Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dying for A Musical Instrument

Last Saturday, I spent some time interviewing Dr. Larry Snider. He's a professor of percussion at the University of Akron, and he was in Small Town for a little reunion. He started a steel drum band at the university 30 years ago, and one of our school band directors, Joan, was part of the group. With her own group of students, Joan has started a steel band here in the middle of Ohio, seemingly out of place but a perfect fit.

Dr. Snider sat with me for the purposes of a newspaper story, and because I only had a few questions, I let him talk and talk. He was a delight. He talked about how he discovered steel pans in college and how he had to fight for funds to start a band in Akron. He's been so proud of his students, and now one of them is about to perform with a steel pan ensemble at Carnegie Hall.

But it was when he talked about the sacrifices the musicians in Trinidad made for steel pans, he actually shed tears. Descendants of slaves made the instruments out of abandoned steel drums, and white authorities confiscated the pans. They made more, and they fought rival gang members over who would play where and when. Drummers were killed for playing in "the wrong band," but they kept playing.

A few times, Dr. Snider asked, "What other instrument in history have people been willing to die over?"

When he was visiting Trinidad not long ago, he was walking to the prime minister's house with a few local musicians, and he realized they were walking behind him and crying. They told him that when they were kids, they weren't allowed anywhere near that residence, and here they were walking in the front door. So, he stepped aside and insisted they walk in front of him because they had earned the right to enter first.

What a rich history this young instrument has, and how deeply rooted it is in struggle and poverty. The people of Trinidad developed it out of necessity, I think, because no matter how miserable life might seem externally, people still need to express all the beauty and joy and anger they feel internally. No wonder people were willing to die for it.

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