For a Band of Steel-Pan Drummers, Summer Means Practice, Practice, Practice
Their racks of steel-pan drums strung together, the musicians of the Despers USA band trudged alongside as the entire operation — drum racks, stage, cooking tent, portable toilet — rolled down Washington Avenue in Brooklyn last weekend. They were under tremendous pressure, but there was no way to rush to their new home with that teetering cargo.
“It took us over an hour,” said Odie Franklin, an arranger for the band, and the dean of a public high school for 10 months of the year. “We were blocking traffic.”
Last week, days before New York’s championship competition for steel-pan bands, Despers USA lost the rental deal on the yard it had been using for rehearsals, a patch of vacant ground next door to a flat-fix storefront on Classon Avenue, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. So they relocated a mile away, in a space on the corner of Franklin Avenue and Montgomery Street.
One lot or another, it hardly mattered: Steel pan is a sound and heritage that has already traveled more than 2,000 miles to reach Brooklyn, and it is still going strong.
The members mounted a stage and strung lights. During breaks, they ate shark sandwiches in pan-fried bread and sipped cool shandy beverages. A team of auxiliaries with sewing machines and scissors worked on the costumes that the performers would wear this Saturday — for the women, frilled shirts, bandannas and long skirts; and for the men, buttoned-up shirts and straw hats. At the other end of the lot, a shower of sparks flew from a welding gun as a man fixed a drum rack injured in the move. Seven days a week, all summer, about 70 Despers musicians from age “6 to the elders,” as the bandleader said, arrived to practice in late afternoon and stayed until midnight. They played and perfected licks to a 10-minute song for which there was no score — just ears tuned to steel pans that could purr spring water tenor sounds, or boom the bass of an August thunderstorm.
The pan yard has a rhythm that ticks down the days of summer.
East of Prospect Park, Brooklyn has 10 such yards where steel-pan music — first created on empty oil drums on the twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago — rings through warm nights. An 11th yard is in Uniondale, on Long Island. Each yard is occupied by a band that will put on a 10-minute performance at Panorama, behind the Brooklyn Museum, on Saturday evening, part of the West Indian celebration held every Labor Day weekend.
“It’s not just competition,” Daryl Gamory, the captain of Despers, said. “It’s all-out musical war.”
Commercial sponsors are rare; the steel-pan enterprise rides on sweat equity and high spirits. “For a steel-pan band in Brooklyn during the summer, pan is their life,” said Sheman Thwaites, a tenor player with Despers. “It’s a world within itself. It actually is bringing the culture of that small twin island country in the Caribbean to New York and recreating it for the months leading up to what you will see on Eastern Parkway, as well as what you will see at the Panorama competition on Saturday. They eat, sleep, drink steel pan.”
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In the second week of September, Alyssa Cain, who began playing in junior high school, will be taking a final set of exams for her nursing credentials. She spends the first three hours of the day studying, she said. “Then it’s coming over to the yard and practice,” she said; she serves as the section leader of the tenor pans. “My job is to drill my section, to make sure they have it clean, crisp, everybody is playing as one. We’re all about one band, one sound.”
Bob Telson, a music composer for theater and film who counts himself as the only non-Caribbean player in the band, marvels at how the music is passed along. Mr. Franklin, the arranger of the song, teaches or sings each part. “I’m a pianist, and finding the notes on the pan is very challenging — then the music is hard, even if you do know where the notes are,” he said.
Over the last week, the band has been working on the introduction to its piece, “Play It Local.” The beginning is customarily the last piece threaded into the composition, Mr. Thwaites said.
“The intro kind of summarizes what you are going to hear throughout the song,” he said. “It’s no different than what Leonard Bernstein or someone of that nature would have done with a classical piece or a show tune.”
Glenda Spencer, a supporter of the band who spends most of the year in London, savors the ambience of the yard — its smells, passions and sound.
“It’s all part of something you love,” Ms. Spencer said. “Money can’t buy this.”
It was time to run through the introduction, and Mr. Gamory, sweating from a million logistical labors, climbed to the center of the stage.
“Ready?” he shouted. “Here we go: One. Two.” He counted off four more ticks on a cowbell, like a hallway clock, and the music burst into a welcome summer storm.
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