Navajo Nation Youth Perform with the Steelpan at Smithsonian

Twinning of Native American and Steelband Cultures - Church Rock Academy Elementary School Steel Drum Band

Washington D.C., USA -  When Steel Talks took off down the I95 highway on a very special assignment. Today we would get to see, meet and hear the performance of a group of talented young people from the Navajo Nation - who among other things have incorporated the steelpan instrument as a major part of their repertoire.  The name of their group is the Church Rock Academy Elementary School Steel Drum Band. 

Navajo Nation Youth perform
Navajo Nation Youth perform

The group traveled from Gallup, New Mexico, to the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC to be part of the museum’s performance events series, and performed in the Potomac Atrium, where native instruments, drums, percussions and Steelpan instruments were laid out and awaiting coming to life under the hands of the musicians. The young musicians from Church Rock Academy of the Navajo Nation gave a musical and ethnic insight into their cultural experience to the audience gathered for their performance at the National Native American Museum.

The group opened up with chants and proceeded with drumming selections, highlighting the skills of each of the young people. Randy Markham, the group’s musical director, joined them on most selections. The audience clearly appreciated their performance, some snapping away on digital cameras, others taking away a memento of their museum visit with the Navajo Nation performance on hand–held digicams. Many had been casual visitors, and were pleasantly surprised to find a performance in store during their particular visiting window. They had then proceeded to anxiously fill the available seating area, those without, standing around the seating and atrium entrance area.

Navajo Nation Youth perform
Navajo Nation Youth perform

The Navajo Nation musicians/performers may be young, but are veterans on the performance circuit, racking up over thirty performances with varied audiences such as the State Department and Tribal occasions, some to standing ovations.

The selection within their repertoire which first featured their Steelpans as the main instruments was beautiful and poignant, drawing the listeners into the musicality of the Steelpan. The additional choices included music played in calypso–tempo and the classic Guantanamera.

As is customary, the family of steelpan music instruments remain a source of wonder to many, and this day was no different. After the performance, curious members of the audience – old and young alike – made their way stage side to get a close–up view of the pans, as well as chat with the performers.

Randy Markham has been with the group for about one year. He brought his background as a jazz artist and world musician into Church Rock, where the group welcomed the novelty of the Steelpan instrument and embraced and incorporated them into their own native cultural presentations.

Markham is a professional musician, he has studied with Ellie Mannette, the world–famous master tuner, who he holds in high regard, and he has also performed with a number of jazz, salsa, reggae, and steel drum groups from around the world. He has performed with Chuck Berry, opened for Jimmy Buffet, and toured concurrently with Ziggy Marley and the Wailers.

In an interview with the Gallup Independent, Markham said the steel drum is an ideal instrument to introduce to young musicians. “Music for the steel drum can be very simple and very accessible to children just learning about music,” he explained, “but it can also be very complex and challenging to experienced musicians.”

Navajo Nation Youth perform
Navajo Nation Youth perform

In addition to their obvious talent these young students are very disciplined and respectful of their instruments and their elders. After the performance they all saw to the safe packing away of their instruments and dress wear. They were accompanied by several chaperones from the Navajo Nation including Navajo Language Director/Teacher Clara Morris. She told When Steel Talks that it was a two-day train journey that brought the group to Washington DC for the afternoon’s performance, and one such that awaited them on their way back to New Mexico. But you would not be able to tell that from the disciplined presentation they delivered on Sunday.

Printed in the promotional hand–out for the event is the statement that “The Navajo students have adopted this instrument as their own and so celebrate both their own culture with traditional Navajo music and other cultures by playing music such as reggae, calypso, and limbo.” As one listened to Navajo students perform their traditional music on the steelpan, the audience was indeed privileged to hear yet another unique usage of the steelpan family. Church Rock Academy Elementary School Steel Drum Band has a much more extensive repertoire, but the allocated time meant that just a glimpse of their capabilities was afforded those seated and standing within the Potomac Atrium.


The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in September 2004.  Dedicated to the culture, art, and history of Native peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere, it is the only museum of its kind in the world. The museum showcases a vast collection of 800,000 Native objects spanning 10,000 years, one of the greatest such collections ever assembled.

Navajo Nation Youth perform

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