The steel pan, widely known only as an instrument of reggae, has an abundance of capability across a variety of musical genres. The Rhythm Project All-Stars are here to introduce Chautauqua to the new world of sound created by these steel pans.
Consisting of first-rate high school students from southeast Virginia who excel at performing live on the steel drums, the Rhythm Project percussion ensemble tours year-round, earning international acclaim for entertaining concerts and traditional authenticity. Once joining the Rhythm Project’s premiere ensemble, the All-Stars, a high school student can participate in the program until graduation.
Making their Chautauqua debut, these high-energy steel pan prodigies will take the stage at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 10, in the Amphitheater. Audiences can look forward to watching them moving and grooving in synchrony as they drum, and listening as they take turns playing solos.
“For those that have not heard a live steel pan ensemble, get ready for some serious joy that may literally move you,” said Deborah Sunya Moore, senior vice president and chief program officer.
Originating in Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost Caribbean island, the steel pan began as a reflection of the nation’s African and European roots. Contemporary steel pan musicians now embrace diverse influences from East Indian music to bossa nova, from calypso and soca to jazz. The Rhythm Project’s show will borrow from many of these influences, as well as recognizable radio tunes, all at an upbeat tempo with a highly danceable beat.
“For the Trinidadians in general, one of the best ways to help legitimize their new artform to the world was to show that they could play any style of music,” said Dave Longfellow, director of the All-Stars group, during a 2019 performance at the Kennedy Center.
That versatility will be showcased as the 29-student ensemble moves through different styles, ranging from reggae to disco to classical, each piece taking a different feel from the last.
Along with presenting the sound of the steel pan at its most traditional and innovative, the Rhythm Project is dedicated to sustaining an engaged community of students. The Project aims to nurture students’ confidence while instilling dedication and discipline through individual and cooperative achievement and performance.
“From the moment (I heard) about Rhythm Project, I wanted this community music experience to come to Chautauqua as a model of how organizations can build self-esteem and empathy through youth and the arts,” Moore said.
Students from different high schools and school districts come together as All-Stars, giving them unique opportunities for lifelong friendships and building camaraderie with like-minded musicians. The work ethic developed performing at a professional level in a modern conventional steel band follows them long after graduation.
Aside from a drum kit and auxiliary percussion, the band is composed solely of steel drums, varying in size, pitch and timbre. These drums create a full soprano, alto, tenor and bass choir of voices. The steel pan has been the only family of acoustic instruments to be invented in the last hundred years, after the saxophone family in the late 1800s.
“The way the steel pan works is a novel idea,” Longfellow said in 2019. “The smaller the tiny bump of the note is, the higher the frequency, so we have a lot of space to put a bunch of small notes. The lower the note, the bigger the bump, so we need more real estate, so we start adding more instruments.”
The bass pans, lowest in pitch and with the longest skirt length, require a set of four drums to provide their full voice in the band, whereas the soprano pan requires only one.
Traveling to the direct source of the instrument in 2020 for the Trinidad Panorama, the largest steel pan competition in the world, gave the Rhythm Project students a game-changing opportunity to learn the culture along with the music.
“It absolutely raised the bar in terms of how the students approach and perform the music in the ensemble,” Longfellow said.
The All-Stars — cultural ambassadors of Trinidadian steel pan — are expanding continually into new artistic and creative areas, bringing a multicultural music experience to audiences throughout the United States and Canada. They have “a unique opportunity to break down any preconceived notions about the steel pan,” Longfellow said.
And fair warning: Conga lines and front-row dancing are a real possibility.