Le’Roi Simmonds, Arranger for Rising Stars Steel Orchestra, Speaks

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

When Steel Talks Exclusive icon


In an exclusive interview with When Steel Talks, US Virgin Islands native Le’Roi Simmonds shares insight on who he is as a musician, how his love for the steelband art form and culture developed, and what it means to him. He also dispenses some words of wisdom for up-and-coming youngsters in the art form.

WST - “Le’Roi, how long have you been involved with the steelpan art form?”

Simmonds - “I have been involved with the steelpan art form for about 15 years.”

WST - “At what age did this happen, and how did it come about?”

Simmonds - “I was about 10 years of age. I was part of an afterschool program called ‘Downstreet Youth in Action.’ It was a program geared to keep the youth of the Virgin Islands off the streets. However the program ended because of the destruction brought about by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. When the program started back up in early 1996, it became Downstreet Pandemonium Youth Steel Orchestra, as the steel pan was used to bring back the old members - as well as bring in new members. At first I wasn’t going to go back to the program, but after months of my mother insisting that I do go back, (she loves pan by the way) I finally went - and the rest was history.”

WST - “Do any members of your family play pan? If not, how did they react to your initial involvement with the art form?”

Simmonds - “Being that there is a steel band in just about every school on St. Thomas, many of my relatives have played pan at some point in their lives.”

Arranger Le’roi Simmonds of Rising Stars Steel Orchestra, USVI
Arranger Le’roi Simmonds of Rising Stars Steel Orchestra, USVI

WST - “You say that your Mom loves pan. Is she one of those relatives you speak of, who have played as well?”

Simmonds - “My mother actually started to play pan after I had already been playing for a few years. She doesn’t play anymore though.”

WST - “Given that there’s a steelband in almost every school in St. Thomas, how many in total, estimated?”

Simmonds - “About twenty schools also have steelbands in St. Thomas.”

WST - “You stared out playing with Downstreet Pandemonium and are now with Rising Stars. Did you play with other steel orchestras?”

Simmonds - [After Downstreet Pandemonium] I played with Charlotte Amalie High School Mellow Hawks, and St. Thomas All-Stars Steel Symphony before I joined the Rising Stars in 2001.”

WST - “How many years did you perform with Rising Stars, before becoming the band’s arranger?”

Simmonds - “My time with the Rising Stars was very brief. I only performed with them for about a year before moving to Tampa, Florida to complete my high school education.”

WST - “And how did your arranging responsibilities come about?”

Simmonds - “I was hired as an instructor for the band, so naturally I offered my arranging services to the band as well.”

WST - “Was steelband arranging always one of your goals, one you worked toward? Or did an aptitude for arranging reveal itself, leading to your position?”

Simmonds - “I wouldn’t say it was always one of my goals, as I have had different goals at different times in my life. Studying at Florida Memorial University definitely helped channel my creativity into music.”

WST - “Do you anticipate working with the steelpan art form, as your fulltime career?”

Simmonds - “I am extremely blessed to be currently working with the Rising Stars as part of the fulltime staff.”

WST - “Who are your musical icons – in whichever genres that are applicable to you – steelband arrangers, soca, Hip Hop, R&B, Jazz, Rock – etc.?”

Simmonds - “Ok I will try not to go on forever with this question. Well - when it comes to steelband arrangers, my very first steel pan instructor Elvino “Sifu” George was and still is, one of the greatest panmen on the island, God rest his soul. Others that come to mind are Rodney Hedrickson, Sean Steele Sr, and William Haynes also from St. Thomas. I am also heavily influenced musically by Ray Holman, Ken “Professor” Philmore, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Jit Samaroo, Robert Greenidge, Clive Bradley, as well as Annise Hadeed. I listen to just about every genre of music from Destra Garcia to Alicia Keys to Charlie Parker right down to Tchaikovsky.”

WST - “How do any, or all, of the above-referenced genres influence your style of arranging?”

Simmonds - “I like to draw on all my musical experiences when I arrange or perform music. I just let it flow and do what comes naturally.”

Steelpan musician and arranger Le’Roi Simmonds
Steelpan musician and arranger Le’Roi Simmonds

WST - “Do you perform as a soloist as well?”

Simmonds - “Yes, I do.”

WST - “How do you feel, being an important part of such a well-known and respected steel orchestra coming out of St. Thomas, USVI? And what do you think overall of Rising Stars Steel Orchestra?”

Simmonds - “I feel blessed to be a part of this steel orchestra. I’ve always wanted to give back to my community, and what better way to give back than through music?

“As far as my personal feelings about the band, it feels really good to be able to mentor the younger ones coming up while still being a part of the steel band movement.  It feels especially great since I was in the band as a student - and now to come back as an instructor and being able to arrange for a band the size and caliber of Rising Stars, I feel extremely blessed.

“The Rising Stars Steel Orchestra itself is a great program for kids that prevents school dropout and juvenile delinquency. We also assist members’ completion of high school; and, facilitate preparation for post-secondary education. In addition to teaching music as it relates to steel pan, the program also provides guidance for the youth to enable them to avoid the criminal justice system, as well as encourage them to have a positive attitude towards their home responsibilities, within the band and the community; and most importantly, to their education. In other words, we provide the members of the Superior Court Rising Stars Youth Steel Orchestra with a ‘home away from home.’”

WST - “What advice would you give to those younger than yourself in St. Thomas, growing up as part of the steelband art form?”

Simmonds - “Practice, practice, practice!!! Learn what you can from those around you from now, so that you will be prepared later in life. Pick the brains of those who have the knowledge; teach what you have learned, because teaching helps reinforce what you already know. Be respectful to everyone regardless of how “good” you are - for it will carry you a long way. Above all else - be humble in everything that you do because all of the talent and skill and knowledge can be taken away in an instant. God allowed us to be who we are, and we should always be thankful for the gifts that we have.”

WST - “Talk a bit about the steelband art form overall in St. Thomas, and the USVI in general; your thoughts on it, and in which direction you think it should be headed.”

Simmonds - “Pan in the USVI is very nice and laid back. There are no big competitions or anything like that. It is more geared toward the youth to keep them off the streets and point them in the right direction, as well as a learning tool in the public and private school systems. There are a few “adult” bands, but you mostly find the steel pan in schools and things like that. I always hear older folks talking about pan in the 50s and 60s and how there were so many bands where not only kids played but it was more of a community band. Different neighborhoods had their own steel bands, and even bands from other islands would come over and participate in our carnival. I would like to see pan moving back in that direction.”

WST - “Talk about Rising Stars in general, its history, and how you see your role in the band at this point in time.”

Simmonds - “The Rising Stars was organized in the summer of 1981 as the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands’ school dropout and juvenile delinquency prevention program for students between the age of 10 and 18 - or until they graduate from high school. Being apart of this program is so much more than arranging. It’s more about taking these children under your wing and making them into something better than yourself.”

WST - “You are a former student of Florida Memorial University (FMU) in Miami; talk about your experience there, how that came about, and your path since then.”

Le’Roi Simmonds and his music instructor at FMU, Dr. Dawn Batson
Le’Roi Simmonds and his music instructor at FMU, Dr. Dawn Batson

Simmonds - “My mother is actually the one that discovered Florida Memorial University while she was online surfing the web. When she told me I could study music with the steel pan as my focal instrument, I immediately changed all my plans - and from then on I knew I would be a musician for the rest of my life. My experience at “Flo Mo” was one that I will always be thankful for. I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Dawn Batson. She was my mother for four years and I will always be thankful for her. She, along with the other professors, took me from not really knowing anything about music, to equipping me with the skills and knowledge to succeed in the real world. Also being around other great panists like Leon Foster Thomas, Shenelle Abraham, Iman Pascall, and Kareem Thompson opened my eyes to a totally different world of pan. They did things on pan that at the time I didn’t know pan could do. My experiences at Florida Memorial had a huge impact on who I am today.”

WST - “While you were studying at FMU, did your study schedule permit, and/or did the opportunity presents itself, to become involved with the steel pan art form in the USA? If so, did you perform with a US-based steel orchestra during your time at FMU (beside the university steelband)?”

Simmonds - “Actually yes I did. I performed with the Sesame Flyers Steel Orchestra in 2005 and 2006 for Panorama. My good friend Freddy Harris, III was arranging for the band. Come to find out he was also a part of Rising Stars which I thought was very cool because I didn’t even know he had ties to the Virgin Islands. Shows how small the world really is.”

WST - “Will you be in NY for this 2011 Panorama season?”

Simmonds - “Yes I plan to be there. I haven’t been there since 2005 so it would be nice to be there again.”

WST - “Where do you see yourself in five years from now?”

Simmonds - “I would eventually like to arrange for a New York or Trinidad Panorama.”

WST - “And in ten years from now?”

Simmonds - “I’m just a “pan jumbie” so anywhere a Pan knock, that’s where I’ll be no matter how old I get.”

WST - “Presumably you are back in St. Thomas now, working with Rising Stars?”

Simmonds - “Yes, the band is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary, so we have a lot of things planned for the year - and we are also conducting our bi-annual summer recruitment program.”

WST - “Any other “burning issues” you would like to table?”

Simmonds - “I would like to see a Panorama held for the entire Caribbean. I don’t know if that would be possible or not, but it’s something for “the powers that be” to think about.

“Thank you for interviewing me. I hope to see you guys in the near future.”

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