|Steel Drum Band celebrates 10 rhythmic years|
The UND Steel Drum Band is now celebrating its 10th anniversary, which still surprises founder and professor, Mike Blake. “It’s hard to believe—we started in the summer of 1998 literally with an idea on the back of an envelope,” said Blake, director of jazz studies and a prime-time fixture in academic percussion circles who’s been teaching full-time in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of Music since 1979.
"In the summer of 1998, (Grand Forks Red River High School music teacher) Brad Sherwood and (Red River High School theater and speech instructor) Dean Opp approached me because I was teaching jazz improvisation in the Summer Performing Arts (SPA) program, in which they’re both involved,” Blake said.
“They were looking for ideas for something besides another voice group,” Blake said. “So I suggested a steel pan band because I’d really fallen in love with the music after doing a steel band camp. Also I got to like it from listening many times to the steel band playing at Walt Disney World’s Pirates of the Caribbean.”
That idea took off with funding from the Myra Foundation and about $15,000 in steel drums. Th SPA musical team agreed to store the drums at UND in the off-season. So Blake put them to use with a group of his top percussionists as the UND Steel Drum Band. They’ve been knocking ‘em out every fall semester since, with groups averaging 14 players (this year’s group at 16 is the largest ever).
Today's ensemble still plays on that original set of pans made from the historically accurate steel 50-gallon oil drums, Blake said. “Today, pans aren’t made from oil drums anymore—they’re very technically engineered out of specialty steel. A full set of top-end pans today would run you close to $70,000 plus all the stands, playing equipment, and instrument cases.”
The Steel Drum Band is actually part of the Music Department’s Percussion Ensemble. “The Band comprises our most talented percussionists, and they perform a variety of styles including calypso, latin, popular, and traditional Carribbean music,” said Blake, whose Jazz Ensemble has twice been invited to participate in the celebrated Swiss Montreux Festival.
The biggest cost associated with a steel drum band using the traditional oil-drum pans is tuning, said Blake, who's also in demand nationally as a clinician/performer. “It costs about $2500 every two years to bring in an expert to retune these complex instruments,” said Blake, who has played in backup bands for the likes of Bob Hope, Martin Short, The Smothers Brothers, Della Reese, Jack Jones, Vicki Carr, and many more. "We raise the money by playing several extra gigs a year, for example, at the big CAPPA conference at the Alerus in September."
The steel drum as a musical instrument originated in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad just after World War II, and quickly spread throughout the region. It’s now popular worldwide. The steel drum is a toned (musical notes) percussion instrument. The pan is struck with a pair of rubber-tipped sticks, Blake said.
While some bigger schools (such as the University of Akron, where the college-based steel drum band started more than 30 years ago) have ensembles numbering a couple of dozen or more people, there are about 14 players in the UND steel pan ensemble. That includes eight pan players playing three lead pans, six bass pans, two sets of trios, two sets of double seconds. The remaining players are in the so-called “engine room,” home to the drum set, the big congas, cowbells, the shekeres—a big gourd with beads on it—and other noisemakers.
“We actually start out a lot of pieces with the brake drum—yes, it’s a real automotive brake drum,” Blake said. “It’s what sets the pulse for a lot of calypso pieces.”
Monday’s UND Steel Drum Band concert starts at 8 p.m. at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. Ticket prices at the door are $3 for students and seniors; $6 for adults; and $12 for a family pass (two adults, two students).
-- Juan Pedraza, Writer/Editor, University Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 777-6571