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The drums of summer

The steel pan, sometimes called the steel drum, was born on the island of Trinidad about fifty years ago—the musical child of West African and European cultures. For more than thirty years, the beautiful driving rhythms of steel pans have resonated throughout Rochester and the Finger Lakes where its growth has mimicked its multicultural origins. Native Trinidadians, musicians from other Caribbean cultures, professional musicians, K–12 and university musicians, and just about everyone in between are drawn to the instrument. No matter who you are, it’s hard to stay still or stay uptight when a steel band starts to play.

Two local pan players embody the instrument’s wide appeal. Al St. John was born in Trinidad and grew up in the panyards: the places where musicians gather to play. He came to Rochester and had a successful career at Kodak, all the while keeping his eyes on his musical heritage. Since 1972, St. John’s Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band has shared his cultural roots with audiences throughout the region.

A favorite at the Lilac Festival, outdoor restaurants, and private parties, the concerts are filled with gorgeous calypso music and Al’s gentle stage presence. Ted Canning grew up in Cleveland and is classically trained on the timpani and other orchestral percussion instruments. Once he was introduced to the steel pan, he never turned back. Ted joined Pangaia, a big traditional steel band directed by Bill Youhass, and also formed his own small band, Panloco, dedicated to playing a wide range of styles from traditional calypso and salsa to jazz, pop, and even a little classical. 

Ted often travels to Trinidad to play in the Carnival contests during Mardi Gras. It must be said that the competition for a playing spot in any Carnival band is stiff for a native but even stiffer for an outsider. Ted not only held his own in the Phase Two Pan Groove band but they won the Carnival competition several times. Ted has also played pans at both Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. He represents the new generation of multicultural musicians who take great care to learn the authentic tradition while bringing new musical ideas to the pan. The steel pan world goes way beyond good music.

Just as Trinidadian political leaders knew that pans could reduce gang violence in Port of Spain, Ted knew steel pans had the power to transform communities here. He has dedicated his career to forming and direct- ing new community bands and educational bands. For example, Steel Alchemy, a community band, plays hot calypsos and sambas all summer with membership that stretches from twelve-year-old girls to grandmothers.  For over half the lifetime of this very young musical instrument, both traditional and nontraditional players have preserved a rich Caribbean tradition and pushed the envelope on its musical possibilities right here in the 585 region.

You can see steel pan bands at these upcoming performances:

  • Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band July 21, 25, and August 1, 7–11 p.m. Pelican’s Nest 566 River St., Charlotte
  • Steel Alchemy Community Steel Drum Band August 10, 10 a.m. Avon Rotary Corn Festival Downtown Avon
  • Panloco Steel Band August 18, 2 p.m. Sodus Point Lighthouse Concert 7606 N. Ontario St., Sodus
Glenn McClure is an award-winning compos- er and arts integration consultant who is on the adjunct faculty at the Eastman School of Music and SUNY Geneseo. Learn more about Glenn’s work at his website

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