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Cliff Alexis, Steel Pan Trail-Blazer in Academia

The linchpin for the NIU steelpan program’s success

by Les Slater

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Clifford Alexis

Global - “Do you want me to lose my job?” That was the reaction Clifford Alexis remembers he and the man who was his mentor at Northern Illinois University (NIU), Prof. Al O’Connor, got from an official in the university’s Human Resources division when O’Connor sought to bring Alexis on board, back in 1986, as resident steel pan expert, to give a boost to the program O’Connor had started since the early 70s. The initial resistance they encountered at Human Resources was somewhat of a jolt to Prof. O’Connor who expected that with Alexis being exceptionally skilled in such an unusual area, the normal rules of academic employment wouldn’t be so strictly adhered to.

In spite of O’Connor’s being a bit flustered upon discovering that Alexis would have to be “tested”, his grand design to have the school’s steel pan program given some fresh legs via Alexis’ input was firmly back on track after Alexis acquitted himself well on the test prepared by the state’s education department. Alexis, possessing the rare abilities to build and tune steel pan instruments, as well as arrange the music and impart it to the uninitiated, would soon have what was a program participated in by just seven students expanded to more than thirty. Even more impressive, steel pan as a major for undergraduates would in short order become a reality at the school.

NIU campus

Landing a position at NIU, where he continues to be at the hub of activity in its trend-setting steel pan program (NIU is generally considered to have pioneered the inclusion of steel band music in an American college curriculum), has been the ultimate crown of fulfillment in an enduring fascination with this medium that Alexis has had since his youthful days in Trinidad. Back then, he played with a few Port of Spain bands, most notably Tripoli and the redoubtable Invaders, his standout talent according him the privilege of selection for Trinidad and Tobago’s national steel band. After migrating to the U.S. in the early 60s, Alexis first lent his expertise to a large New York band. In a few years he found himself headed into Middle America and wound up in St. Paul, Minnesota teaching the rudiments of steel pan music to high school students there.

NIU Steelband

His reputation growing ever wider, the fortuitous circumstance of having the U.S. Navy steel band as a client was key in his first contact with O’Connor. “He saw a pan I’d made for the Navy band,” Alexis recalls, “and wanted to know who had tuned it. It took a while before he and I hooked up on the phone.” Initially, Alexis’ involvement with NIU was in periodically journeying to the DeKalb campus to make sure the band’s instruments remained up to par. “Al told me that whenever he attained a position of influence in the department, he would get me in here.” When, as assistant chairman, O’Connor eventually spoke to Alexis about coming to NIU, Alexis says he “wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue it, because I had a good thing going in Minnesota.”

Clifford Alexis - Nevile Jules - Liam Teague
Clifford Alexis, Neville Jules, Liam Teague

Years later, Alexis obviously has no regrets about agreeing to make his abundant skills accessible in a college environment. He believes that steel pan music’s filtering into academia has been a good thing for an art form that was regarded as merely a Caribbean novelty just a few decades ago. An unquestionably positive outgrowth of the pan-on-campus phenomenon, in Alexis’ view, has been the introduction of music literacy into the ranks of steel pan players. “Years ago, I probably would have had a far different reaction to the idea of steel pan musicians being able to read,” Alexis says. “Now I realize it’s very, very important. Just the time saved by teaching players who are proficient in reading, as opposed to them learning by rote, you get to appreciate how much of an advantage this is.”

Alexis is pleased, too, about being attached to an institution that elevated the study of steel pan music to a discipline good for concentration as a student’s major. “I remember going with Al to the faculty meeting when he first broached the idea,” he says. “Some people turned their noses up at it. One faculty member remarked that the university “has a tradition to uphold.’ ”Such voices of skepticism notwithstanding, Alexis says O’Connor simply pressed on in his determination to raise the level of consciousness about the steel pan, an affirmation of the great respect he has had for the instrument since his first exposure to it.

Liam Teague
Liam Teague

There have been a number of outstanding graduates of the NIU steel pan program, some of whom have gone on to other schools to share the knowledge they gained. Probably standing head and shoulders above other NIU alumni, though, is the phenomenal Liam Teague, whom Alexis and O’Connor first saw in Trinidad as a teenage wiz of the instrument back in the 1990s. Teague subsequently sought O’Connor’s help in coming to the U.S. and into NIU, where he did so well in both undergraduate and post-graduate studies, he was first made an artist in residence for the steel pan program and following that, was appointed a professor, attaining tenure in 2010. Alexis became personally involved in the effort to ensure that Teague would be provided with whatever he needed to remain focused on his academic path, so convinced were he and O’Connor that Teague was uniquely gifted.

Looking back on his years as the linchpin for the program’s success, Alexis definitely includes among the highlights some overseas trips the NIU band made, including two visits to Taiwan, a trip to Korea for a festival there, and to Trinidad in 2000 to participate in the biennial steel band festival, the band proudly taking second place.

Meanwhile, Alexis continues to enjoy the NIU ride. “For a guy who was around in the early years, to see steel pan music achieve this level of sophistication and be fortunate enough to be a part of it, for me, this is just amazing.”

Les Slater

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