Follow When Steel Talks
WST google search WST Forum WST facebook page WST on Twitter WST RSS feed WST Steelpan music videos on You Tube WST Newsletter Global Steelband listings

Through the "Great Barrier Reefs" Nashville Meets Harlem Over A Steelpan Groove

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Harlem, New York, USA

Panist Tony Hartman and the Great Barrier Reefs at The Shrine
Panist Tony Hartman and the Great Barrier Reefs at The Shrine

In one shape or fashion, the steelpan has been present and making music in Harlem since its arrival - when Rudy King brought the instrument to America. However, it is safe to say that the Nashville-based 'Great Barrier Reefs' presented a musical amalgamation with the steelpan at the lead that has never been seen, heard or experienced before uptown, when they performed at the Shrine last week.

Set List: 
  • Never Heard of 'em  
  • Pasando Por Las Calles
  • No One Wants To Wait, But Sometimes You Have To Anyway
  • 3 Finger Pinch
  • CB Radio
  • Are You Scared?!

Acts performing at the trendy Shrine have routinely pushed the envelope and redefined the ‘norm’ - so when WST (When Steel Talks) journeyed to the Shrine to take in Great Barrier Reefs' performance we were open to all possibilities.  But to be honest when you see the banjo and the steelpan on stage you can't help but go “Hmmm.” Well, they may be from Nashville and there is a banjo - but there is no ‘twang’ here. And yes, there is a steelpan, but there is no ‘Yellow Bird’ here.

Great Barrier Reefs bring their own unique fusion of Funk, Rock, Bluegrass, Gospel, Jazz and Country.  And when you combine their blend of sax, electric banjo, and steelpan with keyboard, bass and drums - the combinations provide distinctive voicing and sound. In a forty-five minute set WST experienced great music with something to say, and boundless possibilities. The Great Barrier Reefs is more than a collection of very talented musicians who perform well together.

Their live performance is both entertaining and musically stimulating. The group's showing connected with those present from the very start. The audience was clearly fully engaged by their effusive reaction and lively applause to the original pieces written and performed by the group. Particularly impressive - as the audience was hearing these pieces for the first very time.  There is something about the Great Barrier Reefs that reminds one of "Stuff", that badass group made up of the most sought-after session musicians from the late 70s - featuring the likes of Eric Gale, Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Cornell Dupree and Chris Parker. No territory was off-limit to them.

The group is anchored by Rick Wilkerson on drums. He is simply a monster - A modern day cross between Lenny White (Return to Forever) and Buddy Miles (Band of Gypsys). Wilkerson's comfort and authenticity in any genre and time signature while keeping impeccable timing, allows the other members freedom to be as creative as they want to be. On the end of the spectrum is Charles Butler on electric banjo. Yo, this cat is outstanding. He totally redefined WST's expectations and past experiences of what a banjo can do is or supposed to do. It is not just his musicianship, but the textures and colors he brings to the table. Then there is David Williford on sax and flute. A very thoughtful musician. He adds just what is needed - never too much, never too little. And that takes skill. The group bottoms out with Taylor Lonardo, a thinking man's bass player. He can go rhythmic or melodic on you without skipping a heartbeat. And then there is Tony Hartman, the glue to the group, on tenor steelpan and keyboard. Tony Hartman's tenor playing displays his passion for the instrument. His infectious demeanor, vision and playing drives the group. He is the engine (check interview with Tony Hartman below).

It is chic these days to present one's self as thinking "outside the box" - or "the new, new," we suppose. But in the case of the Great Barrier Reefs, they turned the box inside out and asked "How do ya like me now?" Yep, a little bit country with a whole lot of soul, funk, pop, jazz, blues and rockin' roll. Don't miss the opportunity to hear the group as they continue to tour.

Great Barrier Reefs at the Shrine
The Great Barrier Reefs with The Shrine's popular manager Ousmane Ouedraogo

Big up to the Shrine and the venue's manager for continuing to provide a cozy setting that allows for direct interaction with tomorrow's breaking out performing artists—live in Harlem—to the world today.  

An Exclusive Interview with Composer, Educator, Keyboardist and Panist Tony Hartman of the Great Barrier Reefs

WST - “Tells us about Tony Hartman.”

Hartman - “- I grew up in Davenport, IA, youngest of 3 in a musical family. I grew up playing piano, upright bass, and eventually, percussion. I moved to Tennessee to study Music Education and Spanish at Middle Tennessee State University. When I'm not out with the Reefs, I'm an elementary music teacher, which includes directing 3 steel bands at 2 schools. I also play drum set with Nick Carver Band, and I also freelance as a composer/arranger, pianist and percussionist.”

WST - “ How were you first introduced to the steelpan instrument?”

Hartman - “- MTSU, I signed up for a "percussion ensemble" that happened to be Steel Band. I eventually found my way to the tenor and the rest is history. That was maybe 8 or 9 years ago?”

WST - “Who manufactured your Pan?”

Hartman - “- I got my lead from Ellie Mannette in 2006. He may or may not have worked on it, but I'm pretty sure it was worked on by a couple of those fine folks over there before it was sent out to me.”

WST - “Tell us about the Great Barrier Reefs. How did the Great Barrier Reefs come together?”

Hartman - “- I formed a group back in college with the intent to be a wedding/party band, fronted by pan. At the time I was also composing and arranging for the MTSU Steel Band, so I rearranged some of those charts for the then named "The Great Barrier Reefs and Tony". The response for the original charts was encouraging and in 2009 we dropped the "and Tony", and moved forward as The Great Barrier Reefs.”

WST - “The group is truly an eclectic mix both in terms of instrumentation and music. A fusion of Funk, Rock, Bluegrass, Gospel, Jazz and Country with a sprinkle of the Caribbean - delivered through the combined voices of an electric banjo, keyboards, sax, bass and drum, with tenor steelpan at the lead. Whose idea was it for that line-up?”

Hartman - “- Well, it was one part planned and one part organic evolution. I had a pan/horn lead idea from the beginning with a three piece rhythm section but the lineup has changed over the years, resulting in this wonderful current line up.”

WST - “Are your audiences surprised by the visual of steelpan instrument in the mix?”

Hartman - “- Most certainly. For those who are familiar with the instrument already are surprised by the context we put it in. For those who have never hear or seen the instrument before, it's a real joy for me to share it with them.”

WST - “Generally speaking, how busy is the performance schedule of the Great Barrier Reefs year-round?”

Hartman - “- Generally speaking, we'll do average 3 - 8 hits a month, sometimes busier, sometimes not. All of the members are very active musicians, educators, graphic designers, audio engineers and so we work around that as we can. Speaking for all of the guys, we love playing the Reefs book, but there is a lot of music to play in the world, and I think having other gigs to play makes every time we can play together that much more special for us as a band. ”

WST - “How are your venues determined?”

Hartman - “- In regards to clubs, generally by size, neighborhood, how it pays, what the sound situation is like... Really it comes down to if they'll even have an instrumental, steel pan fronted fusion group!  We've played all sorts of clubs, venues, festivals, pubs...we even played inside of a library last year. When trying to build these routes, or connecting the dots, sometimes playing a rock dive gets you to the jazz festival hit, and back home. We've built some wonderful relationships with venues and festivals over the years and it goes without saying that it means the world to us to be invited back.”

WST - “Who are your musical influences?”

Hartman - “- The scariest question on the list. You don't want to say too much but you don't want to leave anything out. Artists or groups that stick out from my search through the never-ending ocean of great music might be Victor Wooten, Steely Dan, The Roots, Cake, The Get Up Kids, Michael Jackson, Parliament, Eric Satie, Chopin, Michel Camilo, Andy Narell, Pat Metheny. Some more recent obsessions include Snarky Puppy, Sidewalk Chalk, Hiatus Kaiyote...there is just so much out there!”

WST - “How does your creative process for the group work?”

Hartman - “- It starts with one member emailing out charts and an mp3 demo of a tune. Once we have a number of new charts, we get together for one rehearsal and we put it together. When I was bringing in steel band arrangements, those parts were more dictated as scored for the steel band, but in recent years the charts we are bringing in have been more open for each member to make more musical choices. It's almost like we bring a chart that is a mostly/fully developed shell and as a group we fill it in. ”

WST - “Give a little background on the current members of Great Barrier Reefs.”

Panist Tony Hartman on stage at The Shrine in Harlem, New York

Panist Tony Hartman on stage at The Shrine in Harlem, New York

Hartman - “Taylor Lonardo (bass) is an audio engineer in Nashville; from Memphis, Tennessee. He has been with the group for all three records recording, mixing, and co-producing with myself. He's also really good at ordering the best dish on the menu at any place we eat at. Charles Butler is one of Nashville's leading progressive banjo players. A student of the great Tony Trischka, Butler attained a degree in Composition from SUNY Purchase college, and his work on acoustic and electric banjo has been featured on dozens of albums and TV shows. In 2013, Butler's solo banjo cover of Daft Punk's hit 'Get Lucky' topped one million views in less than a week, causing MSN's Michaela Gianotti to declare "stop everything and listen to this banjo cover". Charles currently works with a wide range of artists, as well as his own group Charles Butler & Associates. David Williford (sax, woodwinds) hails from Knoxville, Tennessee. He's a composer/arranger, educator, and freelance horn player in the Nashville area.  Rick Wilkerson (drums) grew up in the Nashville area. He also played on our first record, and rejoined the group a little more than a year ago.”

WST - “Has the group put out any studio recordings?”

Hartman - “The newest studio record "Are You Scared?!" was released in May 2014. It was tracked live at The Sanctuary in Nashville, TN. "Live in Middle Tennessee" (2012) is a ‘best-of’ collection from performances in middle Tennessee. Our first release "Finding Time" (2011) was recorded at Spring Street Studios in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, as well as TomLon Studios in Memphis.

WST - “What's next for Great Barrier Reefs?”

Hartman - “We have been playing a lot of new material out lately, and we plan to put those tunes down on a new record this year. We have been collecting a lot of footage on the road, and we'll be releasing some of that over this year. Other than that, we plan to stay active moving about and sharing our music with those who will listen.”

WST - “What is the ultimate goal for the Great Barrier Reefs, say - five years from now?”

Hartman - “Generally, to continue on the path that started the group, to continue to push myself as panist and musician, and to provide a vehicle for the musicians and the audience to enjoy themselves as much as possible. I'd like to keep traveling, perhaps beyond the US border. Who knows?  Five years ago I didn't know that this would evolve into the great experience that it has become. Thank you so much for this opportunity and thanks for reading.”

Leave a comment in the WST Forum


  Bookmark and Share