Andy Narell has been on a fascinating
musical journey with the steelpan instrument for more
decades. In a recent interview exclusive with
When Steel Talks,
Andy shares his thoughts on his latest
musical offering named "tatoom" on the Heads
Up International label.
What does it mean? What is its significance to this
Andy Narell: It's
just the sound of the first two notes of the song, the
bass entrance. Not really significant at all.
What made you do this project at this time?
Since 1999, when I did 'Coffee
Street' for the Panorama in Trinidad, I've been working
steadily at composing for steelband. I spent 2 years
working on the music for 'The Passage,' and the better
part of 3 years working on the music for 'Tatoom' -
composing, teaching it to
Calypsociation, and finally
making the record. The timing of the project is simply
that I reached a point where the music was ready to
What distinguishes it from your other projects?
Every project is different, and
this one is pretty special for me. I worked harder on
this album than on any other I've done. 'Tatoom' is a
continuation of what I was working on with 'The Passage'
- steelband music with soloists - but I tried to keep
extending the range of what I'm doing with that. There
is more writing for the steelband that sounds like jazz
soloing, and recording the album one instrument at a
time, playing all the pans myself, was a real
challenge. It gave me a lot more control over the sonic
quality that I'm looking for and I think I've taken a
big step forward in that department.
Are you displeased with the current music available
for and performed by steel orchestras in general?
'Displeased' is not the word I
would choose, as if the steelbands are supposed to be
pleasing me, which is a joke. But yeah, I think there's
very little of anything that I would call 'new music'
for steelband being done, and I'm very unhappy about
that. Trinidad is supposed to be setting the standard
for steelband music, yet touring steelbands from
Trinidad play the same kind of repertoire they've been
playing for the last 30 years. Panorama has become a
venue where the quality of the music doesn't even
matter, much less any attempt at real innovation, which
you're more likely to get punished for than rewarded.
What's so disheartening about it is that we've just
barely begun to tap the potential of the steelband as a
musical force. Most of what's possible hasn't been
attempted or even imagined. But instead of the best
steelbands in the world trying to outdo each other
creatively, trying to blow people's minds with new
musical ideas, they're content to stage competitions
where everyone basically plays the same thing.
The are a few bright spots. Teaching abroad has given
Ray Holman a lot more opportunities to compose music for
steelband than he had in Trinidad. Boogsie has used the
music festival as a venue to compose another style of
music. Unfortunately that amounts to about one
commission every two years.
Once a year in
July Ellie Mannette hosts a steelband
workshop in Morgantown, West Virginia. Last year the
advanced band (45 players - and they're good, too)
learned 5 original pieces - 2 by me, and one each by my
brother Jeff, Tom Miller, and Alan Lightner. At the
final concert, they played a beautiful set of new music
for steelband. Ray Holman will be back this year I
think, so we'll be hitting it even harder. People
interested should go to
Who is your target audience - If any?
Anybody who will listen,
basically. But different kinds of albums appeal to
different people. Obviously with 'Tatoom' I'm hoping to
reach people that play pan or that at least have an
active interest in steelband music. On the other hand
there's a jazz-listening public that is interested in
what I do and I'm hoping to get them interested in this
music, and get them hooked on this amazing instrument we
call the steelband.
The global steelpan audience is increasingly made up
of many members of the 'much younger generation'
(teenagers and 'under thirty') - do you take this
into account when you put material together /
compose - for your music projects?
No, and yes. This album was
obviously not written and recorded with commercial
success in mind, or with any idea about how to sell it
to young people. But I hope the kids will think that my
musical ideas are hip enough to listen to, that they'd
see me as a guy who doesn't stay in a comfort zone
musically, rather one who keeps growing and trying new
things. Which is basically the same way I hope to
appeal to older people. I want people to expect to hear
something new every time they pick up one of my cds, and
I hope to deliver on that promise.
you expect university/college orchestras to perform
the music of Tatoom? or more urban orchestras like
those in New York, UK and Trinidad?
University bands are already
playing some of it, and when I finish the scores and get
everything published, they'll be playing all of it
probably (the scores are available from www.ramajay.com).
The same goes for the music from 'The Passage,' which
has been getting played a lot the past few years. I
haven't had much interest yet from the bands in New
York, UK, and Trinidad, but I hope that changes.
Would you like see the music of Tatoom considered
Actually I wrote 'Appreciation'
(the last track on the album) for the 2000 Panorama, so
it's already been played there. I'm afraid the rest of
the music on the album might not fit the occasion.
What are you expectations for Tatoom?
'Expectations' is an odd word for
me in this instance. 'Hopes' and 'fears' would be more
like it. I don't think much about sales as an indicator
of success, but I'm always hoping that my albums will
have an impact and not go unnoticed. I feel fortunate
to be in a position where I'm composing, playing, and
recording my own music, but if my records bomb and
nobody likes them I'll be looking for other kinds of
work. So I have a lot riding on these records. It
would be really hard to explain all my hopes and fears
about putting out my albums - by the time I finish
working on them I can only hear what I did wrong. On
the other hand, I hope everyone else thinks it's
brilliant. In the end, a record is like a message in a
bottle - you never know where it will land and who will
listen to it. I hope this music finds an audience that
enjoys it and finds it meaningful, and that it changes
the way people think about steelband music.
How many units/downloads would marketing and
business folks like to see moved to consider Tatoom
We haven't had that discussion.
I'm fortunate to be associated with a record label (Headsup
International) that's run by a guy (Dave Love) who
believes in my music. We're working together to try to
promote my music, but unlike most of the record
companies, who set sales goals and then either drop the
artists who aren't meeting them, or pressure the artists
to adapt their music to the market, he has totally
supported me no matter what I want to do. I learned
some hard lessons from previous record deals, and now I
finance the recording of my albums myself, so recording
budgets are never an issue between us. That's very
important because it allows me artistic freedom, but
that still doesn't guarantee that you're going to have a
record label behind you, and for that I'm really
Having said all that, I'll tell you that it's really
hard to sell cds these days. I had a stretch in the
late eighties and early nineties where I could sell
between 40,000 and 60,000 copies of an album. These
days I'm stuck in the 5,000 - 15,000 range, which makes
it extremely difficult to even make back the money spent
making the record, much less be compensated for all the
time and effort. I try not analyze the numbers too
closely, because the logical conclusion might be to stop
making records, which is not an option. I'm doing what
I want to do and there's food on the table and I put my
kids through school, so I'm happy.
this juncture in your career - what are
the similarities between yourself, and your record
label (Heads-Up - Dave Love), in what you
are looking for - to regard Tatoom a success? What
are the differences?
Obviously we both want the record
to sell. As I said before, what makes this such a
special relationship is that Dave Love has allowed me to
keep putting the music first, put out whatever music I
want to do, and he's stayed in my corner no matter what
the sales are. And the whole marketing team at Headsup
have really had to adapt to what I'm giving them.
Promoting an album of music for steel orchestra with
jazz soloists is not easy, but the feeling I get from
everyone is that they're into the music and proud to be
working on it. 'The Passage' was probably the first
steelband record to get played by jazz radio, and I hope
we can build on that.
Why play all the instruments yourself? Why not
continue to use a steelband like Calypsociation?
Actually I didn't plan it that
way. I spent more than 2 years teaching this music to
Calypsociation - 25 players - and I'd planned to make
the record with them. Unfortunately, I had some serious
problems with the bandleader/drummer and it was having a
really negative effect on the music and on my peace of
mind. I recorded the band live and wasn't satisfied
with the feeling of the performances, so I decided to
start all over and the whole project split in two. I
lost a lot of players, and realized that to do the album
I'd have to play all the guitar/cellos, tenor bass, and
bass pans, which I hadn't done much of for the past 10
or 12 years. It was daunting, considering that I was
dealing with 73 minutes of difficult music.
As is often the case with adversity, it turned out to be
a blessing in disguise. It was a big challenge, and I
loved playing all the different pans again. I spent a
lot of time on the road so I could get access to Ellie
Mannette's best pans, and I carried a portable
studio in my backpack (macbook, disk drive, mbox, apogee
digital converter, a mic, and some cables). Recording
the pans one at a time allowed me to capture the beauty
of each instrument, and to have real control at the
mix. The most difficult part about recording a
steelband is the leakage - the sound of one instrument
getting into the microphone of another. This album
didn't have any leakage to deal with because it was
recorded one instrument at a time. The challenge of
doing it this way is to come up with a recording that
sounds like a live performance, and I think we did it.
To start with, Mark Walker and Jean Philippe Fanfant
laid down some beautiful drum tracks, then Luis Conte
played congas and percussion. They were playing to a
computer sequence and one pan track for reference, but
they knew they'd have to play like they were driving a
30 piece band. Once I had them recorded, I put some
iron on and went to work on the pans, which took a few
months. Then the soloists - Mike Stern on guitar, David
Sanchez on tenor sax, and myself.
Ultimately, I think overdubbing is probably the best way
for me to get the performance and the sound I'm looking
for, but playing live is another story. Nothing takes
the place of a steelband. I've got a 15 piece band
again that can play the music from 'Tatoom.' We're
going to play at The New Morning in Paris on June 23.
Does arranging for panorama still interest you?
Very much. I'd love to do it
Why did you drop
out of the Panorama arranging scene? Was it
something you just wanted to try?
didn't intentionally drop out. I just don't get any
calls to come down and arrange. And yeah, I wanted to
try it, and I liked it a lot, and wanted to continue.
It's a mystery to me, knowing that I did it twice, went
to the finals both times in spite of everybody saying
the music was avant garde, that nobody seems to want to
take a chance on me. My best guess is that it's because
they all know that I don't care about winning, that I
think that the competition is killing the music. I
think most of the bands would rather have a guy who
doesn't know anything about composing music but who
wants to win, rather than hire a guy with an attitude
problem like me. You know what Pat Bishop said to me
live on the radio at Panorama? 'You don't get it Andy.
You still think it's about the music. Panorama is about
winning. That's all anybody cares about.' Something
like that anyway.
There are only
a handful of people who have walked the planet, with
the title "panorama champion arranger" - would you
like to have that in your resume some day?
I really don't care. Winning competitions has nothing
to do with creating music as far as I'm concerned, so
the winning part doesn't interest me. My motivation for
success in the competition was that I knew that playing
in the finals of Panorama was the way I could reach the
people interested in steelband music. You have the big
live crowds on the track and in the stands, the
television and radio coverage, the videotaping, and the
cd of the finals. 'Coffee Street' is known by
practically everybody that listens to steelband music,
not bad for a tune that took 8th place. But if we
hadn't played it in the finals, it would have been a
With the passing
of Clive Bradley, who do you think might next take
on the label of "elderly statesman" amongst
glad you asked me that, because there's a 79 year old
guy (9 years older than Bradley) called Neville Jules
who is 'The Elder Statesman' of arrangers as far as I'm
concerned, as he was when Bradley was still alive. His
bomb tunes are some of the sweetest steelband music ever
But if you insist on talking about Panorama music, there
are a few guys that have been around since the 60's that
have continued to make beautiful music - Beverly
Griffith, Earl Rodney, and Ray Holman are the guys that
come to mind. I don't know if any of them want to be
called 'elderly' though.
globally, is Europe a major Pan hub yet? On
par with, or surpassing New York?
wrote the music for Calypsociation to play at the 2002
European Steelband Festival, and we had 60 players from
Paris. There were a couple of other big bands from
France, as well as big bands from Germany, Sweden,
Denmark, Finland, London... Switzerland has about 150
small bands, and sent a 60 piece band to the 2000 World
Pan Festival in Trinidad. If having active steelbands
is your criteria for being a hub, Europe definitely
To compare it to New York is like talking about apples
and oranges. The New York pan scene is primarily based
in Brooklyn and is an extension of Trinidadian culture.
For the most part they hire the same arrangers and play
the same music as the Trinidad bands.
European bands are doing their own thing, with varying
success. I'm not sure whether you're talking about
quality or quantity when you say 'surpassing' New York,
so I'm going to be diplomatic (for a change) and skip
not, what do you think is missing from the European
scene to catch up to Trinidad and NY?
Let me turn that question on its head, ok? Trinis can
play pan. We know that. It's in the culture, and it's
in the blood. 14 year old kids who don't know the
difference between a C and a C# can come into the
panyard and nail a Panorama tune. There's no lack of
talent. The problem is the music isn't going anywhere.
It's stuck. So the question I would ask you is - when
the pan players all over the world catch up to the
Trinis' ability to play pan, which is happening as we
speak, what are the Trinidad and NY bands going to do
about being left behind musically?
WST Editor responds:
Wow, Andy, that's an interesting question.
Well since you asked - I don't know that the natural,
or end result of the rest of the world catching up
playing-wise with New York or Trinidad pan players,
is them being left behind musically.
That would be presumptuous of me. However, I
do think with more people, globally-speaking,
performing on a higher level, the popularity of the
instrument will increase and penetrate other areas
and markets, that would not normally be accessible to
the New York and Trinidadian pan players.
In addition, with the increased sensitivity to the
instrument, there will be a whole new crop of great
musicians and music available to the public.
It's like basketball - the
popularization of the sport and advancement of other
players globally, has not hurt or diminished the value
of urban players. If anything, there are more
opportunities that did not exist before overseas and
elsewhere for the urban players. Hey, the MVP
of the NBA has been a guy from Canada for the last two
years. So now more Canadians are tuning
in. This is a good thing. The market expands -
there is more opportunity available for everyone involved. Now
Canadian kids are buying and wearing jerseys' of all
the players in the league in addition to there
There is a
difference between New York and Trinidad.
They are similar because they are both youth-oriented
and unbelievably talented. And they are also different
because the kids in New York come from wide and varied
backgrounds and nationalities.
I expect that without artificial means
to block their progress or advancement, the New York
and Trinidadian steelpan musicians will adapt, get
better, change if need be, and take advantage of the
new markets and opportunities. This would be
especially true as the young people in the artform
move with the times. The New York
and Trinidad players have been so far ahead of the
rest of world for so long, I think boredom has set in
while they have waited for rest of the world to
catch up. In the worst case they will continue
to make music that is enjoyable to them and tells
their story. Their music comes from their
experience - be it the hills of Laventille, Hells
Yard or the bowels of Brooklyn - so it will always
What yard stick are you using to determine success
There isn't any one way that I would judge success. I
gave it my all, finished it, and put it out. That's
already a success for me. I believe that making music
is its own reward, and I've learned that it's more
important to me whom I reach and how strongly they feel
about the music than how many people I reach.
Hundreds of thousands of steelpan fans globally
tried to log on to the internet broadcast of the
2007 Panorama, and When Steel Talks routinely
receives hundreds of thousands of unique visitors
over the NY and TnT panorama periods - is there a
system in place for you to take advantage of these
new generation of internet-savvy steelpan music
I just got my Myspace page up and running -
You can get my CDs at
(free worldwide shipping), and download them at the
Itunes store. The scores and parts for this music are
ramajay.com. Internet radio is becoming more of a force, and I'm
getting some play. I'll be getting my own website up
and running in the next few weeks (it's about time) -
(or .net - not sure yet). And you can go to
for more about the instruments I play. And you're
publishing this interview, which means a lot to me by
What's next for
year I figure to be working on a lot of different
projects, as usual. I have gigs with Sakésho, I'll be
teaching and playing as a guest artist with steelbands,
and I have my own steelband based in Paris. I'm playing
at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Capetown, South
Africa at the end of march - a reunion of the original
Caribbean Jazz Project. I've been doing occasional gigs
with Paquito D'Rivera, Flora Purim and Airto Moreira, Maraca, David Rudder, etc and hope to keep those
relationships going. I'm practicing a lot, trying to
learn how to really play jazz. And I've got an idea
for my next album and have started working on it.
on Andy Narell