Global - Promptly at three in the afternoon Central Daylight Time (CDT) in DeKalb, Illinois on the campus of the Northern Illinois University, the first notes were struck in the always much-anticipated annual Spring Steelband concert unfolding this year on April 7, in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall. And it would be 5:50 CDT before the final jubilant notes were struck with an encore of NIU Steel Band’s delivery of Barry Mannette’s arrangement of “Fantastic Friday” - the 2013 Trinidad & Tobago road march by Super Blue.
Robert Greenidge performs with NIU Steel
But, long before those moments, there was much music in store. That first selection—“Mas Que Nada” by Sergio Mendez and Brazil 66, as arranged by Khan Cordice—garnered much generous applause from what sounded like a well-attended event, for the All University Steelband. And there were even louder cheers when Khion De Las took the mic immediately after, to inform that those who had just laid down that first selection, were relatively new to the steel band instrument and art form; some had never played before, or had just one semester with the pan under their belt. De Las then took his place in front of the band as he steered them through his own arrangement of Castle on a Cloud.
Next, the focus turned to Associate Professor of Music, Head of Steelpan Studies and Co-director of the NIU Steelband Liam Teague, with his signature, flawless flow, tinkling notes on the pan as others tickle the ivory. The NIU Steelband then infused the musical imagery outlined by Teague for a well-rounded interpretation of “Panoramic,” the latter’s own composition. Of note during the concert, was a fantastic solo by Khan Cordice. Giving vocal insight into music icon Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” the next selection for NIU Steelband, was Percussion faculty member Michael Mixtacki accompanying himself on drums, and whose love of music of the African Diaspora is now his life’s work. Mixtacki then united with the full steelpan chorus on congas as they gave spirited life to Santamaria’s work.
One of the world’s legendary panists, the mighty Robert Greenidge, followed, bringing suave sophistication up close and center, propelling the show to yet another level. With flitting hands at times both a sonic and music blur, Greenidge plays the double second instrument like a tenor. After all these years, When Steel Talks can state without reservation that there is absolutely no one else who has the “touch,” dexterity, and refined elegance on the instrument like Robert Greenidge does. As a solo performer, Greenidge is consistent in his excellence on Pan – every time. Greenidge was accompanied by a trio on bass, keyboards and drums.
Co-director of the NIU Steelband and the craftsman and tuner of all the instruments in the University’s steel orchestra arsenal, Clifford Alexis, then performed a solo intro to the 2013 song “More than an Oil Drum,” taken up thereafter by the steel orchestra en masse. After more than seventy minutes of fine steelpan music, it was time for a brief intermission. For those who would crave even more Pan, the opportunity to take a bit of it with them when they left was presented by the availability on sale of CDs of both NIU Steelband and Robert Greenidge.
The All University Steelband, identifiable by their all-black attire and interspersed with members of the NIU Steelband opened the show’s second segment with the Josanne Francis-arrangement of “Mario Themes.” The full NIU Steelband followed, under the guidance of guest conductor Dr. Ronnie Wooten, with the classical Symphony No. 4, Mvt. IV, “Italian.” Robert Greenidge also came together with the NIU Steelband on stage, then himself took the spotlight once again, mesmerizing everyone present, including band members who stood staring intently while the music maestro flowed effortlessly. Greenidge completed his dazzling concert routine, with his trio in accompaniment. Barry Mannette’s re-interpretation of Alicia Keys’ “Doesn’t Mean Anything” was then brought to the fore, complete with guest vocalist. It is rare that a steel orchestra backing a vocalist is appropriately mixed by engineers so that the combination is appreciated, and the musicians sound indeed as intended - a true accompanying band, rather than the vocalist being ‘out front,’ and the band practically non-existent in the scenario. It was indeed enjoyable to find the former being true in this instance.
So – was it “South Boy Pan Man Wine?” Or “Gangnam Style?” Whichever you prefer, it was music to the ears and melody to the feet of like PSY, struck up the world-famous dance ode, as arranged by Khion De Las, who, incidentally, appeared to be the only one who dared attempt the equally famous steps. De Las then stepped out front as the orchestra simulated a pseudo classical movement within the piece, before a return to its up-tempo climax. And no, we did not get to see Associate Professor of Music, Head of Steelpan Studies and Co-director of the NIU Steelband Liam Teague, doing it “Gangnam Style.” Neither did the music pace lapse as the band followed up with an energetic presentation of Teague’s arrangement of “Vibes.”
Before the curtains came down, Teague took the time to acknowledge all whose work made the show possible, including those behind the scenes. The Head of Steelpan Studies expressed gratitude to Lester Trilla, president of Trilla Steel Drum Corporation who has been the benefactor of the steel orchestra, supplying drums for manufacturing instruments, scholarships, and more - along with Professor Al O’Connor, whose vision led to the creation of the University’s steelband back in 1973 - and many more. Teague then thanked Clifford Alexis whom he described as his “best friend in the world.” In a lighthearted segue, Teague appeared to take an incoming call on his cell, which directed him to instruct the audience that they were to be on their feet, dancing, for the last music session of the evening. Not that the encouragement was necessary – the orchestra’s fiery performance of Barry Mannette’s arrangement of Fantastic Friday, complete with encore, turned the proceedings in the Hall into a scintillating Sunday of Steel and Soca.
NIU’s 2013 Spring Steelband concert put on full display several music genres: Latin Jazz, classical, soca, contemporary, mainstream pop, African rhythms and more. The University’s annual Spring and Fall steelband events have become staples in the calendar of music lovers, and for those not able to be there in person, the shows are streamed live online and savored by people around the world. Another Spring, another steelband concert from NIU, and the music world is much the richer for the wealth of steelpan music and skilled musicians showcased for almost three hours.
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