Monday, November 22, 2004

Steel Drums Girls: Making the Best of What's Available

By Douglas McDaniel

Kettle drums have come a long way in the past century, from discarded oil drums in the petroleum rich area of the Caribbean, where it is now the national instrument in Trinidad-Tobago, all the way to Arrowhead Lakes, where it is the sound behind the eight-piece group, Steelin' the Night Away.

The group was formed seven years ago by Sarah King, an after-school teacher at Las Brisas Elementary School. Like many of the other members of the group, King came to the steel drums late in life.

"The church I attended had started a steel drum group, with kids and adults," she said. "Then the adults branched out into a trio, and those people are all still members of the band."

With King as director, the group also includes Maureen Fumo, a full-time mom; Marla Phillips, a nurse at Phoenix Baptist Hospital; Christy Johnson, who works in human resources at Pivotal Research; Belinda Lawrence; a consultant from Honeywell; Chris Adler, another nurse at Phoenix Baptist; Blake Olson, 14, the youngest member of the group as a freshman at Sandra Day O'Connor High School; and Robin Morris, who is "retired" from everything but being a mom and playing double-guitar steel drums made and shipped from Trinidad-Tobago.

Like most of the other members of the group, Morris came to become a musician late in life. She has mixed memories of those early days a few years ago as she stayed up in the wee hours of the morning, practicing the pans.

"This is the most wonderful thing, both musically and socially, that I have ever done in my life," she says.

Even as a novice musician, she already had one thing in her favor: hair color. To look at the group's picture, you would wonder if there was some kind of program in the works because all but one of the women in the group is blonde. It comes up a lot as they play, practice and drive themselves to gigs. For example, Boyd, an Englishman whose Liverpool roots make him the sort of official keeper of the rock'n'roll flame with the group, often refers to the experience with the steel drum band this way: "My fantasy is to always play with seven blonde ladies."

Responds Morris: "We let Chris in, but she's not blonde, so we have to work around that."

The good spirits of the band vibe also translates into a multiply mixed up sound.

"In Trinidad-Tobago, their method of creating music was to just work with the things they had," King says. "When oil was discovered in the Caribbean, the discarded oil drums were brought into the mix. They are very enterprising people, musically. Over the decades, people discovered that you can pound on certain parts of the drum to make specific musical notes."

Eventually, it became popularized by such outfits at the U.S. navy steel drum band, Admiral Dan and His Drum Band.

"I have always loved that type of music," King says. "Now you will find steel drum groups playing classical, Christian music, rock ... We are no exception. We do a little bit of everything."

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