In music classes, Brudvig introduces OSU students to a variety of percussion instruments, including the standard drum set, the vibes and marimba. His repertoire ranges from classical to contemporary. The OSU graduate (business and music) and native of Albany, Oregon, keeps a busy performance schedule with symphonies, operas and other groups in Oregon and Arizona, where he did his DMA (doctor of musical arts) at the University of Arizona. In Tucson, he combined his percussion talents with two harpists in a group known as Starfire, which toured in the United States and Japan.

OSU Percussion on the Move

OSU percussion players performed at the annual Northwest Percussion Festival at Eastern Washington University the first weekend in April. On June 1, the OSU Wind Ensemble will perform a composition for solo percussion and wind instruments by Gregory Youtz at Carnegie Hall in New York City. Youtz teaches at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.

In June, Brudvig and the OSU Chamber Choir will be in Tubingen, Germany, for the 25th anniversary of the Congress Bundestadt exchange program. The program will include a commissioned piece for marimba and choir by composer Tomas Svoboda, now retired from Portland State.

“The steel drum is the newest member in the family of percussion instruments,” Brudvig explains. It grew from the culture of colonial Trinidad in which the British government, fearing the possibility of uprisings, prohibited the islanders from using skin drums to communicate during most of the year. The rules were often relaxed in the weeks before Lent, allowing street parades and musical competitions for the annual carnival. With drums banned, musicians turned to hollow bamboo sticks, which they pounded on the street during parades. These so-called Tamboo-Bamboo bands were prohibited as well, says Brudvig, and metal objects — muffin tins, cooking pots, garbage can lids — replaced bamboo. Musicians eventually found ways to use the ubiquitous 55-gallon barrel made available by Trinidad’s thriving oil industry.

Conversations about this history inevitably turn to Ellie Mannette, who is credited with creating the modern steel drum in the 1940s. The musician from Trinidad introduced the instrument to the United States a decade later and led workshops from 1983 to 1986 at Portland State University’s Haystack School of the Arts in Cannon Beach. OSU music professor Michael Coolen attended those sessions and learned to play and to make a steel drum. He founded an 11-member OSU steel drum band, Pura Vida, in the late 1980s, but a continuing case of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) eventually forced Coolen to stay away from loud, percussive music and discontinue the band. He had most of the steel drums auctioned off, but he kept one, which he now lends to the OSU ensemble.

In Trinidad, steel drum music continues to thrive. Annual competitions (“Panorama” and “Pan Is Beautiful”) are held during the carnival season. Bands can have as many as 100 players, and although most emphasize Afro-Cuban styles, some specialize in European classics. “Initially, in the 1960s and 70s, a lot of these groups started off playing orchestral transcriptions,” says Brudvig. “Most of these guys in the orchestra don’t read music. So it was learned by rote. They were learning a complete Mozart Symphony by ear.”

The instruments have also evolved. The lead pan on which Brudvig plays melodies in the OSU ensemble starts at middle C and covers slightly more than two octaves. Others in the pan family — tenors, guitars, cellos, basses — extend to progressively lower notes. Large bands also have a section known as the “engine room,” which keeps all the drummers on the beat by rapping out the rhythm on a drum set or steel brake drum.

Oregon is hardly a center for the instrument on the West Coast (that distinction belongs to the Seattle area), but Mannette’s Haystack workshops continue to echo in the state. James Leyden of Portland, who worked with Mannette on the East Coast and arranged for his Haystack appearances, offers a wide variety of steel drum arrangements at a Web site, www.hillbridge.com. A Mannette protégé, Dennis Martin of La Center in southern Washington, builds and sells steel drums, and the band he started, Rhythmical Steel, performs in schools and at public events in Washington and Oregon. Two Eugene groups, Island Accents and the all-female group Steel Magnolias, are active in Oregon.

Brudvig hopes to ride interest in the steel pan to build on the OSU music department’s ongoing public school programs and to expand performance opportunities for OSU percussion students. He expects students would agree with the observation of Rear Admiral Daniel Gallery who founded the U.S. Navy Steel Drum Band. After hearing a Trinidadian steel pan group in 1957, Gallery said, “The music just got inside me and shook me up.”

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