David Aarons, the complete pannist

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Few musicians are such masters of their art that they not only play, compose and teach music, but also make their musical instrument. David Aarons is one of the few.

Ironically, he began his musical career with reluctance.

The story of his transformation from a foot-dragging piano student to dedicated pannist (one who plays the steel pan), arguably, has as its moral, "Parents know best."

When he was nine years old (in 1996), Aarons told The Sunday Gleaner, he was instructed he should begin piano lessons.

At the time, he admitted, "I never had, or showed, the slightest interest in the piano, but my parents decided that it would be good for me to take lessons. I went to these lessons dragging my feet for a few years until I gradually began to open up to them."

Momentous decision

His interest in music turned to devotion when he discovered the steel pan and it continued to grow until February 2005, when he made a momentous decision - music would be his career. His life then began snowballing.

Aarons now has a first-class honours bachelor's degree in musical arts (the steel pan being his primary instrument) from the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago; is an experienced performer, having played in several leading steel bands during the three years he lived in Trinidad as well as with steel bands in Jamaica; is now a lecturer in steel pan music at the Edna Manley College for the Visual and Performing Arts; and, additionally, makes and tunes pans for various steel bands in Jamaica.

He also composes music for the steel pan. His work, Likkle Dancehall Fugue in D Minor, was one of the more enjoyable items played at the UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra at last month's recital, The Art of Steel, at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Performing Arts, UWI, Mona.

His interest in composition began when he was 12 and attending St Andrew Parish Church. He recalled: "I saw someone playing the steel pan at my church and decided that if I ever got an opportunity to play it I would. I thought it was such an interesting instrument and I think the mystery of it drew me in."

(Read more: Jamaica Gleaner)

'Art' music from a steel band

Think steel band music and you think calypso and soca. That's true of most people, most of the time.

But those two types of music are not the only ones that can be played by the instruments created, originally, from oil drums. In the right hands, the steel band may be a purveyor of "art music" - which is sometimes, and less accurately, called "classical" music or, more judgementally, as "serious" music.

On Sunday night, the instruments of the UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra were definitely in the right hands, and the ensemble convincingly presented a recital titled The Art of Steel: Caribbean Composers, Caribbean Instrument, Caribbean Art, at the Philip Sherlock Centre for the Creative Arts, at Mona. The "art" in the title referred both to the type of music played, as well as the artistic photography which accompanied and complemented the music.

Projected onto three screens suspended above the stage, the photographs were the work of one of the pannists, Diallo Dixon. They included nature scenes, abstract pictures, the details of musical instruments or plant produce, and people variously occupied.

Varied moods

For the most part, the music was not light-hearted, as pan music tends to be. That is not to say it was always solemn, though some of it was. At other times, the adjectives slow, meditative, abstract, complex and poignant would be more precise.

The final item, Samaroo's Festival of Voices, however, was definitely joyous. It was a tune you could jump to as you travelled the campus' Ring Road.

The one constant throughout the varied moods invoked was that the playing was excellent. The leading players were Gay Magnus and David Aarons, both of whom have years of experience in music as well as first-class honours degrees in the art. Other pannists were Krystle Stennett, Rory Mitchell, Mark Hylton and Bianca Welds.

As the long title suggests, the composers are all from the region: Lodovic Lamothe (Haiti); Magnus, Aarons and Eleanor Alberga (Jamaica); Leo Brouwer (Cuba); and Liam Teague, Lord Kitchner and Jit Samaroo (Trinidad and Tobago).

Delightful work

There was a special addition to the pan music programme. The evening also was used to launch the world premiere of a delightful work by Peter Ashbourne, a homage to the late Jamaican patriotic song composer, Clyde Hoyte. Ashbourne (on violin) led his ensemble The Pimento Players (Beatriz Pozuetta - violin, Ann McNamee - viola, and Emily Elliott - cello) in a four-minute arrangement of Hoyte's well known song O'er Our Blue Mountains.

(Read more: Jamaica Gleaner)

The Musical Apostles Debuts

Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

The Kingston Parish Church is the most recent convert to the growing number of Jamaican churches with steel bands. The Musical Apostles was formed in September, and last Sunday was ceremonially dedicated to the church by the new rector, Bishop Don Taylor. He declared that having the band is "a joy".

The band was the brainchild of Rev Jim Parks, until recently the assistant priest at Kingston Parish Church. The 14-member band is composed of five boys and nine girls from Kingston Parish Church and Christ Church Vineyard Town, and officially belongs to both churches.

'Most qualified' steel panist

Its leader, Gay Magnus, is "probably the most qualified" steel panist in Jamaica, according to her assistant, Dwight McBean, an organist at the Kingston Parish Church. He told The Sunday Gleaner that the band desperately needs more pans.

"We have only enough pans for five positions, the minimum number of positions in a steel band, so teaching the 14 members is tedious," he said. "Everything has to be taught three times, so that all 14 can learn. The church actually owns only five pans; the others are borrowed."

He said the church will be having a fund-raising concert on December 28 to raise funds for additional pans, the smallest of which, the tenor pan, costs about US$800. Part of the proceeds will also assist the ongoing restoration process of the church's 99-year-old pipe organ, which was built after its predecessor was destroyed in the 1907 earthquake.

The fund-raising concert in the church hall will feature numerous well-known artistes, including singers Veila Espeut, Carole Reid and Andrew Lawrence, singer-trumpeter Dwight Richards and actress Grace McGhie, as well as the Musical Apostles.

The oldest male member of the Musical Apostles is Joel Brown, a percussion student at the Edna Manley College's School of Music, who wants a career in music. He teaches the other members how to play the trap drum set and is a Roman Catholic.

Loves all types of music

Albert McDonald, 13, goes to Greater Portmore High School and wants to be a pilot. He loves music "of all types", he says, but adds, "I don't fancy dancehall. It's too violent - all about guns and killing."

David Natty, 12, the youngest member, goes to Wolmer's Boys' School and initially wanted to be a musician (for a while he played drums, the clarinet and sang on a choir), but now he wants to be a scientist. Both he and Albert attend Kingston Parish Church.

Karan Mellish-Fisher, who plays six bass (the large, whole drums), is the Sunday School superintendent at Christ Church and an employee of the Jamaica Co-operative Credit Union League. She has loved music from childhood and studied piano up to Grade 6.

Lauren Mais, 20, the tenor panist, played the violin for 10 years while a member of Dr Olive Lewin's Jamaica Orchestra for Youth and now plays with the Jamaica Young People's Symphony. She attends Christ Church and the University of the West Indies (UWI), where she is a medical sciences student. She plans to be a doctor.

Bandleader Gay Magnus developed a love for music early in life as a piano student. While at UWI, she joined the Panoridim Steel Orchestra on the Mona campus and after graduating remained an active member. She has held several leadership positions, including band captain, musical director and musical arranger. She continues in the last-named position.

(Read more: Jamaica Gleaner)