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Legend Hugh Borde and Many Others Come Together to Pay Tribute to Pan in Michigan

By Lesley-Anne Graham
All photos by and copyright - Matty Dread


2006 Michigan Steel Drum Festival



Detroit - The weather in Detroit on June 17th was absolutely tropical, with cloudless skies, high humidity and temperatures reaching into the 90s - the perfect setting for the first annual Michigan Steel Drum Festival. High atop the roof of Hockeytown Café on Woodward Avenue, history was made as pannist Hugh Borde and many others heated up an already broiling rooftop with 14 fantastic hours of steel pan music.

Although the steel drum has been played in Michigan since Hugh Borde first performed at a Mackinac Island conference in 1964, the 2006 Michigan Steel Drum Festival was the first time that an entire festival of steel drum music had ever taken place in Michigan. According to Michael Kernahan, one of the other early pioneers of steel drum music, "The festival was the greatest thing to ever happen to pan in Michigan."

Over 600 people braved the city heat to see eight different Michigan-based steelbands perform. While the bartenders kept everyone well hydrated, Hockeytown chef Matt Thompson served up a tantalizing array of Caribbean-inspired dishes, including a mango-infused "Calypso Burrito" and mouth-watering barbeque jerk chicken.

The Gratitude Steel Band kicked off the festival with a pleasing array of familiar tunes, including several gospel pieces such as "Lord, You Are Good" and "The Glory of The Lord Rise." The family group, led by Charles Russell, is well known throughout the Metro-Detroit area for their high-energy and engaging performances.

As the festival volunteers were taking one band's equipment off the stage and moving in another's, DJ Billy the Kidd kept everyone in a Caribbean frame of mind with a mix of soca, reggae, and calypso songs pumping through the speakers. With festival co-director Tony Wilson behind both the sound and the soundboard, even guests taking refuge from the heat in the air-conditioned building could hear the bands playing.

But even the blazing sun couldn't keep pan fans from the exposed rooftop as Michigan State's Hard Bargain Steelband and the Oakland University Pan-Jumbies took to the stage. Hard Bargain, directed by Marie Kujenga, is part of Michigan State's Community Music Program. The group performed a featured arrangement of Louis Bonfi's "Black Orpheus" from the film of the same name, and several Ray Holman compositions including "Keep it Nice."

As the mercury continued to rise, Oakland University's Pan-Jumbies opened their set with a sizzling performance of Andy Narell's "The Passage." The 20-member strong group, directed by Mark Stone, is comprised mostly of music education students from Oakland. Pan man Michael Kernahan made a guest appearance with the Pan-Jumbies as they switched to playing old-style pan-round-de-neck drums that he had built for the group. Kernahan, a masterful tuner, arranger, and performer, was one of the original members of the Trinidad Tripoli Steel Orchestra that toured with Liberace and received a Grammy Award in the late 1960's. The group eventually settled in Michigan in the early 1970's and began popularizing the art form in the state.

The Steelheads Steelband continued the marathon festival and was the only group to incorporate the vibraphone and marimba into their set. This Flint-based group, led by James Coviak, was made up of performers from Mott Middle College High School, Mott Community College, and the University of Michigan-Flint. The Steelheads played "Sea of Stories," the second Andy Narell tune of the day, along with a virtuosic arrangement of Mike Mainieri's "Beirut."

With the sun going but the heat of the day still hanging on, Southpaw Isle Steelband managed to make it hotter still with their opener "Capivara," a 7/8 samba by Hermento Pasqual, featuring a solo by drummer Matt Lemons. Kernahan also joined Southpaw as a guest artist on a number of pieces, including the Kitchener classic "Steel Band Music" and Ray Holman's "Mariella's Dance." Southpaw's soloing prowess was the highlight of the set, with expressive solos by Kernahan as well as leader Mark Stone, who improvised over an original tune, aptly titled "Red Hot."

Things got joyful as dusk settled in. With the day's fierce heat merely a memory, the air was still thick with humidity as Ralph Taylor's Caribbean Pans of Joy hit the stage. The group played "All Inclusive" by the Calypsonian "Explainer," along with "Soca Train" by Bungi Garlin. Caribbean Pans of Joy, a community group based in Detroit, is an extension of Taylor's award-winning company Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions.

The festival's peak was a moving tribute to Hugh Borde, Michael Kernahan, and Ralph Taylor, the pioneers of steel pan and Trinidadian culture in Michigan. The tribute began as Hugh Borde reminisced about touring with Liberace, performing on the Ed Sullivan show, and the bacchanal of life on the road. As if on cue, fireworks from the baseball stadium across the street lit up the night sky as festival co-directors Mark Stone, Ian Ferguson and Lyndon Sorzano presented lifetime achievement awards to Borde, Kernahan, and Taylor.

"Presenting the awards was the highlight of the festival for me," said Stone. "The festival committee had kept the awards ceremony a secret and it was great to see the surprised looks on their faces. They were the pioneers of this art form in Michigan and they deserve to be honored."

By then the sun was long gone, but things were plenty hot on the dance floor as people wined the night away to the sounds of Lyndon Sorzano's group Uprizin. The group wrapped up the festival with a set of jazz and popular tunes including "You Don't Know My Name" by Alicia Keys, with Lauren Alexis' vivacious vocals leading the way. Uprizin also performed an original piece by Michael Kernahan called "Mess Around," and showcased Sorzano's skillful soloing on the double seconds.

With Michigan being one of the first states in North America to embrace the steel drum, it makes sense to have a festival in Michigan dedicated to pan.

"It was great to see the way the festival brought the steel drum community together. From the '60's to today, our festival really brought things full-circle," Tony Wilson commented.

"It was a great beginning and we hope to continue to develop the event and develop the art form to a high standard," said Kernahan of the festival's success. The plans for next year include bringing in more bands to perform, as well as utilizing Hockeytown's patio area in addition to the rooftop to allow for more people to gain access to the festival. With so many incredibly talented steel drummers living in Michigan, a steel drum enthusiast's odds of finding their own piece of paradise just got a lot better.


Contact organizer Mark Stone for additional event information.  Email: mark@jumbierecords.com

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-From The News Desk of  When Steel Talks


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Copyright 2006 -  Basement Recordings, Inc.   All Rights Reserved.



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