Illinois, USA - “Where do I go from here,” is not exactly the question you would expect to hear from a man who has traveled, within his life already, from Taiwan to Europe and to Africa. But this is just the question Clifford Alexis, steel drum legend from Port of Spain, Trinidad, found himself wondering one day.
Clifford had his first taste of Pan life traveling on the road along with the 1952 Carnival. In the late 1950’s he was given his first opportunity to arrange music for the Stereophonics Steelband. Clifford was given the opportunity to travel along with the National Steelband of Trinidad and Tobago in 1964. However the very next year Clifford moved to the USA and played with the BWIA Sunjets for two years, until he formed his own band, Cliff Alexis and the Trinidad Troubadours. His musical influences are rooted mostly in Pan. Some significant bands and individuals which shaped Clifford’s style include The Invaders, Rainhall Men, Emmanuel “Jack” Riley, and Earl Rodney.
Alexis, 32 years ago, at the age of 34, was by no means content with all that he had already accomplished. Having traveled around the world, playing in various acclaimed steel bands, Alexis still felt something was missing. He wanted to take the Pan out of just the realm of “novelty,” as Alexis described it.
Complete with this new ambition, Clifford approached the Saint Paul Minnesota School system, pitching ideas for a steel drum-based curriculum. After several meetings he was finally given an opportunity. There, Clifford introduced the art of Pan to the students, who took to the new percussion instrument quickly. Alexis stayed in the school system for 12 years. That is until he was approached by Allan O’Connor, head of percussion studies at Northern Illinois University (NIU).
O’Connor had been tracking down Alexis for two years before he finally got in contact with him. O’Connor became interested in Alexis as a talent after hearing the instruments that he had made for the US Navy Steel band. Although O’Connor’s and Alexis’ connection was far from instant, it was however the beginning of an ongoing collaboration. Clifford was instated as the co-director of the steel band at NIU.
Started by Allan O’Connor in 1973, and later strengthened by the addition of Alexis in 1985, the steel drum program at NIU was the first of its kind to be offered at a university. Since then upwards of 50 universities in both the United States and Canada have formed their own steel bands. Along with providing influence for the creation of such bands, Alexis has manufactured most of the drums used by these groups.
The program at NIU, honored as one of the 13 universities with the best curriculum for percussion study in the May 2002 issue of Modern Drummer, is made up of a 35-student orchestra. Alexis is not just a teacher there though, but a composer, creating the same music his band gives life to. One of Alexis’ calypso pieces was featured during the World Steelband Festival held in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. There the NIU Steel band won second place. Alexis’ most recent piece is entitled Pan 2000.
The program has made huge strides in introducing pan to the undergraduate students, however due to costs these students are all American. It is far too expensive to aid students from other locations, such as Trinidad. Right now this dilemma is Clifford’s primary focus. He is concentrated on bringing donors in to aid the minorities who cannot afford to pay their way through the steel band program at NIU. To this day there is only one donor. The sole aid to the NIU program comes from a man by the name of Lester Trilla.
Trilla is by no means a stranger to the world of pan, as he is the owner of the Trilla Steel Drum Company. He has given $300,000 to the steel band. The donated money from Trilla goes towards the equipment and scholarships for Caribbean students.
Today, Clifford is far from unknown in the Pan world. He was honored
as one of twelve men and given the Pan Legend award in 2001, and was
also one of two people instated in the Sunshine Hall of Fame in
Alexis has truly found an aspect of Pan that he loves. He does not perform much anymore, but instead focuses on teaching and composing. He chuckles though at the question of where he will take Pan next. “I’m 66 years old,” he reminds, laughing.
There’s additional info on Clifford Alexis on his profile on NIU’s site.
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