You’re back here in the US - what’s Andy Narell up to at the
I have about a month of work here, a mix of guest artist
appearances, teaching and playing with steelbands. This is the
time of year for the University spring concerts, to perform the
music they’ve been working on all year, and I’m visiting some of
the schools that are playing my music. I was at Eastern Kentucky
University, which has a very good steelband, and just finished a
residency with the University of Akron steelband, who are also very
good. There were 1,800 people at the concert - how’s that for a
On your latest project you and noted calypsonian Relator have
teamed up to produce “University of Calypso.” How did that title
Relator and I had been playing together in a variety of
situations, and I was so knocked out by his total artistry, I
asked him if he’d trust me to put a band together around him.
The idea was to get a group of heavy jazz musicians together to
play calypso, with a real calypsonian out front.
He said he’d give it a try and we did a show at Jazz at Lincoln
Center last year . It went so well that we decided immediately to
move forward and record, try to get the project up and running
so that we could play more gigs. The idea to call it the
‘University of Calypso’ came from something I heard him say
onstage at a concert we did at Queens Hall - a tribute to Lord
Kitchener. Relator said that he had been to the University of Kitch
and was proud to be one of its best students. That really
resonated for me. We’re drawing a lot of inspiration for this
project from Kitch’s forays into jazz in the 50’s - he made a
lot of recordings with jazz musicians in London - and calling
this the ‘University of Calypso’ seemed natural, and a name that
we could keep for the band. Calypso school’s in session, and
we’ve got our professor.
WST was fortunate
to catch your live performance with Relator in New York last
June. You struck a special cord with the audience. Are there any
plans for you and Relator to take this show on the road?
The whole idea is to perform live. Records are a losing
proposition financially these days. We recorded so we could get
the music out there to the public and breathe life into the
project. The goal is to be able to play live, tour, keep
developing and improving.
Every listener is going to leave with something different
after listening to this CD. Is there some something that you
would like each listener to leave with?
The beauty and richness that is Calypso, and the love for it
that everybody brought to this recording. The musical
compositions are beautiful, the lyrics are witty and complex,
Relator sings his way through the stories like a master
storyteller, and there’s great chemistry between him and the
band. I’ve been telling everybody to check out the words to the
songs, because they’re so funny and brilliantly composed, and
I have put all the lyrics on my website -
andynarell.net. But I
also wouldn’t want anyone to miss what happened musically on
this date - Relator laying down 13 beautiful live performances
in two days, the way the band is swinging, the amazing solos by Paquito D’Rivera.
This collection is in the true sprit of calypso - beyond the
excellent musical arrangements and performances -- it embraces
part life and culture, part history, part news, and a lot of
humor. It reminds me of a time long ago when as a child, I
remember people gathering around the gramophone listening to the
calypsos to be entertained, while discussing the merits of the
arguments presented by the calypsonian. With so much music to
choose from - how did you decide on what tunes to include on
Besides being a fine composer, Relator is a walking encyclopedia
of classic calypsos. I would venture to say that he knows more
of them than anyone alive today. Some of his tunes were
automatic selections - ‘Gavaskar’ and ‘Food Prices’ are
classics, I wanted to do a steelband arrangement for ‘Pan on
Sesame Street.’ The rest of the tunes that he sings were
selected from the gold mine of calypsos that he has in his head,
and the emphasis on Lord Kitchener’s music was natural, as he is
such a great interpreter of Kitch’s songs. I added Terror’s
‘Sugar for Pan’ and Kitch’s ‘Pan in Harmony’ as instrumentals.
To answer your question about how we decided which ones to do -
before we take the music to the band, he and I got together and
play through the music with just Relator’s guitar and a keyboard
(me). For me it’s non-stop fun, learning new tunes and
ones I’ve been listening to since I was a kid. We pick the ones
we want to do with the band, sketch out an arrangement. Then I
write out charts for the other musicians, and we start
rehearsing with the band.
Where does “University of Calypso” fit in your body
Quite often people ask me ‘what happened to the Caribbean Jazz
Project?’ (the group I co-led with Paquito D’Rivera and Dave
Samuels). While I can tell them the reasons we’re not playing
together in that formation anymore, the real answer for me is
that the idea of the ‘caribbean jazz project’ is ongoing for me. It’s what I do. Playing with Sakésho is a part of that (Mario Canonge and Michel Alibo from Martinique, Jean Philippe Fanfant
from Guadeloupe); ‘The Passage’ and ‘Tatoom,’ - featuring Mike
Brecker, Paquito D’Rivera, Hugh Masekela, Mike Stern, David
Sanchez, Luis Conte, and myself soloing with a steelband - is a
part of that. And putting a jazz band together to play calypso
with Relator is a part of that. It’s another branch of the same
At risk of being
controversial (which has never stopped us
before) Calypso has been relegated, much to many calypso fans’
chagrin, to a seasonal music in the land of its birth - much
like Christmas carols - Trinidad and Tobago (TnT). What is
your take on that?
There’s nothing new about calypso being seasonal music, heard
between Christmas and Carnival. People have been talking about
that for a few decades now. In fact Relator wrote a very funny
calypso called ‘Radio Stations’ about it, with lists of dozens
of artists who were getting all the airplay in Trinidad. The
more recent phenomenon is that even during the Carnival season
you don’t hear calypso music. It’s becoming increasingly
marginalized in its own birthplace.
Every generation has the right to speak to each other, and
tell its story in its own voice - but is the calypso art form ‘a
dead man walking’ in TnT? Given some of the timelessness and
universality of the themes and concerns voiced in many of the
past calypsos you have chosen - it easily could have been 1960 -
or 2009. Why is not the art form embraced more in Trinidad? Should we look at the genre more from a global perspective? Is
the calypso genre about to make a comeback?
I don’t think that calypso is dead as long as there are
calypsonians singing. Obviously there are fewer good calypsos
being created today than in its heyday, but that doesn’t need to
be a death sentence. There are still a number of artists who are
committed to singing and composing calypsos.
I agree with you that the songs we’re choosing to perform are
timeless and universal, and hope that there will be a public
that feels that way too. ‘Food Prices’ sounds as timely now as
it did in 1980, and I hope that the humor in these songs will
touch people everywhere and make them laugh. I think the best
way to describe what’s happening in Trinidad is that the young
people see calypso as their parents’ and grandparents’ music,
and by definition, that’s not hip. But I meet a lot of young Trinis who are impressed by the artistry of the great
calypsonians - the musical compositions, the humor of the
lyrics, the level of singing and musicianship. The same way
young people in the USA are going back to listening to the jazz
artists of their parents’ generation. And I believe that if we
approach calypso music with love and respect and present it in a
sincere way as a living, breathing artform, that people will get
This album is not a remake, and it’s not a pop production trying
to soften up the calypso and make a crossover album for the
masses. Relator is guy who lives this thing, who sings calypso
and composes extempo every day of his life, and in my own way, I
have lived and loved this music since I was a child. My goal for
this project was to surround him with a world class band,
encourage everybody to be creative and have fun, make a
beautiful sounding recording, and let Relator and the calypsos
shine. Our aim is to take this music to a global level, and if
we can be part of calypso making a comeback, that would be a
dream come true.
consistently challenged the normal expectations and accepted
settings for the steelpan instrument. In this regard what’s next
on the horizon for Andy Narell?
Fortunately, right now I have a big project on my plate that’s
very exciting. I’m working with the WDR Big Band in Koln,
Germany. They’re one of the best big bands in the world, they
hire the best arrangers, and recently they’ve been winning
Grammy awards pretty consistently. We’re putting together a
concert of music for steelband and big band - 14 horns, 15-20
pan players, and a rhythm section. I’m composing most of the
music, and we’re bringing Relator in to do some of his tunes and
Kitchener’s music with this 35-piece band behind him.
The WDR band is so versatile - they play so many different
instruments and have experience in so many styles of music. I’m
thinking about the music in terms of it being a 35-piece
orchestra with a steelband at its center, and all the colors of
the woodwind and brass instruments around it.
The concert will be at the Philharmonic Hall of Koln, February
6, 2010, and everything will be recorded and videotaped.
Do you have any thoughts on the G-pan family?
I’m not up to date on the project, but I did see the instruments
in late 2007, about the same time that the prime minister
presented the G-pan to the public as the future of steelband
music. I was not allowed to see the lab where they’re doing the
actual construction, because I refused to sign a confidentiality
agreement, but they brought the instruments out where I could
see them and play them.
First of all, you have to realize that the ideas they’re
pursuing are simultaneously being worked on by pan builders in
other countries, particularly the idea of producing bigger drums
from separate materials, instead of using the traditional oil
barrel. In effect, the G-pan project is an effort to keep pace
with what is happening internationally.
Brian Copeland gave me the tour. I saw what I would call early
prototypes, designs that will undoubtedly change and evolve. I
think there’s a lot of potential in the idea of using different
materials, bigger drums, etc. I thought that the instruments I
saw were interesting attempts, but nothing that would be in much
demand by pan players yet, and I told him so, and gave him my
reasons. I haven’t seen the instruments since, so I can’t
comment on what they’ve been doing the past year, but Brian
seemed very open minded and not at all cocky like some other
people I know who are working in this area of pan design. And I
have a lot of respect for Bertrand ‘Birch’ Kellman, who is the primary
tuner involved in the project.
It’s unfortunate that the G-pan project is so politicized - that
they went public with it before it was ready, that they handed
out the Chaconia Gold for a project that was still in its early
stages. That was not only an insult to our collective
intelligence, but an insult to people like Ellie Mannette,
Neville Jules, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, Bertie Marshall, Tony Williams, and
all the others who were responsible for actually creating the
instruments of the steelband.
You are based in France now;
what’s happening with pan in
Europe? What’s different there, let’s say, compared to North
I can’t generalize what’s happening in Europe, any more than I
can describe pan in North America in one sentence. The good
thing is that there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm here, and
on the whole, pan playing and steelband music are growing. There
are some very good players and arrangers here, as well as a lot
of steelbands that have no idea what they’re doing. :-)
We had some good moments this year in Paris. I took a 22-piece
band to the Olympia Theatre in Paris (which is like Carnegie
Hall - everyone has played there) as part of a Caribbean Jazz
Festival, the first one to be held in a major hall in Paris. Last week I went with 20 players from my band and Calypsociation
to play at the Stade de France as part of the 30th anniversary
concert of Kassav. There were 65,000 in the audience. Quite a
thrill for everybody.
The downside of the European pan scene is that the steelbands in
Europe are doing less than before to organize big events -
Steelpan European has ceased to be much of factor in promoting
anything. The Steelband Music Festivals in 2000 (Paris) and 2002
(Sete) were major events, with 60-piece bands from all the
European countries playing. There’s been nothing like that
since, and not much in the way of smaller festivals. Pan Kultur
in Dortmund, Germany is one of the few organizations to
successfully mount international events, inviting steelbands
from other countries to perform, and there are some small
festivals being organized in France and Holland. But there is
less cooperation and organization for large events than when I
first came over here.
WST has noticed a dramatic increase in inquiries about the
steelpan instrument outside of the Caribbean - we suspect this
is probably due to our tapping into Facebook and Ning. What do
you think is driving this increase in popularity globally?
I think that interest in pan in general is on the rise, and the
more we use the internet, the more we’ll see people inquiring,
listening, watching, getting involved.
Do you Twitter?
The music business is going through major changes as a result
of the emerging technologies, changes in taste, and the economy. Is this a moment of opportunity for the steelpan instrument, and
music created around the instrument?
Let’s hope so. At this point I think we have no choice but to
explore the vast possibilities for communication that the
internet offers. At the same time, I think we have to remember
what makes the pan and steelband music so special. It’s not
about technology. It’s about the relationship we have with this
instrument and with the music. The pan is at its heart
anti-class, anti-technology. It’s a participatory artform that
involves amateur and professional musicians alike. Everywhere
the pan goes it breaks down social and class barriers, and the
sound of the pan has already made its way into so many kinds of
music in so many countries.
I think the current woes of the music business are going to
affect all of us - those of us that are trying to making a
living at music, as well as those of us who just want to hear
good music. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to create and
play music in an economically viable way. But I believe that
good music, the pan, the steelband, etc. will survive, and I
agree that this could be a moment of opportunity for the
steelpan. Let’s not forget where and how the pan was born, and
all the difficulties it’s been through. The lack of business has
never stopped it before. This is something people do because it
feeds their souls. We just have to continue to nurture and
develop what we love.
In regards to music education: have you seen sustainable
working models that maybe the rest of the world should know
about, and/or should be focusing on?
There are so many ways to teach music, and so many musical
cultures. It’s impossible to create a single model that applies
to all the different kinds of music. Having said that, there are
some interesting things going on in pan education.
The Trinidadian model of learning music by rote continues to be
a powerful way of getting people to play steelband music, and it
wipes out a lot of the distinctions between schooled and
unschooled musicians, readers and non- readers, which create
barriers to people getting involved in playing music. There is
also the beginning of what I hope will be a trend - some bands
are encouraging pan players to read music and study theory. I
recently visited Pamberi, which has a whole side of players who
are collectively learning to improvise. Birdsong is running a
summer music camp in their panyard where kids are learning
guitar, keyboards, vocal music, drumming, dance, as well as
Outside of the New York Trini pan scene, the vast majority of
steelbands in the USA are reading music. Most of this is going
on at the university and high school level, but not only there. The players can learn the music faster, and it opens up the
possibility of being able to play an increasingly large
repertoire of published music for steelband. It doesn’t
necessarily translate into better playing, but some bands are
addressing that by memorizing some of their music, to have the
best of both worlds.
I’ve recently worked with some very surprising high school
bands. The common denominator is that the kids play every day
and stay with the program for 3-4 years. It’s amazing what you
can do when you have the kids every day.
An increasing number of pan players are going to music schools,
studying harmony and scale theory, world music, drumming,
recording, computer music programs, etc. For many, this is
invaluable to becoming a working musician, arranger, composer,
improviser, whatever. This has been a long time coming. I’ve
always felt that the barrier between the panman and the educated
musician was an artifact from the pan’s beginnings that should
be dispensed with.
There are some interesting books coming out in the area of pan
pedagogy. Phil Hawkins’ book on stick exercises for pan players
could be very helpful to pan players who have not studied
drumming already, and Chris Tanner has some very good ideas
about how to develop beginning and intermediate level steelbands
in his book. There is more and more good original steelband
music being published, and can be found at places like Ramajay.com and the pan dealers like Panyard, Coyle, Mannette
Steeldrums.... and YouTube and MySpace are becoming important
sources of information. There is so much potential in using
video as a teaching tool.
Copyright 2009 - When
Steel Talks All Rights Reserved.
Steel pan master Andy Narell joins forces with guitarist/singer
Relator to explore the role of jazz in vintage calypso on
“University of Calypso,” set for release on June 23. It’s been
over 50 years since a major calypsonian went into the studio
with a group of jazz players (including special guest Paquito