The steel pan musicians bend over their instruments in deep concentration at the front of the church altar. Their arms show tenseness and precision like tightly wound clockwork, but their relaxed bodies sway and keep time to the rippling music.
A sea of vibrant royal-blues, kelly-greens, and sunset-oranges adorned the garments of the audience as they pulsed and clapped along to the music. As the energy of the drums build, church members begin to stand and jump into the performance as veteran viewers listening to familiar songs.
The band, Shining Stars Steel Orchestra, is one of the youth ministries of the Westchester United Methodist Church in the Morris Park section of the Bronx. Comprised of up to 30 members with players ranging from 16 to 20 years old, they perform steel pan arrangements of traditional hymns such as “I Surrender All” and “Blessed Assurance.” This unit holds regular concerts every second and fourth Sunday as well as holidays and events at the church.
But the band is certainly not confined to the Bronx. One summer, they performed at Martha’s Vineyard in the Union Chapel. They have also appeared at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem, a fitting location considering the rich history of steel pan instruments.
The origins of steel drumming
After gaining freedom from slavery in 1838, lower class Trinidadians formed music bands that exuberantly, fiercely, and often violently competed with each other during the dancing processions for Carnival which coincided with Lent in the Christian calendar. In 1881, a British police captain evidently viewed the drumming, singing, and dancing duels as a danger to the social order and cracked down on them. The locals responded with the Canboulay Riot, which is commemorated today with reenactments during Carnival. Unable to use their traditional drums, Trinidadians developed other percussion instruments such as bamboo sticks on a frying pan.
In World War II, the U.S. Navy set up a base in Trinidad which brought 55 gallon oil drums to Trinidad. An enterprising Trinidadian recycled the oil drums to create the steel pan with its distinctive sound. In the 1950s a U.S. Navy admiral was awed by the music and established the U.S. Navy Steel Band in 1957. At the same time, steel panning was losing some of its association with secularism, lower class violence, and Bacchanalia.
Prior to the 1960s, steel panning was not done in churches. The instruments were also associated with band rivalry and the vagabond lifestyle.
“Let’s just say you wouldn’t want your daughter dating a steelpan player,” laughed Roy Gomes, the director of the Shining Stars. Churches gradually came around to the idea that they could utilize steel drums to connect with their youth.
Steel drums as an antidote to trouble-making
Gomes himself credits the drums with keeping him out of trouble as he grew up in gang-riddled Antigua in the early 1960s. “It was tough sometimes. There were a lot of young men walking around with nothing to do,” Gomes says. Playing the drums gave him something in which to invest himself. “The pans have been good to me. I found these drums, and it just came natural.”
He came to the States in 1967 and began playing steel pan for a number of different music groups, including the Brute Force Steelpan and City South Steel, a close-knit group consisting primarily of relatives that also migrated to the Bronx from Antigua.
In 2000, Gomes performed at the Methodist church with another church group. Afterwards, Rev. Johnny Johnson, then the pastor at Westchester United Methodist Church, approached Gomes with the idea of starting a youth ministry centered on the steel pan. Gomes was ecstatic, and the ministry has been around ever since. Samuel Shaw directs a younger group of players, the Rising Stars, who range from 7-15 years old.
Steel drum evangelism
Gomes observed that as Caribbean roots continue to grow in many Bronx-based churches, steel pan is an increasingly important component of the worship. The sensuality of the music may even be one of the aspects that make it appropriate for worship and draws people into church.
The sound produced by the chromatic instrument is as light and playful as water plinking off a tin roof, but the music also reverberates with a forceful energy as the mallets hit the metal. Reverend Gordon A.R. Edwards of Westchester United Methodist Church explains, “There is a bass pull underneath the music. It draws people, and they don’t even know it. It has the effect that the sea has on you.”
In the performances which A Journey through NYC religions witnessed, the bass is literally the center of the music. Four tenor-pan sets on latticed stilts are arranged on either side of the church podium, and the 6-drum bass set is stationed in the middle. The player Casey, whirls from oil can to oil can like a maestro Moses holding the rhythm steady in between the rippling walls of music rising on either side. All eyes are on her as she plays, calling the congregation to an other-worldly home.
“When you play,” Casey says later, “you feel it in here.” She raises her fist to her heart. This year, she is also transferring her bass drum skill into learning the bass guitar.
The church that drums together stays
Two hours of worship service can be the source of tension in this multigenerational church, as the cultural paradigms of international parents and native children cause misunderstandings over seemingly minor issues such long services versus curfew for secular activities.
“All our kids identify as New Yorkers,” explains JT Crockett, the church’s Youth and Young Adult pastor, “but very few are raised by New Yorkers.” Issues of miscommunication between the older and younger members of the church are “based on our kids’ New Yorker-ness and their parents’ foreignness.”
But steel pan is an arena in which the two groups can meet. The younger generation of the church views steel pan music as a connection to hip music culture as well as to the traditions of their parents and grandparents. For the other members, many of whom are originally from various Caribbean islands, the steel pan music is a precious religious relic from home.
Some of the older members of the congregation were concerned that as the current group of students enter college and move away the orchestra will diminish. However, the church makes an effort to keep in touch with its graduates by hosting an alumni gathering of the ministry at the end of every summer. The current group of players is the third to arise from the church.
The ministry is not only the glue that keeps the church together, but congregants also see it as a striking testimony to their faithfulness to God. Rev. Edwards reminded the congregation the true meaning of the steel band ministry: “We are so happy our brothers and sisters in the steel pan band have done what they have always done: made themselves available to the service of God.”
Video reporting contributed also by Melissa Kimiadi