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Steel Panist Andy Narell
Speaks on Latest Project

Tatoom - Music for Steel Orchestra

Andy Narell has been on a fascinating  musical journey with the steelpan instrument for more than 4 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.

WST:  Tatoom?  What does it mean?  What is its significance to this project?

Andy Narell:  It's just the sound of the first two notes of the song, the bass entrance.  Not really significant at all.  


WST:     What made you do this project at this time?

Andy Narell: 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 record. 


WST:     What distinguishes it from your other projects?

Andy Narell: 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.


WST:     Are you displeased with the current music available for and performed by steel orchestras in general?

Andy Narell: '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 mannettesteeldrums.


WST:     Who is your target audience - If any?

Andy Narell: 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.


WST:     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?

Andy Narell: 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. 


WST:    Do you expect university/college orchestras to perform the music of Tatoom? or more urban orchestras like those in New York, UK and Trinidad?

Andy Narell: 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  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.


WST:     Would you like see the music of Tatoom considered for panorama?

Andy Narell: 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. 


WST:     What are you expectations for Tatoom?

Andy Narell: '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.


WST:     How many units/downloads would marketing and business folks like to see moved to consider Tatoom a success?

Andy Narell: 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 grateful. 

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.


WST:     At 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?

Andy Narell: 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.


WST:     Why play all the instruments yourself?  Why not continue to use a steelband like Calypsociation?

Andy Narell: 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. 


WST:     Does arranging for panorama still interest you?

Andy Narell: Very much.  I'd love to do it again. 


WST:     Why did you drop out of the Panorama arranging scene? Was it something you just wanted to try?

Andy Narell: I 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.  


WST:   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?

Andy Narell: 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 different story. 


WST:     With the passing of Clive Bradley, who do you think might next take on the label of "elderly statesman" amongst arrangers?

Andy Narell: I'm 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 created.

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. 


WST:     You've toured globally, is Europe a major Pan hub yet?  On par with, or surpassing New York? 

Andy Narell: I 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 qualifies.

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 that one.


WST:   If not, what do you think is missing from the European scene to catch up to Trinidad and NY?

Andy Narell: 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 hometown national.

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 be unique.


WST:     What yard stick are you using to determine success of Tatoom?

Andy Narell: 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. 


WST:     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 enthusiasts?

Andy Narell: 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 available at  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 mannettesteeldrums for more about the instruments I play.   And you're publishing this interview, which means a lot to me by the way.


WST:     What's next for Andy Narell?

Andy Narell: This 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.  

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