BANGING THE DRUM
Caribbean Steel Keeps Rhythm
The Caribbean beat is carried across the water to the shores of New York. Tribune Photo by Douglas Gattuso
By Douglas Gattuso
It was a gray and rainy Saturday, but you wouldn’t know it by the smiles and dancing of the people attending a concert by the Caribbean American Sports and Cultural Youth Movement Steel Orchestra at the Museum of the City of New York.
If one hadn’t heard a steel orchestra before it might be hard to believe the sounds were coming from hitting pans and 55-gallon oil drums. Melodies, chords, and various bass music flowed so beautifully and the musicians played so effortlessly that it wasn’t until orchestra captain Travis Roberts broke down the instruments individually that a first time listener could be convinced the sound wasn’t being dubbed in electronically. But playing them they were, as the band flowed from one song to another, including such standards as “Stand By Me,” “Fools Rush In” and “Hot, Hot, Hot.”
“When you hear this music your spirit soars,” said Michelle Louissant of St. Albans, who brought her children to the event. Of course the influence of American music resonated with an interactive part the band did with the audience involving the popular “Whoop, There It Is!” At one point almost the entire museum auditorium was dancing and the band received several standing ovations.
“The Steel Orchestra came from Trinidad and Tobago in the late 30’s and early 40’s,” said Roberts with a smile. “There is some dispute over who started it, no one documented the steel drum movement,” he said with humility seeming as though he was trying not to start an argument over where and who started it. “Resourcefulness and improvisation are big parts of the Steel Drum Movement,” said Roberts.
The Steel Band Movement has deep political significance. As the steel band became more prominent in society, Trinidad and Tobago transformed itself from a colony to an independent nation. Firmly rooted in Queens today, steel drum music can be heard in the South Queens neighborhoods of Richmond Hill, Woodhaven, Ozone Park and Jamaica, where thousands of Caribbean Americans have made their homes.
The music represents a powerful form of communication as well as an example of guerrilla art, the ability to take whatever resources are available and transform them into beautiful sounds. With a looming oil crisis today the playing of music with the empty oil drums seemed to take on an ironic twist.
Since its inception in 1983 as a nonprofit organization CASYM has provided academic, recreational, social, and cultural activities for young people in New York.