From its beginnings as a small band -- without even a lead instrument -- in a corner of the NIU Percussion Studio, the NIU Steel Band has a lot to celebrate from the past 40 years.
The celebration culminates in the band’s 40th anniversary concert Sunday, April 13, in the Boutell Concert Hall of the NIU Music Building.
Steel band co-director Liam Teague said the concert program will reflect the spirit of the band throughout its existence. “It highlights what we’re trying to do in the steel band,” he said. “We’re looking at the past, present and future.”
The program features pieces performed in international competitions and composed by the band’s directors over the years, co-director Cliff Alexis said. Past students who participated in those international competitions also will perform at the concert.
Former band director Al O’Connor was head of the NIU Percussion Studio in 1973 when he created the steel band. In 1984, O'Connor brought in Alexis, who was the only steel pan technician in the country at the time, from Minneapolis to help construct pans and help with the ensemble.
But where did the band get all of their 55-gallon oil drums to make the steel pans they have today? And how were students from Trinidad able to come to NIU for school? O'Connor said the band has Lester Trilla, retired president of Trilla Steel Drum Corporation in Chicago, to thank. Trilla Steel Drum Corporation builds 55-gallon oil drums for medical and other non-musical purposes.
Chicago source for drums
O'Connor said Alexis used Trilla barrels to make steel pans, and he was going to the company several times a semester because he was building steel pans for people all over the country. One day, the company president came down to the loading dock and asked Alexis what he was doing with the drums. Alexis told him he made instruments and invited Trilla to come for a program of the ensemble.
"He showed up and, at that time, the audience, who was still quite taken with the instruments themselves, used to mob the stage after we'd finish the program, looking at them and everything," O'Connor said. "We're used to a crowd coming up there. We tried to pack up and this guy taps me on the shoulder and says, 'My name's Lester Trilla; how can I help?' Since then, he has supported about 14 students from the West Indies, full ride."
O'Connor retired from the NIU School of Music in 2001 as Associate Dean, about the time Teague started to take over the band. The steel pan studio later became its own separate entity within the NIU School of Music.
Not only is the NIU Steel Band one of the oldest collegiate steel bands in the country but, Teague said, NIU is one of the few universities in the world that offers both bachelor’s and master’s degree in steel pan performance.
O'Connor said he never thought the band would achieve the national recognition it eventually gained in the last 40 years.
"I'm so thrilled at being able to bring Cliff and Liam into these positions and see the notoriety that they achieved was far beyond anything I ever thought would happen," O'Connor said.
Stigmatized in its infancy
In its infancy, playing steel pan was at least stigmatized, if not illegal, since it typically was associated with gang activity, Teague said. People caught with steel pan mallets often were subject to police brutality, and the pioneers of the instrument had to work very hard for the kind of recognition accorded to other musical instrument.
"If you get a chance to read up on it more, you'll be truly amazed of how blessed we are to be playing within these four walls,” Teague said.
One indication of the growing respect for steel pan,Teague said, is the induction of Alexis into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame last November.
"It's very, very meaningful because, to my knowledge, he is only the second steel band person in the world to be inducted into the PAS Hall of Fame," Teague said. "I have so much respect for him because he's 76 and he doesn't act like the average 76-year-old person. In the steel band society, people his age think about what happened yesteryear and don't necessarily support the up-and-coming players of the generation of today. He's not like that; if it weren't for him, I wouldn't be doing a lot of what I'm doing.”
O'Connor said he's so grateful to be part of the NIU Steel Band's legacy and considers himself lucky to have worked with both Alexis and Teague over the years.
"It makes me feel very good,” O'Connor said with a laugh, “when I go sit in those audiences and see what those have been able to accomplish and think, 'I did that.'"
The 40th Anniversary Concert will begin at 3 p.m. Sunday. Admission is free, and the concert will be webcast on the Music Department website.