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History-Making Steelband Arranger
André White - In the Spotlight

Steelband arranger André White

New York, USA -  As 2009 comes into focus, for André White - 2008 has been that ‘year to remember.’  For this young musician who set the steelband world on its ear, life will never be the same.  New York steelband panorama veteran arrangers – some previous competition winners themselves - had to respectfully duff their hats to André White in the early hours of Sunday September 1 - when his arrangement of Amrit Samaroo’s Heat as executed by his band, Long Island’s one hundred-strong ADLIB Steel Orchestra, made them New York Panorama champions for the first time ever, and by default conferring upon him, the title of ‘champion arranger.’  But the additional history-making element is André’s age.  He was a mere eighteen years old.

His steelband story began when he was little more than a tot; and the son of his babysitter at the time, was then one of ADLIB’s older members.  Little André was fascinated by the steelpan, and eventually himself joined the orchestra.  He was all of six years; since then he has never looked back.  Coincidentally, it happened that on the very night of ADLIB’s winning the New York panorama - André saw his former babysitter’s son for the first time in more than a decade - this individual who had been the fateful nexus between him, and what would turn out to be both his instrument of choice, and vehicle to fame.

André with Franklin Mayers at New York’s 2008 J’Ouvert;
ADLIB is in the background

Through it all, André has remained unwavering and very well grounded, giving full credit to his mom Colleen (who, while he was still out celebrating after success at the panorama, sent him a text with “I’m very proud of you…and stuff like that”), Grandmother Maureen, both from Jamaica, and his extended family, ADLIB’s management team of “Uncle Frank,” “Auntie Jean” and Lisa, their daughter.  The talented teen much prefers that the ‘hoopla’ be about ADLIB the orchestra – fielding talented and committed young musicians with the skills to bring his musical creations ‘to life’ - than about him. 

Hugely crediting ADLIB’s stage side (the smaller representation of a steel orchestra that is active year round, which can be anywhere from ten to thirty musicians; a full-size steelband orchestra for panorama can be upwards of one hundred twenty musicians) for its pivotal role in the band’s success, André says: “I would tell anybody - the stage side really had just as much to do with it [ADLIB’S triumph], as me; if anything, probably even a little bit more…..they, and eventually the rest of the band.’”

Before going into the competition, there had been an unprecedented level of quiet confidence from all of ADLIB. The attitude: ‘do what you have to do, execute the song…do [deliver] your best’ - which they eventually did with fabulous musical acumen. “And the results showed,” says André.  He mused that out of all the years he has been involved with ADLIB, he felt and “saw the actual confidence” in 2008, not only from himself but from the players.  Of course, there had been signs of things to come when ADLIB, also with André at the arranging helm, came in third position for the 2007 panorama (pictured above).

Chatting about his approach to arranging ADLIB's 2008 panorama selection, André told how he first ‘sat down and reviewed the panorama performances of both ADLIB and that of the 2007 champions, Sonatas Steel Orchestra’ with the question of “what did they really do that gave them the edge to take the panorama [championship] away from the rest of us?”  After that analysis, he said to himself, “I know what I have to do” – then went to work.  With this mindset, André had the arrangement for Heat ‘done in his head’ in less than a week in February 2008.   Before he went to Trinidad for panorama where he performed with Renegades Steel Orchestra, ADLIB’s arrangement was set with verses and chorus, with André merely implementing a key change upon his return.

Heat - composed by Amrit Samaroo, recognized arranger in his own right and son of Trinidad’s legendary Jit Samaroo - was the right choice; “it just suited the band,” explained André, though he conceded that with the song not receiving much airplay, especially on the radio in Trinidad & Tobago, it was met with mild skepticism at first.  There were other choices of material being considered by ADLIB for the orchestra’s 2008 competition offering, and André told them that ‘if they really wanted him to do [arrange] another song, he would do it.’  “But – I told them – ‘if you really want me to put out my best product – that [Heat] is the one.”

What does André see as the foundation of his success?  “As far as understanding music - the reason, for me - why I reached so far is because of music theory.  If there is any advice I could give anybody planning to be an arranger, or anybody my age or younger than me, coming up - it’s take a music theory class or learn your music theory – it helps – a lot!  Your chords, your progressions, your modes, your scales – it makes life easier!”  For the record, André is also a composer, and does score in some form, his original musical works.

André pictured with Amrit Samaroo in 2007
at the New York Panorama

The numerous congratulatory calls André received from around the world included one from Amrit Samaroo, who contacted him early the next morning after the panorama, as well as others from members of England’s Mangrove Steel Orchestra - past UK panorama champions themselves, and for whom André also arranged for the 2008 UK panorama.  The band has been gone through some changes, and fielded competent but a smaller number of pan players than in previous years. They eventually placed sixth overall, disheartening for the orchestra, but a position probably additionally impacted by other factors, not least of all being slotted to play first - relegating them to being the ‘sound check’ band [the steel orchestra that plays in position one, and usually the first chance sound engineers get to try to figure out what they are seeking to achieve sonically – during the actual band performance] of sorts. 

André drumming for ADLIB’s stage side in 2006,
with “Auntie Jean” (standing) and Lisa Mayers (in shades)
- part of ADLIB’s management team

And, if André is right, 2008 was also the first year that the UK panorama was actually ‘miced’ or sound reinforcement put in place.  It was a phenomenon with which André was only too familiar; ADLIB suffered a similar fate in the New York panorama a couple years ago – they were the ‘sound check’ band in the WIADCA (West Indian American Day Carnival Association) panorama at the Brooklyn Museum.

Though he currently stands near six feet, André is still clearly a teenager, and on walking into Mangrove’s panyard, no one took any real notice of him, appearing as he did as just another new player for the season.  The band certainly did not know that he was their arranger for the 2008 panorama – until the band’s  captain Andrew Facey introduced him as such.  He was the youngest person in the Mangrove panyard that year, who just happened to be the band’s arranger; it was a great experience for him, and the band made him feel very welcome.  Given Mangrove’s pedigree, it is almost a given that they will be back for a reckoning in 2009.

André in Renegades’ panyard in Trinidad, January 2008, with fellow ADLIB band mate Lashera Smith, and “Uncle Frank” in the background

Intrigued as to how André’s opportunity to arrange for England’s Mangrove Steel Orchestra came about, WST understands that the latter was in the market for an arranger for panorama 2008.  In understanding how it all came together, it would be complementary to appreciate André’s interaction with Renegades Steel Orchestra at their Charlotte Street panyard in Port-of-Spain.  Whenever André was in Trinidad for a panorama, he enjoyed keeping a low profile, relaxing and reveling in the unfettered pleasure of being an ordinary pan player - “you don’t want to stay an arranger all the time!” exclaims André.  Interestingly though, for his 2008 in January stint, WST had caught up with André, looking quite drained; the ‘boy wonder’ had landed in Trini to play, but had become engrossed in teaching other players the music - practically from the time he stepped into the panyard, after “getting” the tune himself.

André’s Mangrove gig was set in motion when Andrew Facey, a close friend of André for some time, but who plays with Phase II Pan Groove, was searching for the services of a steelband arranger for the 2008 UK Panorama.  Facey contacted Amrit who was unavailable.

André on stage with Renegades Steel Orchestra for the Panorama semi-finals at the Queen’s Park Savannah, Trinidad, in January 2008

In the meantime, Facey’s friend Jason, a bass player in Renegades and also a Mangrove panist, had been on You Tube and came upon ADLIB’s performance of the 2007 arrangement of Band from Space, which had put them in third place in that year’s panorama in New York.  Jason alerted the Mangrove captain about the arranger and music featured on the video clip – ‘come and watch André…I think he is the man from Renegades who arranged for this band [ADLIB].’ 

Facey was now on track to becoming aware of a hitherto unknown side of his good old buddy André!  After listening to the arrangement, the consensus was  eventually that they ‘had to get’ André to arrange for Mangrove Steel Orchestra.

André himself now half-laughingly reminisces that he “almost missed a good ‘wuk’” because he nearly did not answer his phone (the night before Facey’s phone call having been André’s prom, and he had not yet slept) – having a quick internal debate about whether or not even to pick up the phone.

During the conversation, Facey first broached the topic as an invitation for André to come to England to play with Mangrove, then - casually brought up that they were also interested in having him arrange for the band as well.  Stunned, André did not know what to think.  “Let me call you back” was about all André could muster, partially out of shock, and also out of fatigue.  He slept on it, then realized that he did not imagine it, and had really received that call from Facey.  He called back.

Mom Colleen with André at the 2007 New York Panorama

André’s most avid supporters – mother Colleen, grandmother Maureen and ADLIB’s management – ‘were really pushing him to go.’  When he first told “Uncle Frank” the latter’s words to him were: “Listen - don’t worry about ADLIB - ADLIB will always be here – go and do your thing because this is an experience kids your age only dream about – don’t worry about ADLIB!”  André was justifiably concerned about his arranging commitment to his own band for the New York panorama, which always transpired within a week of the UK sister event.  Franklin Mayers reassured him “Don’t worry about that...come back, we will be here; we will be ready for you.”

And ready they were; for 2008 André was able to compare the almost harmonious ambiance that existed in ADLIB around his arranging, to the sometimes uncomfortable atmosphere of previous years which proved unnecessarily distracting.  “A lot of the younger players – we would stick together - but then it would be like the older folks would try and fight down the younger ones,” thereby creating tension around the situation, explained André.  “But this year I don’t know what happened; I don’t know what they did – but they got together and did what they had to do – and we produced a successful panorama win.”

Grandmother Maureen and Mom Colleen after ADLIB’s and André’s
2008 New York Panorama triumph

André’s mother and grandmother keep him well grounded and have had him concentrate on his education first and foremost.  Attending Freeport High School in Long Island, the budding music notable focused on all subjects while nurturing his special love of music; he has always wanted to be a musician. He was a drummer for the school’s jazz ensemble, played the trombone, and also indulged in piano with a focus on jazz.  His jazz influences which help him immensely in his wider musical work, came mainly through his teachers at school.  But it was Franklin Mayers who sat him down for his initial classical outing, introducing him first to Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave.  André is naturally in tune with other genres of music including R&B and Hip Hop, as is the norm when in company of his peers.  But he also has a penchant for the live recordings of vocalist Jill Scott, and the music of Erykah Badu.

He harbors much respect for many forerunners in steelband arranging, and lists several among his influences including Jit Samaroo, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe - whom he met for the first time in Trinidad in 2007 - and Clive Bradley.  André indicates that he is looking forward to developing somewhat of a signature sound like these great musicians - “you know their music when you hear it,” he says - so that perhaps years later down the line when people hear a certain styling, they can identify that particular ‘sound’ with him, André.  With multiple classical and jazz influences (André lists John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Wyclef Gordon, Thelonious Monk and others among the latter), André continues to strive for perfection, having enrolled at the Berklee College of Music last fall. 

It was through the Thwaites brothers - especially the youngest, Sheldon - that André became especially interested in Berklee. This grew as he did further investigation on the college’s web site, and learnt more about what they had to offer - their recognition and acceptance of the steelpan as a student’s primary instrument, along with the scholarship opportunities afforded.  Berklee became his first choice for college.  “I knew if there was anything I could do, I could play pan – at least a little bit!”  In December 2007 when he auditioned at Berklee, it turned out that it would not only be the steelband world that André caused to take pause.

Auditions had been closed in New York, so André, his mother and aunt all drove down to Boston for his ten-minute audition, on pan, of course. André’s material included a Latin tune of choice - Tico Tico, a classical work, his improvisations around these (very well appreciated by the audition panel) and sight reading.  The panel was impressed with what the steelpan instrument was capable of ‘doing,’ as an outcome of his audition.  André also provided a CD with an original classical piece, composed and arranged by him, amazing the panel even further, resulting in their question - “How old are you again?”  André would go on to receive news of his acceptance to Berklee College of Music around March 2008.

As the rest of the world plays catch up, it was many moons ago that When Steel Talks (WST) identified André White as one of two New York ‘musical talents to watch.’  The other at the time was Sadé Constantine.  And both happened to be in ADLIB.  The ‘André watch’ became official when WST ensured that he was on the panel of arrangers in the forum in 2006, and his arranging work was further highlighted after that year’s panorama

André in 2002, just six weeks shy of his twelfth birthday

WST has been following ADLIB Steel Orchestra for about seven years, and has pictures of many of its musicians - the majority who have grown up with the band - since some were barely able to reach their instruments.  Asked about the experience of arranging for fellow band mates in this situation, André admits that it was a bit challenging relating in this capacity originally, but as the years rolled by, the younger players with whom he played really supported him.  Many are also close friends, like the band’s drillmaster - nineteen-year old Kerniel Wells, who, along with Lashera Smith, made his own task as arranger that much easier.

Continuously accentuating the reality that ‘he would not be where he is today without the support of his band mates in ADLIB, and the love and support of ADLIB’s management, the Mayers, who are also his extended family’ – André reiterates the fact that the opportunity given him by both the band and the Mayers – ‘not a lot of kids get that.’  A lot of people who get “big in the business” forget where they come from, a model André vows not to emulate.

He prefers to remain very much in the background, despite his presence on stage in front of ADLIB during their panorama performances.  André has acquiesced in this regard with considerable reluctance.  His friends/peers have really coaxed him into “conducting” and being out front where they can see him.  He was maneuvered into the position in 2007, and repeated in 2008 (as pictured) when there was no getting out of it as the orchestra once again insisted.

ADLIB itself, after many years of very hard work and gritty determination, especially on the part of its management, is in a fortunate position being essentially an industry within itself.  Their management, tuners (the Worrels), instrument manufacturer (Franklin Mayers), skilled musicians, and now their arranger (André) – are all in house.  There have been tears through the years, when ADLIB has been ‘down and out’ according to André, but he is very proud to say that he has been through the tough times with the band, and kept saying: “Don’t worry, one year we goin’ make it – we’ll come out on top, and get to ‘run on to that stage’ [as panorama winners do].”  And this pronouncement was even before he was the arranger for the band.

 André White is looking forward to taking advantage of the wealth of musical knowledge that is out there.  But he has already journeyed very far in a short space of time and at a tender age.  And he will only get better.

Related article: André White makes History with ‘Heat’ and ADLIB Steel Orchestra


Contact André via Facebook, email him here: A.T.White@live.com

Contact ADLIB Steel Orchestra - band manager Franklin Mayers: 1 (516) 623-4061

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