New York, USA - Donít let the complexion fool you. He is the new face of steel pan. Andy Narell is serious about the pan. He has made 13 albums and was featured on The Caribbean Jazz project, Island Stories and Fire in the Engine Room. Andy Narell is a naturalized citizen of the islands. His blue eyed influence has propelled his group SAKESHO to the top of European charts. Sakesho is Creole for ďit going to be hotĒ. And thatís exactly what the band is. Their blending of Afro-Caribbean, Latin and jazz has taken the world by storm.
Narell spoke with Basement Pressí Tasha MorrisÖ
Morris: Why did you choose pan?
Narell: I didn't ever really sit down and choose an instrument. When I was six, my brother Jeff started taking piano lessons, and I sat and watched and my mom saw how interested I was so she let me take lessons too. Then when I was seven, my dad, who was doing social work with street gangs, started steel bands as a community center program on the lower east side of Manhattan, and again, it was just an opportunity that presented itself and was interesting and fun. Actually, it was more like it just caught hold of us and it became our main interest - my dad, my brother, and I. We started a band with some friends and my dad managed us. So Ďthe band' was pretty much our main thing, aside from going to school and other normal stuff life playing sports. Even so, I didn't figure I'd be pursuing a life in music at that point. I assumed I'd be in school for a long time and be a doctor or scientist or something. But by the time I was half way through college, I realized I was still a lot more interested in music than anything else, and I wanted to compose my own music, and not just play. At the time I was playing more keyboards than pan, but always felt that I wanted to develop my ideas around creating music that would feature the pan. Which doesn't really answer the question of why, does it? I guess I always felt that it was the thing I had grown up with, and I felt identified with it and could visualize it as my voice, and hopefully I could make a contribution and say something original.
Morris: Who were your influences/role models?
Narell: I feel like I've been influenced by all the good music I've ever heard and basically I listen to anything and everything as far as styles go. As for role models I mostly looked toward the great jazz musicians - the ones who were happening when I was young. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, etc. Especially the ones who composed, and who kept searching for different approaches to music. In school, I studied classical music and Stravinsky really stood out as someone who did that. In pop music, you had people like Stevie Wonder. Then I got out of school and got more and more interested Caribbean, Brazilian, and African music.
Morris: What are your likes and dislike about playing pan?
Narell: That's like asking what are your likes and dislikes about your wife. I love music. It's my life's work. The pan is my primary instrument, my voice. I can't put into words what I like about it. I can tell you what I don't like, when I have to tune it myself. There is a very, very thin line between getting it back in tune and ruining it. So when something happens and I'm on my own and can't wait to have Ellie Mannette work on it, I get very tense.
Morris: You mentioned working with Ellie Mannette. How did you two meet?
Narell: I met Ellie in 1966 when I went to Trinidad. My father, who worked very hard to bring pan to the USA, signed the affidavit for Ellie to come to America, saying he would find him work. Ellie came up in 1967, lived with us for awhile, made pans for us and everybody else, and continued his work of developing and refining the instrument, which is what heís still doing today. Ellie has been making my instruments since I was twelve years old, and Iíve watched the pan develop through his hands, his dedication and genius. He is the standard of excellence in tuning pan, just as he was fifty years ago. I met him again in 1996 when I went to Trinidad. My brother and I had a steel band and we went to play as guests at the National Music Festival.
Morris: Have you ever participated in carnival or competitions? If so, what was that experience like?
Narell: I started playing in Panoramas in Trinidad in the mid eighties. These days I participate as an arranger. I arranged for Trinidadís Panorama in 1999 and 2000, New York Panorama in 2001 and 2002 and for the European steel band festival in 2002. Thereís nothing in the world like Trinidad at carnival time and I love being there and taking part, putting together a piece for 100 players, rehearsing for weeks and bringing the music to the Savannah. I will always feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to do that. And I have to admit Iíve always enjoyed the controversy created by the music I did.
Morris: Do you think competition is necessary in pan music?
Narell: Not necessarily. I think historically that competition has played a major role in the development of pan. But when I look at the music thatís being played in competitions today, with the effect that the judging and the culture surrounding it is all about winning, and for the most part the judges reward conformity and repetition of the same motifs weíve heard a thousand times, not innovation, individuality and good composition.
Morris: What do you think about the status of pan internationally and in the U.S.?
Narell: Loaded question. This the kind of stuff that gets reprinted in Terry Josephís column in Trinidad, out of context, and in a way that makes me look like I talk shit about Trinidad when Iím not there. So having said that, Iíll say that Iím encouraged by a lot of developments Iíve seen over the last 10 years. Europe in particular has made dramatic progress. At the same time Iím dismayed as ever at how few serious young players are coming up, and how little there is in way of innovative composing and improvising (the same goes for Trinidad). At this point though, I think that pan outside of Trinidad is developing faster than at home, and with more of an eye towards pan players studying to be complete musicians. (Music education is in pretty bad shape almost everywhere in the global economy world we live in, but in Trinidad which has such a rich musical heritage, it a travesty that opportunities for study are so lacking. And the steel bandsí position on this can hardly be considered anything but anti-music education). I think that weíre already seeing international pan poised to take the lead and innovate and that in time, perhaps Trinidadians will be looking to the rest of the world with more interest.
Morris: What do you see in the future of pan?
Narell: As I see it, the possibilities have just barely been touched on. First of all, there is so much more that hasnít been dreamed of in the world of steel band music. What has been accomplished to this point in time is formidable, but it is literally the work of the founders and one generation more. The pan in contemporary music outside of the steel band is even less developed, where 99% of whatís possible hasnít been thought of. Iíll try to make an analogy. Look at how the saxophone is used in classical symphonic and chamber music. It is treated as poor cousin of the clarinet, an instrument whose tone and intonation problems are so unwieldy that itís of little use to composers. Thatís basically what my orchestration textbook in college said. But look what happened when the instrument got into the hands of jazz musicians and developed for a generation.
Morris: Where would you like to see yourself in ten years?
Narell: Right now I feel like I donít know a fraction of what I need to know, that Iím learning as fast as I can, and at the same time that Iím playing better music than I ever heard before. I guess I hope that ten years from now I feel the same way.
Andy Narell is respected and appreciated in most circles of the pan community. He hopes people will be more interested in what he thinks and what he has to offer the pan community.
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