Date: 10.21.06

The Art of [Pan] Tuning is Alive with Andy ‘Mad Max’ Neils

In The Spotlight

Andy ‘Mad Max’ Neils
Andy ‘Mad Max’ Neils

Trinidad & Tobago, W.I. - One of the pan tuning greats Lincoln “Delgado” Noel has recently passed, but the art of tuning the steelpan instrument is alive and the torch is passionately carried by some of the other greats of his generation, including Bertram “Birch” Kelman, Wallace Austin and Bertie Marshall, to mention just a few. And then there are those of the ‘next’ generation - such as Andy “Max” Neils. “Max” as he is also known, is one of the most sought-after pan-tuners in the world, regularly declining job offers to tune entire orchestras and even individual pan instruments, both at home in Trinidad and Tobago, and abroad. The likes of Desperadoes, Exodus, Invaders, Skiffle Bunch and CASYM (New York) steel orchestras, and many more in the US Virgin Islands, Jamaica, Aruba and Antigua - all bear the mark (and sounds) of his expert skills.

Tuner Andy Neils at work
Tuner Andy Neils at work

But like many steelpan tuners, there is much more to Andy Neils than the present phase of his involvement with this unique instrument. As he worked at tuning a pan at his Barataria-based workshop, When Steel Talks (WST) got an in depth sense of the life of Neils, before he became the master craftsman he is today.

At age seventeen in 1981, as a soon-to-graduate student of South East Secondary School in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, a young Neils had spent a short while with Blue Diamonds steel orchestra, before joining his school’s steelband a mere two weeks before the annual national junior panorama competition. A sign of things to come was one week later, when, after he got the tune down on the tenor pan, he was asked to change instruments and learn the panorama selection all over again on the double tenor instead because players were needed in that section. With an even more challenging voice of the instrument, Neils now picked up and ‘aced’ the tune on the double tenor in that one week before the competition. The arranger for South East panorama that year was Trevor ‘Inch High’ Ballantyne.

The tuner says he was ‘hooked’ on pan since then, and his love for the instrument led him, not to Trinidad All Stars, just up the road from South East, but to Renegades. While he was still at South East, Neils had a visit from Renegades personnel who asked him to join their stageside. The present-day pan tuner would spend about fifteen years with the regular panorama orchestra and as a member of its prestigious and world-traveled stageside. It was here, according to Neils, that legendary Renegades arranger Dr. Jit Samaroo, stood looking at him playing a particular bit of music one day. Samaroo then shook his head at his skill combined with speed on the pan, and dubbed him “Mad Max.” To this day, Neils says, many people who knew him as a player, do not know who Andy Neils is, but are fully familiar with the pan player “Max.”

Tuner Andy Neils at work
Tuner Andy Neils at work

The present-day pan tuner said although he was a good player who could execute practically anything on pan (robotic, as he puts it), he considered that he could have been better, because at that time, he could play when someone ‘showed him’, and play [the music] well, but he was not music literate then; this would change later on. Nonetheless, Neils said, he knew beyond any doubt that he wanted to make pan his life, and he decided to make his career through the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. He took a look around and saw that the people who had made a business related to the steelpan were not pan players (only a few of the truly exceptional ones did, according to Neils), but the arrangers and pan tuners.

Initially, in addition to his pan performances, Neils set his sights on tuning as his career move. His first formal taste of pan tuning was during a six-week course run by Pan Development Unlimited at Belmont Junior Secondary School in Port-of-Spain. Desmond Waithe taught the music theory segment there, and would go on to play a pivotal role in Neils’ initiation into arranging on the national scene.

There were several parallel paths in the life of Andy Neils at any given point. In addition to his six-week course, he later became part of a year-long pilot program put together by Pan Trinbago, which was supposed to focus on pan tuning. While Neils says that the course placed more emphasis on pan manufacturing and related support mechanisms rather than tuning, it was his interaction here with the late Clive Bradley which made him believe that he could seriously make a go at arranging for steelpan; this - in addition to tuning the instrument. Bradley had initially been contracted by Pan Trinbago as instructor for the music appreciation section of the pan tuning package, and while another instructor completed that phase of the program, Neils credits his experience with Bradley for giving him the confidence to explore the world of arranging. Another component of that one-year program was a two week-long apprenticeship at Trinidad and Tobago Instruments Limited (TTIL) that would serve as a point of contact for Neils within the company soon enough.

After his boost of confidence in the area of arranging, Neils contacted Desmond Waithe at the Belmont Intermediate School. The latter headed the music program there and at that point, encouraged his arranging pursuits, and agreed with his idea to have the school participate in the junior national panorama with Neils as its arranger.

Still a pan player with Renegades at this point, when Neils approached management for the use of the band’s instruments, they agreed to allow the youngsters of Belmont Intermediate to use their pans to enter the junior national panorama. This was before Renegades had its own youth initiative (Renegades Youth Steel Orchestra) in place. Before moving on Neils would take the Belmont Intermediate School steel orchestra to panorama for two years with this concession in place. Thereafter, his arranging arena became the traditional bands, starting off with Rhythm Rockers from Arima. Neils elaborated “Before I was actually recognized as a tuner, I did a lot of arranging for the traditional or ‘pan round de neck’ bands.” He worked with several other traditional bands, including Nutones, and Marsicans, both from Arima, arranging for the latter Who Let The Dogs Out.  While turning out arrangements for the bands, Neils continued to perfect his tuning skills. In fact when he was later affiliated with Hilarks in Belmont he wore two hats, those of arranger, and tuner.

His exposure to pan-tuning marked the beginning of his music literacy experience. It instilled in him a desire to experiment and accomplish more on the instrument while playing, so he left Renegades and made his way to Lincoln Enterprises where there was a steel orchestra. Here panists were encouraged to ‘ramajay’ or adlib during playing; the steel orchestra itself entered a competition at the time called ‘Pan Ramajay.’

The year 1996 was a turning point for Andy Neils, when he was employed at TTIL, the company where he had been apprenticed for two weeks during his year-long program shortly before. Here is where he received his true education, gaining most of his experience and pan tuning skills. To hear Neils tell it - when he started at TTIL, he “...couldn’t tune at all. I used to try a l’il thing, but I couldn’t tune at all.” This was after completing the one-year program, which he felt was far more productive in pan making, rather than pan tuning. In all, he would spend just over one year - from the time he began through 1998 - with the company. He initially joined TTIL and was assigned the task to prepare - but not tune - the small ‘souvenir’ sized pans which were about twelve inches in diameter. He was not yet part of the crew that worked in the upper rooms of TTIL, and who were considered the ‘real’ craftsmen, tuning the ‘real’/conventional-sized instruments.

But Andy Neils knew he was capable of and destined for, far more than working on souvenir-sized steelpans. Toiling determinedly and quietly behind the scenes, Neils described how later on in his stint at the company, he would take his lunch hour, and other spare time, and tune pans that TTIL had cast aside as defects. It was after tuning one such pan, a tenor, that his skills were finally given attention by the then-head of TTIL - Mr. Cooper. A tuner was now needed in the ‘upper rooms’ at TTIL, and with his speed and skills, Neils made the cut and was given the job. However, he was still relegated to working mainly on the small pans.

Tuner Andy Neils at work
Tuner Andy Neils at work

The late master tuner Lincoln Noel had been brought on board by TTIL in an advisory and teaching capacity, and it was there that Neils encountered him. In fact, Neils unhesitatingly credits Noel with the great strides he has made in pan tuning to this day; “It’s a blessing he passed through there [TTIL]!” He told WST  that Noel popped his head in one day, and asked him to tune a side of a triple guitar. Noel ignored Neils telling him that he was only supposed to work on tuning small pans. “If anybody asks you anything, tell them I told you to do it” Noel told the then-up-and-coming pan tuner. This late master craftsman had recognized the skills and passion for pan tuning in Neils, and believed he had an ‘ear’ for pan. Neils said the triple guitar he tuned was ‘fairly alright’ and that afterward TTIL started to give him some conventional-sized instruments to tune such as double tenors and double seconds. Not too long after, TTIL made the company’s middle pan instruments his portfolio. Once double guitars, triple guitars, and cellos were manufactured by the company, it was Neils’ responsibility to tune them, with front line pans coming his way occasionally when there was a back up. Even though he mastered the middle range pans, Neils still desired to excel in all voices, including tenors and background pans; but TTIL wanted him to concentrate on the range they had officially designated for him. “They told me I was a middle man, and that I couldn’t tune tenors and other pans” said Neils. Despite this, in his spare time, the tuner worked on, and honed his skills by tuning, any and all voices of pans around TTIL - including the tenors and background pans. Other tuners were responsible for other voices of instruments.

Lincoln Noel also asked Neils to blend a tenor for him, which the latter eagerly and professionally did. Believing the tenor to have been worked on by Noel, the TTIL people proudly showed it off, and even called Neils himself in to illustrate - “Andy, listen to how a tenor pan [is] suppose[d] to sound.” Smiling to himself, Neils said he maintained his cool and continued behind the scenes, all the while racking up more experience. He developed a fine working relationship with Noel. He says that he himself had to learn much of his craft on his own through careful practice, and, observing Noel at work, and seeing him pay the same kind of attention to the details which had become a hallmark for Neils, was amazing to him. It made him smile on the inside, he remembers, knowing for sure that he was on the right track. Neils worked on a lot of double seconds pans with Noel. He would do the main task, and Noel would fine tune the instruments. Among the invaluable advice he imparted to Neils dealt with working in octaves, and how to balance his pans.

Reminiscing about some of his other experiences, Neils chuckled as he spoke about the hours spent tuning the pans that Gabriel “Doyle” Robley was given responsibility for. The latter was charged with tuning the company’s frontline pans. Neils said that on his own time - very early in the morning, during lunch and after hours - he would lock himself away in Robley’s room, where TTIL had placed pans to be tuned. On occasion he would find Neils coming out of his workroom, and would tell Neils “Is alright, you go ahead, fix up.” What was happening, of course was tremendous growth in Neils’ tuning prowess - he was gaining immense experience while doing the bulk of the tuning work that was Robley’s task - in his spare time - while Gabriel “Doyle” Robley himself did not mind at all, getting paid for what was mainly Neils’ work. Looking back now at that situation as it existed then, and presently at a high point in his career where demand for his skills exceeds the hours in any given day - Neils considers all those experiences at TTIL an apt trade off for his expertise today.

Lincoln Noel had further anointed Neils when he took the young tuner up to Desperadoes to tune their guitar pans. The word got around after that Neils had worked with Desperadoes, and people began contacting him while he was still at TTIL.

Neils was soon asked to accompany Nutones Steel Orchestra to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia as their tuner, which he did. Sometime after, the Trinidad &Tobago Defence Force Steel Orchestra approached him to work on their instruments for a World Steelband Festival performance. It would turn out to be Andy Neils’ first (and not by any means, his last) ‘win’ as a steelpan tuner, as the Defence Force went on to tie for championship honors with Exodus Steel Orchestra. It was around this time the pan tuner parted company with TTIL, and forged a path on his own.

Tuner Andy Neils at work
Tuner Andy Neils at work

In the ten or so years since Andy Neils first surrendered to his passion for pan tuning, this next-generation pan tuner says he does not miss the actual playing of the instrument; instead he has a desire to pass on his own talents, perhaps teaching or apprenticing select individuals who have the requisite drive, commitment and desire for perfection, in much the same way he has, coming up through the ranks. For 2006 Neils has had two people who apprenticed with him for a couple hours on a daily basis, but says since he returned from this year’s commitment of New York tuning for panorama champs CASYM Steel Orchestra, that schedule has not been resumed. Factors which deter Neils from including tutoring as a regular part of his schedule are the necessary time commitment, and the reality that the remuneration in this area is not comparable with the pan tuning craft itself. Still, when asked by WST  where he saw himself in four to five years in the future, Neils admitted that he would love to have opened his own pan tuning school by that time.

Neils has been the resident tuner handling Invaders Steel Orchestra’s frontline instruments for some time while Bertram “Birch” Kelman does the background pans; and upon the death of tuner Leo Coker, did the same range of pans for Exodus for three years - 2003 through the 2006 panorama season. He also tuned instruments for Skiffle Bunch for the 2006 Pan in the 21st Century competition. Desperadoes also took advantage of his services once again for that same competition, and the band’s Assistant Manager Anthony McQuilkin told WST  that they are very pleased with Neils’ work, and the Laventille-based powerhouse looks forward to maintaining their professional relationship.

Neils said that although he has tuned entire orchestras, it is much work, and so generally sticks to a certain range of pans. On other occasions he has taken along another tuner for the task, as was the case with Skiffle Bunch earlier on this year for Pan in the 21st Century. His true preference, however, is to produce individual instruments of all voices of steelpan, and for smaller ensembles. But be that as it may, Neils does not really have much choice in the matter at present. For word travels fast - and orchestras are always on the lookout for him.

Tuner Andy Neils at work

Of his ‘championships,’ the tuner also has a recent ‘win’ under his belt. He has tuned for 2006 Panorama champions CASYM Steel Orchestra. In fact, with his chock-full schedule, Neils has been requested to produce brand new instruments for the entire one-hundred player New York steel orchestra, and is currently fulfilling that order. He has already supplied them with sixteen brand new tenors which lent to their winning performance on September 3, this year. When WST  visited Neils, the racks of pans in his workshop, some newly burnt (above), some tuned and chromed, were part of CASYM’s order. There are still middle pans and all the orchestra’s background pans to follow. From the beginning of the process, Neils can oversee the massive project. The instruments are manufactured within eyeshot of his workshop, and are in turn tuned by him. If things remain on track, it will be just a matter of time before CASYM will be boasting a spanking new orchestra produced and tuned in its entirety by Andy Neils.

Amidst his trips abroad throughout the year to produce and maintain the beautiful sounds of different steel orchestras, and with other commitments, Neils maintains his reputation as a world-renowned and talented pan tuner, and nurtures a love for his craft and a respect for the instrument, coming from his many years as a pan player. He is very vocal in his gratitude and appreciation for the late great pan tuner Lincoln Noel, whose confidence in the younger tuner has paid off handsomely, not only for Andy Neils himself, but for those fortunate enough to avail themselves of his talents.

by C. Phillips - Basement Press

* click for video interview with Andy Neils


Leave a comment in the WST forum

When Steel Talks shirts
now available!
Order yours now!
When Steel Talks -- T Shirt