Kim Loy Wong - Master Steelpan Tuner, author, performing artist and Innovator
A fortuitous interaction with folk music icon Pete Seeger (famous folk singer/banjo player)—who was on a visit to Trinidad in the mid-1950s (1956)—is what led to Kim Loy Wong eventually and initially taking up residence in New York in the United States. Seeger had gotten to know of the new musical innovation - Pan - and traveled to Trinidad in search of someone who could provide him with some of the instruments. Seeger was interested in the distinctive music style because he saw it had a potential for helping ‘ghetto’ kids.
Says Kim Loy Wong: “I was walking down the street one day in Trinidad with some drums. This man [Seeger] then came up and asked me if I’d show him how to make them. So I took him to my backyard and he made a movie of me working on a drum.” And about that resultant movie/short film: “Music From Oil Drums” was a 16mm, 15 minutes, black & white entitled by Peter and his brother Toshi Seeger. It is a detailed documentation of steeldrums, including scenes on how they are made, tuned, played etc. - of special value to school groups, and others interested in making and playing the instruments. It also holds interest for folklore enthusiasts, musicologists, anthropologists, and general audiences. Subsequently in 1958 the film won the “Chris” award for excellence of Production, Information and Education; it was also nominated for the EFLA (Educational Film Library Association) award, 1959.
But before those accolades of this film featuring Kim Loy Wong at work which were then still to come - Seeger had proceeded to make arrangements for Wong to build the instruments and ship them to the U.S.A. so Seeger could put them to use, both musically and as a recreational tool for youngsters. Wong had earned himself a ticket out of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad where he had been leader of the Highlanders Steel Orchestra. Earlier, he and Rudy King had been colleagues in a teenage band, before King migrated.
Upon arrival in the United States, Kim Loy Wong's initial commitment was to a facility for youngsters in Kingston, New York, where the learning of the steel pan instruments became part of the school’s routine. One of the highlights of that stint in Kingston was the band being taken to entertain Eleanor Roosevelt at the Roosevelt estate. Later in 1960, Wong would be engaged by University Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, again directing his efforts in the art of pan playing to neighborhood youngsters.
The ties with Seeger having remained strong, Wong played an influential role when the New York City Board of Education was convinced to bring the new art form to more kids in the school system, ranging from 5 years old to late teens, as after-school activity. Institutions included the Henry Street Settlement, Educational Alliance on South Broadway, Leak & Watts in Yonkers, Dr. White Centre in Brooklyn, Graham School in Yonkers and Children’s Village. W.I.T.I. Graham School and Children’s Village are two of the schools that survived the Government cutbacks in the late 70s and remained successfully in operation in later years. According to Wong, social worker Murray Narell's sons Andy and Jeff Narell were also students at one point.
Kim Loy Wong relocated to San Antonio, Texas 1980, again passing on his knowledge of the steel pan culture in a youth program there. He also put together a band which became quite popular in the region. Wong’s services as a tuner continued to be requested in New York, Boston and elsewhere.