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A Moment with Andy Narell

An Exclusive Interview with the Musician, Composer, Producer and Performing Steel Pan Artist

In addition to his many musical accomplishments and accolades Andy Narell has been and continues to be an ardent promoter and supporter of the steelpan instrument history, music and culture.  Andy Narell is also a firm believer in music education and its benefits.  Next month Andy Narell will be part of an All-Star cast performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) in New York -- When Steel Talks (WST) catches up with Andy for a quick chat about pan, calypso, music education and the upcoming concert.

WST - 1.  What’s happening with Andy Narell?

AN - A lot actually.  I just finished two month’s of work with university and high school steelbands in the States.  It was a very intense schedule - a lot of teaching/rehearsing and more than 15 concerts.  I just did a really interesting project with Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orchestra in Holland.  It was the first time I’ve had my music arranged for a symphony orchestra, with me playing as the soloist.  It went really well, and I'm hoping to be able to do it more, keep developing the ideas, and maybe reach a very different public.  I’m also in the middle of two film projects.  One is a documentary about me for French television, and the other is a concert video of the show I did with Trinidad All Stars at the Trinidad Steelpan and Jazz Festival last year.  Actually the two projects are very closely related.  The French crew came to Trinidad twice - to film the All Stars project, and again for Carnival.  The more time they spend there, the more the film is evolving into a story about Trinidad and the pan, which I’m really happy about.  They’ve shot some great footage there, and interviewed a lot of interesting people - Neville Jules, Ray Holman, Kim Johnson, David Rudder, Relator, Peter Minshall, Patrick Arnold, etc...  I have a clip of the concert on my MySpace page, or you can search ‘Andy Narell and Trinidad All Stars’ on YouTube.
There’s a lot more, but I’ll let you get to another question. 

WST - 2.  Are you still based in France?

AN - Yeah, I’m in Paris.  I’ve been there 6 years now, and I’m finding it more interesting all the time.  When I first came over I focused on two projects - Sakésho (with Mario Canonge, Michel Alibo, and Jean Philippe Fanfant), and doing steelband music at Calypsociation.  I've learned a lot from Mario, Michel, and Jean Phi, and the band is ongoing.  We don’t have that many gigs, but everybody stays super busy anyway.  I parted ways with Calypsociation, but I still have a steelband there with some of those players.  I’m starting to work with different people now.  In particular there are a some African musicians in Paris who I’ve been wanting to work with, and I’m finally getting around to it, and coming up with ideas for some new music.  And again, like with Sakésho, I’m getting schooled by some really heavy musicians that have a very different point of view.  There’s so much to learn.  

WST - 3.  Youve been hitting the college scene a lot this year.  Hows that going?  What impact would you like to see this have on the steelpan music arena?

AN - It’s been going great.  There’s been a profound change in the level of playing at the university level in recent years.  When I first started visiting universities in the 80’s, the programs were being run by percussion teachers that didn’t know much about playing pan or steelband music.  Now we have a second generation of teachers who played pan when they were in college, and have had a chance to work with Ray Holman, Boogsie Sharpe, Robbie Greenidge, Liam Teague, my brother Jeff, me, etc.  and they have access to scores by all those guys.  Most have been to Trinidad.  The level of playing by the kids in these programs is so much higher than it was 10 years ago, and they’re playing a lot of difficult music.  

The fact that these kids read music is creating a whole new set of possibilities for steelband music.  I’ve been working with university (and even high school) bands that have taken on an hour of my music as their semester’s work, in addition to the rest of their repertoire.  I’ll give you another example - last year in Morgantown WV (Ellie Mannette Workshop) we had a 55–piece band that learned almost an hour of music by myself, Ray Holman, Robbie Greenidge, and my brother Jeff - in 6 days.  Ray’s entire Panorama arrangement from 2007, ‘Tatoom,’ etc.   Believe it or not, they played it really well.  

Now it wasn’t the same level of performance that I got from Trinidad All Stars, but those guys practiced 5 nights a week for 6 months to play 75 minutes of music.  This was 6 days.  So imagine the impact this can have on the ability for steelband composers to not only teach, but get their music performed.  

WST - 4.  From a music education perspective - how do you rate the university–level institutions that are now offering the steelpan as an instrument of study, and;
            5.  Are there any institutions or programs that stand out?

AN - Steelband programs at the high school and university level have demonstrated for some time that it’s a valuable music experience, and as far as I’m concerned, any approach is beneficial to a music education program.  The recent advances in steelband education - and the involvement of the best steelband composers - are putting those programs among the most challenging and rewarding musical experiences of anything the kids can get in school.  And the door is wide open for development.  There aren’t really that many schools doing it yet, so there’s plenty of room for growth and improvement.  

There are a number of schools that have strong programs, and I know I’ll be leaving many out, but a short list would have to include Northern Illinois, Miami (Ohio), Eastern Kentucky, North Texas St, Wichita St., Delaware, West Virginia, Akron.  There are some high schools I’d like to mention too - Catonsville MD, Walnut Hills (Cincinnati OH), Marcus H.S. (Dallas), The Steelheads (Flint MI.  You’d be amazed at the repertoire these kids can play.  


WST - 6.  Whats different in pan in the year 2008 compared to 1998 or 1988?

AN - I guess the biggest change is the growth of pan internationally, and what I mentioned before about the new generation of reading, educated players who can also groove.  I’m excited about the youth movement in New York - the Brooklyn bands are full of kids, and many of them want to be musicians.  The most exciting thing that I see happening in Trinidad is that some of the steelbands are getting involved in music education.  Birdsong has been running music camps where the kids get instruction in keyboards, horns, guitars, voice, dance, theory - as well as steelband music.  Pamberi has a band of guys that are all working on soloing, learning about music theory, becoming better rounded musicians. 

One thing that I was reminded of by my experience with Trinidad All Stars is that Trinidad is still home to the greatest steelbands in the world.  They practice harder and groove harder than anybody, and they were ready to be challenged by the music, to adopt a different approach from the way they play the rest of their repertoire.  I was very encouraged by that.  

I’m still worried about the musical climate in Trini, particularly around the competitions.  For the most part, I see very few new ideas in the music for those festivals, and I think we’re witnessing a downward spiral of public interest in the music.  It’s like watching two defensive basketball teams go at it - the only thing interesting is the outcome.  I think we really need to question the wisdom of giving more and more money to the winners, so the same five bands can duke it out playing the same thing in front of the same judges year after year - and start thinking about how to create new and exciting music for steelbands, how to make better audio and video recordings to reach the hundreds of millions of people that are online looking at YouTube, how to create more opportunities for pan players and orchestras to perform, and how to give better music education to our kids.  

WST - 7.  Panonthenet.com is getting 1000s of visitors, emails, steelpan search–related requests and 1000s more on YouTube and similarly–branded channels, viewers on WST steelband video channels - daily, from all over the world, from a wide and varied audience from Alaska to Australia.  Has the steelpan instrument finally begun to make serious inroads into the mainstream consciousness?

AN - I don’t think so.  Not yet.  You guys are doing a good job, and pan is spreading all over the world, but I wouldn’t call it mainstream by any means, any more than I’d call my music mainstream.  I think we’d do well to consider where we are right now as a good beginning.  

WST - 8.  You will again be part of a great line–up of stellar musicians (Garvin Blake, Rudy Smith and Ralph Macdonald) for this years Fathers’ Day Steelpan Jazz Concert at House of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York.  WSTs heard youre going to be presenting a special show this year - somewhat different than what weve seen in the past.  What can the audience expect?

AN - RAP_-00000-17.jpgI've been thinking for a while about putting together a jazz band to take a new look at vintage Calypso, and we’re bringing Relator up from Trinidad to sing and play guitar with the band.  Relator is a guy I have enormous respect for, and I’d be a fan of his whether or not I got to play with him.  He’s a great composer, sings beautifully, is a master of extempo, plays beautiful guitar and cuatro, and is a walking encyclopedia of calypso.  We’ve been playing together in various situations, and I convinced him to let me put a band together to play Lord Kitchener and the other greats, as well as some of his own tunes.  We’re going to bring back some of that music from the 50’s and 60’s when Kitchener and Terror were living in London, listening to Bebop and playing with jazz musicians – and put our own thing together, try to give new life to some classic music.  Oh, and be ready to laugh.  Relator is a very funny guy, and some of the songs are pretty hilarious.  

WST - 9.  Lord Relator is one of the true calypso greats, and performing talents - how did the idea of you teaming up with him come about?

AN - We actually met in Antigua, playing and teaching at a festival put on by Gemonites Steelband.  We connected over Kitchener’s music, which we both love, and started playing together.  We’ve played together in Trinidad and Barbados as well, and I’ve enrolled myself in the University of Calypso, playing with him every chance I can, and trying to absorb some of his knowledge.  We’ve played some gigs, have limed and jammed, and I proposed doing a jazz/calypso band together, with him out front singing and playing guitar, and he agreed to give it a try.  The gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center will be our maiden voyage.

WST - The University of Calypso - love it.

WST - 10.  A few years ago When Steel Talks did a series that highlighted the historical links between Pan, Calypso and the Calypsonian.  Any chance of that special relationship being revived?

AN - As far as I’m concerned, that link has been there all along, and I’ve been loving and playing calypso music all my life.  Steelbands have continued to play calypso.  I think if there’s something that we’re looking to revive, it’s the jazz element in the calypso, which has been largely forgotten, replaced by drum machines, computers, overdubbing, copy/paste.  Much of what we consider to be the real feeling of calypso music came from the interaction of calypsonians like Lord Kitchener with musicians like Fitzroy Coleman, Russ Henderson, Rupert Nurse, and the other jazz musicians in London in the fifties.  There was a great deal of improvisation and jazz soloing.  What I want to do is set up a situation where we can be creative at the same time we’re mining this incredible wealth of good music and lyrics.  

WST - 11.  On the topic of Calypso, there have been some intense discussions as to the future of the Calypso genre, particularly in Trinidad.  What is your feeling on the future of calypso from your perspective as a steelpan musician?

AN - It seems that Calypso as popular music in Trinidad is in serious trouble.  The record industry is in freefall, there is very little calypso on the radio, very few opportunities for live performance.  Young people want loud dance music for the most part, and the audience that knows and loves calypso is aging.  So the future of Calypso is certainly in danger.  That doesn’t mean the music is dead.  There are still artists committed to creating new calypsos, and in keeping alive the classic calypsos of other eras.  If we love this music, we have to stay positive.  Look what happened with the Buena Vista Social Club.  That was a project that happened by accident, featuring artists who had been out of work for some time, playing music that had been popular in the 50’s.  It sold millions of CDs, and they packed 2500–seat concert halls all over the world.  The sudden popularity was a phenomenon, and there’s no formula for repeating that, but people responded to the feeling of the music, the genius of the compositions, and the artistry of the performers.  I started listening to calypso when I was a little kid growing up in New York, and got to see performers like Sparrow by the time I was 11 or 12 years old.  I’ve always believed that calypso could reach a wide audience, and as long as there are artists performing it with sincerity, it’s alive and well, and who knows - maybe it’s ready to break out.  

WST - 12.  The Abstract Entertainment–produced PanJazz show in New York has grown considerably since it was first introduced - and was sold–out last year.  As it relates to these types of shows, is this indicative of what you have been experiencing throughout the USA, and the global steelpan music community?

AN - No, it’s not a widespread phenomenon as far as I can tell.  But from my point of view, some good things are happening.  The fact that Ralph Ramsey (Abstract Entertainment) is making an investment in letting me bring this new project into a venue like JALC, that Ainsley Mark from the Trinidad Steelpan and Jazz Festival made a six–month project with Trinidad All Stars possible - these are important steps.  It’s critical that we have presenters who have artistic vision as well as the commitment that it takes to make the business work.  

As far as the rest of the USA (and the world) is concerned, my experience is that these shows and the opportunities to play jazz are few and far between, but the opportunities to teach and play steelband music are on the rise.  But that’s just what I’m going through.  


WST - 13.  What's on the recording horizon for Andy Narell?

AN - I’m working on several things at once right now, and I don’t know which will come out first.  I’m hoping to record with Relator and the calypso project - we’ll see where we are after the gig at JALC.  We’re working on a DVD of ‘Andy Narell and Trinidad All Stars’ at Queens Hall, and I hope to have that out soon, possibly packaged together with the French documentary.  And I’m working on a project with some amazing composer/musicians from Africa that I hope to record in the next year or so.  

WST - Always great talking to you and sharing your views and knowledge with the WST global audience.

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