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Published on February 23rd, 2016 | by www.thehour.com


In Wilton Steel percussion band: Everyone is a musician

While growing up on the island of Trinidad, Norwalker Donna Rogers-Jones and her brother Robert were discouraged from playing the percussion instrument known to Trinidadians as a steelpan. The instrument, fashioned from one end of a 55-gallon oil drum, originated in the Laventille slum of Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago’s capital city, and was considered coarse by the country’s upwardly mobile classes. “Any decent young lady was discouraged” from playing the steelpan, said Rogers-Jones, whose devout parents preferred she and Robert sing religious songs and play the organ, piano or guitar. Often inaccurately called a “steel drum,” the steelpan was invented in the 1930s by parade bands in Laventille who innovated as they strove to be as loud as possible and drown out the music of rival musicians. The bands would compete for volume using metallic objects like tins, barrels and car parts, creating what Rogers-Jones said is today known as the “iron band” sound in Trinidad and Tobago.

The musicians Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Manette and Anthony Williams are credited with inventing and refining the steelpan as a melodic instrument, Rogers-Jones’ brother Robert added. Despite their musical upbringing, neither Donna nor Robert had much involvement with music upon relocating to the United States – not, that is, until Donna encountered Wilton Steel performing at Wilton Pizza, under the leadership of Wilton jazz percussionist Arthur Lipner, during one of the band’s weekly summer gigs at the restaurant.  “I just wasn’t expecting to see a steelpan in there!” Rogers-Jones said, adding that she was immediately moved to dance despite the immobility of the other spectators. “In Trinidad, whenever we hear music, especially pan music, we would groove. I simply could not remain seated.”

Rogers-Jones decided “then and there” to join the band. “What made it better is that I am from Trinidad, and … they were playing the steelpan, which is from Trinidad, and some of the songs were calypsos from Trinidad and Tobago.” Although she had never played steelpan before, Rogers-Jones picked up the instrument known as a “double second” – a set of two steelpans tuned to a tenor register – and soon enlisted Robert to play guitar. Wilton Steel is the brainchild of local percussionist Arthur Lipner, a highly refined jazz musician who travels the world playing 70 to 80 gigs a year with various bands and has made a documentary, “Talking Sticks”, about the marimba and vibrophone. Six years ago, Lipner founded Wilton Steel as a “community band,” with the idea that anyone can join. “I’ll let anyone in,” Lipner told The Hour. “All ages, all levels of inexperience, and I just work with what people can do.”

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