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Kim Loy Wong - Taking pan to the Americans

Another When Steel Talks Exclusive - by Hollis Clifton
Kim Loy Hi Landers Steel Orchestra
Kim Loy Hi Landers Orchestra


“I was walking down the street one day in Trinidad with some drums. This man then came up and asked me if I’d show him how to make them. So I took him to my backyard and he made a movie of me working on a drum.”

It turned out that the man with the movie camera was the famous folk singer/banjo player Peter Seeger (1956).  He was interested in the distinctive music style because he saw it had a potential for helping ghetto kids.

So said Kim Loy Wong recently in a telephone interview from Houston, Texas on Pan Diaspora with Hollis Clifton on WACK Radio 90.1FM.  Wong is credited as being one of the men who originally brought steelband music to the United States during the ‘50s. In fact by his own admission he informed listeners across the world that through the assistance of Folkways Records he went to the United States in 1959 – leaving behind his own band in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad - The Highlanders - where he was the tuner, arranger-cum-manager.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Kim Loy Wong
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Kim Loy Wong

In response to a question from Clifton on the content of the film Wong responded that it was a 16mm, 15 minutes, black & white entitled “Music From Oil Drums” by Peter and his brother Toshi Seeger. It is a detailed documentation of steeldrums, including scenes on how they are made, tuned, played etc. - of special value to school groups, and others interested in making and playing the instruments.  It also holds interest for folklore enthusiasts, musicologists, anthropologists, and general audiences.  In 1958 the film won the “Chris” award for excellence of Production, Information and Education; it was also nominated for the EFLA (Educational Film Library Association) award, 1959.

The film presents Pete Seeger (who wrote a manual for playing steel drums) visiting steel drums makers and players in trinidad

The film was produced in conjunction with an instructional manual by Kim Loy Wong which was co-authored with Pete Seeger, entitled “The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong” - the first steelpan book ever documented.

The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong

Kim revealed that his entire life was dedicated to the playing, making and teaching of the steelpan. He organized and was a member of the first teenage steelband in Trinidad in the early 1940s, called the “East Side Kids.” Their mentors were the inventors of the Steelpan who they watched play in the yard behind his father’s shop in Port-of-Spain. From there he moved on to playing and leading various bands till he started the Hi Landers.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Kim Loy Wong
KLW’s Delinquent Youth Steel Band Group

On arrival in New York Wong wasted no time in starting over a dozen Steel Drum programs for delinquent/ghetto children ranging from 5 years old to late teens. These included the Henry Street Settlement, Educational Alliance on South Broadway, Leak & Watts in Yonkers, Dr. White Centre in Brooklyn, Graham School in Yonkers and Children’s Village. W.I.T.I. Graham School and Children’s Village are two of the schools that survived the Government cutbacks in the late 70s and may still be in successful operation to date.

Early in 1960 Kim Loy Wong started rehearsing with some of the young people at the University Settlement on New York’s lower East Side. Within three months they were playing for dances and other occasions around New York City.

In the good old days Wong’s teaching of the steelpan in Queens, New York, included the likes of Andy and Jeff Narell, sons of social worker Murray Narell.

Wong later became the steeldrum instructor at Wiltwick School for Boys outside of New York where the music was useful in providing therapy to the mentally and behaviourally-challenged child.  He also worked with a number of other correctional institutions “including jail,” he explained.

Kim worked the road with the late Liberace in Carnegie Hall and at Madison Square Garden among other places. He’s worked at Café Wha’ in Greenwich Village with Richard Prior and Richi Havens, and opened for such greats in the music industry like Ike and Tina Turner, Dionne Warwick, Stan Kenton, The Rolling Stones and John Lennon, to name a few. He’s entertained for first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalyn Carter.

Trinidad Pan Masters of San Antonio
The Trinidad Panmasters

Wong felt he had had enough of New York and thus moved to San Antonio, Texas (1980) where, he reckoned, was a good place to raise his kids.  It was also a good place to organize another band. This led to the crystallization of the Trinidad Panmasters which included two of his sons, some teenagers from his neighbourhood and “another guy” from Trinidad and Tobago.  Within a short space of time The Trinidad Panmasters became the hottest band in San Antonio with more engagements than they could manage.

The Smithsonian Institute’s Centre for Folklife & Cultural Heritage honored the illustrious Trinidadian in 2001 acknowledging him as “an important figure in American and World Music.” Wong was credited for introducing the Steel Drum to American Music as a “truly innovative development in our musical culture.” They go on to credit his initial involvement in New York for “promoting all types of youth bands of diverse backgrounds to adopt the new instrument, and adapt it to their musical, dance and parading traditions.”

Thanks to Mr. Wong’s pioneering work, the playing of the steeldrum has spread from street parades in New York City to concerts in Kennedy Center, and its use in traditions as diverse as gospel and classical music. His contribution is recognized by the presence of his work in our national (music) collections, and deemed “an American treasure by the Library of Congress and the White House.”  This, according to Dr. Richard Kurin, Director of the Smithsonian Institute.

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EDITED for formal publication by When Steel Talks

by Hollis Clifton
Pan Diaspora Visionary

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