Southern Oregon’s Marvel Road Steel Band has been working to bring Trini pan culture to the Pacific Northwest.
It’s commonly understood in the world of steelpan musicians that the average person either sees pan one of two ways. Either it’s an exciting instrument that has limitless untapped potential or it’s a novelty instrument that should only be used to play popular Caribbean-style pop standards like “Under the Sea.” Tom Berich, director of Maraval Road, The Southern Oregon University (SOU) Steel Band, believes in the former and is working towards educating people about it, no matter the challenges ahead.
“Basically, I started this group in 2012 because I had a strong desire to perform Panorama music. I did quite a bit of it at West Virginia University (WVU) and also from my time at Indiana University, including the opportunity to visit Trinidad for Panorama in 2011. I also performed in Silver Stars for Panorama in 2016 and will perform with Cordettes in 2017,” Berich said. “When Maraval Road started, many of the students assumed we would play Jimmy Buffet and Bob Marley, and part of my mission was to expose a whole segment of students to a style of music they knew nothing about. They had never heard the names ‘Boogsie,’ ‘Professor,’ Ray Holman, Ellie Mannette, Lord Kitchener, or Mighty Sparrow, (only one of the students had heard the name Andy Narell) and it is wonderful to see these kids minds and ears opening up to a brand new (to them) style of music.”
For over 23 years, Berich has been playing pan professionally, having started at West Virginia University in 1992, learning from Dr. Ellie Mannette as a student for three years in his popular University Tuning Project.
“Truth be told, I wasn’t drawn to it at first. It was something that I HAD to do at WVU at the time, but it was something that grew on me. Specifically, I had been asked by the director of the the percussion program at the time (Phil Faini) to play a few paid gigs for the University. This was the first time I had been paid to play ANY percussion instrument and honestly, the money was what drew me to it,” Berich said. “My interest grew with each and every gig I played. As I grew more and more familiar with pan in a performance setting I grew more and more interested in the history and folkloric aspect of the culture.”
Thanks to his extensive background in performing and tuning the instrument, Berich began collecting pans from different sources in both the U.S. and Trinidad & Tobago. He eventually gathered enough over the years to be able to start his own band if the opportunity arose. Sure enough, after moving to Southern Oregon four years ago due to his wife finding a new job there, Berich found opportunity with a familiar name. He contacted Terry Longshore, percussion director of Southern Oregon University. “I knew of him as he is well known in contemporary percussion circles, and we had mutual friends in common, but I had never met him before,” Berich said.
Berich soon learned that there were no steelbands in the area, nor any solo players. The nearest university with a steelband program was Humbolt University, which was a three-hour drive South due to rough terrain and impossible to travel during the winter.
Eager to expose his students to the instrument, Longshore invited Berich to perform several masterclasses, after which, the students were asked if any would be interested in playing on a regular basis. Several said yes and Longshore offered for Berich to use the university facilities.
“This group is entirely self-formed and funded, meaning ALL of the instruments are mine (five tenors, three double seconds, two triple guitars and one tenor bass). The electric bass and all engine room instruments are supplied by the school,” Berich said. “The model I use is what I used when fellow pan player Joseph Galvin and I had a band in Bloomington, Indiana: Anyone who wants to play signs a contract for a pan to keep for themselves for a low, one-time rental fee (usually the cost of a tuning). This one-time fee is whether they are in the band one week or 10 years. This gives them the opportunity to learn and practice on their own. If the University owned their own instruments, this would be a different scenario and we would utilize what the University had but, as of this writing, SOU does not own any of their own instruments.”
Once a year, Berich reaches out to other university students on campus to drum up interest. While the majority of the players are students, there are a couple players from the community, according to Berich.
Since the band began, there have been several accomplishments. For the first time ever at the university, classical music was performed during a recital on triple guitar by Sean Muir, performing Manuel Saumell Robredo-Contradanzas no. 12 and Antonin Dvorak-Humoresque. Two of the band members also performed in Panorama 2016 with Silver Stars Steel Orchestra.
“The ensemble being offered as an actual educational ensemble is a HUGE deal for the school of music,” Berich said. “We have also premiered a number of brand new arrangements and original works including an award winning piece for steel pan and electric percussion (De/Construction by Colin Malloy).”
Thankfully, public reception has been strong so far, despite the challenges Berich has faced in educating people in the region about the capabilities of a steelband. “Bringing steelpan to an area that has no prior knowledge (or at best, a touristy “cliche” knowledge) of steelpan brings a somewhat hesitant acceptance of the instrument,” he said. “We (being three years into it) are constantly asked if we ‘know any Jimmy Buffett’ or are asked to play ‘Under the Sea’. Fine artists and songs, to be sure, but not what properly represents the instrument and culture.”
One of the most successful ways programs across the U.S. promote the instrument’s versatility is with festivals, such as the Pan People Music Fest in Denver and the Virginia Beach International Panorama. Berich would like for his group to attend festivals around the country to help build notoriety for his group but such an endeavor is too expensive for his group at this stage in its existence. Instead, Berich hopes to create a festival of his own that welcomes other bands on the West coast.
“There are ensembles that have expressed interest, ranging from Oregon University to high schools in Northern California, that say they wish those kinds of pan festivals were more prevalent on the West coast,” Berich said. “We anticipate starting a small event in Southern Oregon and inviting the small community of steelpan artists in Oregon to participate.”
Moving forward, Berich believes other programs can be created in a similar way to his as long as the director of the group has a way to overcome the two biggest hurdles when starting a steelband.
“The biggest issues will always be funding and instrument acquisition. If you ask the schools for money or donors for funds you may be sitting around for a long while just waiting. Frankly, I’m not that patient,” Berich said. “I had some instruments and a desire to perform some music. If you have the facilities and the resources (instruments) it is up to you and you alone to do your own recruiting and outreach. Especially if you are in an area that does not know the pan culture. Once you get more than one pan player in front of people, interest tends to build and that seems to be how it’s worked for me. If you have the desire to start the band then you have to be proactive. The school won’t come to you.”
As far as continued growth for steelpan in the U.S., Berich believes that the more educational options for both performance and building/tuning of pan, the better chance the instrument has of growth overall. But given the issues pan has seen for the last 20 years, he admits there is still much work to be done yet.
“There are still arguments about standardization. There are still issues with legitimizing the instrument in pop and jazz. etc. There are heated discussions about arrangements. Tuning is still seen as something very few people can do,” Berich said. “I think the most important thing for moving the instrument forward is getting more pan in education in general and arguably, the MOST important thing is properly teaching pan construction and tuning. This is something that has been attempted a number of times (mainly through the Ellie Mannette camp) but an actual school of pan dedicated to making/tuning would be a wonderful thing to see beyond a two-week workshop. Folks that have expressed interest to me about learning how to make and tune do not realize (and are subsequently discouraged by) the idea that becoming a pan maker/tuner is literally a lifestyle and career choice.”