The Norman Transcript

February 11, 2014

Festival bringing Caribbean beats to OU

By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — It may be cold outdoors, but the University of Oklahoma’s Paul F. Sharp Concert Hall in Catlett Music Center will be warmed by music from balmy tropical islands Saturday night.

The School of Music will host its third annual Steel Band Festival. The event is free to the public.

“Fun is required, and dancing is highly encouraged,” shouts OU’s promotional flier adorned with swaying palms and surf pounding on a beach. Music for the 6 p.m. concert will be provided by steel bands from OU, East Central University and Bartlesville, Owasso, Santa Fe South and McAlester high schools.

Trinidadian traditional steel band music impresario and educator CJ Menge, of the Inside Out Steel Band based in Austin, Texas, will headline the performance.

Menge also will be leading, accompanying some of the student sets. He’s an internationally known percussionist who is scheduled to perform later this month at the world’s premier steel pan music competition, Panorama, in Trinidad and Tobago.

“CJ Menges teaches in Austin and has several bands under the Inside Out Steel Band umbrella,” Dr. Andrew Richardson said. “He also runs a music publishing company called Boxfish.”

Richardson teaches percussion as an adjunct professor at OU and has been playing steel pan since he was an undergraduate at James Madison University in Virginia.

OU’s School of Music has an arsenal of steel pan instruments. Naturally, they’re painted a deep crimson. The terms “steel drum” and “steel pan” are interchangeable.

Steel pan music owes its origins to African slaves who brought their rhythmic traditions to the Caribbean islands centuries ago. Percussion played on frying pans, bottles and trash can lids gave way to using discarded 55-gallon steel drums in the mid-20th century.

OU’s collection of steel drums are a result of when Dr. Lance Drege, director of the percussion program, sought grants to replace old ones that were beyond being tuned any longer.

“It takes a long time for them to be built,” Richardson said. “Some were handmade in Trinidad and some in West Virginia.”

The new pans arrived in dribs and drabs. When the orders were finally all in, it was the celebratory trigger for OU’s first Steel Band Festival to become a reality in 2012.

The concert Saturday evening promises to be a beat marathon.

“Each of the six separate school bands plays by themselves for a few minutes,” Richardson said. “Then all of them play together.”

Eighty players will be on stage, with some individuals striking two or three barrels each.

“It’s quite a sight to look at and will have a similar feel to the big Panorama competition in Trinidad,” Richardson said. “The music is some of the most foot-tapping and exciting that we get to play and should be entertaining to just about anyone.”

Popular compositions from Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. and classical music will be played.

“We’ll be doing some that was written specifically for the steel pans,” Richardson said. “CJ Menges has given us a few pieces he has written to perform, and he’ll be doing some solos with the OU band.”

There will be a duo with Richardson on marimba and Menges on steel drum. Menges also will lead the mass band numbers.

“He’ll also be on stage talking a bit about the day with the students who have been learning, rehearsing and playing together earlier,” Richardson said.

As in jazz, there will be some improvisational solos both by the guest artist and students. The concert will not be stuffy or intellectually inaccessible.

“Orchestra concerts sometimes have that reputation,” Richardson said. “This is music where the players smile at each other, dance, yell and sing during the performance. Not to say that one style of music is better or more appropriate for a concert hall than another, but this will be visually appealing as well as musically appealing.”

The musicians are going to get down on those steel pans, and it’s almost certain the audience will dig it.

“There will be no assumption that the lights will go down, everyone should sit in their seats and be quiet,” Richardson said. “That’s not the case for our Steel Band Festival.”

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