Sounds like paradise, a soothing break from the daily grind of work, traffic jams and the demands of family.
And while the beach may be little more than wishful thinking for many this time of year, its promise of peaceful relaxation isn’t so far away — at least musically speaking.
On Saturday, April 14, the historic Monteith Ampitheatre at McClellan hosts the Southeast Steel Band Carnival, featuring eight steel drum bands — including three local bands.
“It’s going to feel like Jamaica for sure,” said Pete Conroy, who serves on the Longleaf Arts Council, which has worked for two years renovating the amphitheater. “I just couldn’t imagine a more perfect setting for this kind of event.”
Though the novice initially associates steel drums with Jimmy Buffet, the instrument has a rich history. It was invented on the island of Trinidad around World War II and is national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.
The roots of the steel drum reaches back to African slaves, who were placed on the island by Spanish and French plantation owners in the 16th century. Through constant struggles to survive and the hardships placed upon them by their “masters,” most of these African slaves lost their native languages, leaving music as the only link to their heritage.
What’s now known as steel drum, or pan band, began with the metal beating bands of the early 1930s. The players used all metallic instruments (such as tin pans, biscuit drums and dustbins). It was soon discovered that these metal instruments changed pitch after being beaten.
By the 1940s, pan innovators experimented with note patterns. Today, the drum is constructed from the bottom of a 55-gallon barrel, sunk down in a concave fashion and precisely tuned to shape and create distinctive notes.
“It’s a very particular process,” explained JSU professor of percussion Tony McCutchen, whose four-member community band, Tropical Breeze, will perform in the festival. “Every time I play steel drum for someone, it’s as if they’re seeing and hearing it for the first time. It’s a much more complex instrument than most people realize. There are soprano pans, alto voice pans, bass pans; all the notes are hammered into these barrels.”
The festival is somewhat inspired by Carnival, which is the pre-Lent celebration where steel drums play a large part. About a week before Carnival begins, there is a steel band competition in Trinidad called The Panorama, where bands range in size from 35 members to more than 100.
“People talk about steel drums and their arrangers like people talk about baseball teams and their managers here,” McCutchen said. “These are community bands in every sense of the word. They’re not playing for money, just for the love of the art form.”
The idea of the Southeast Steel Drum Carnival was inspired by this type of competition. Last year, McCutchen took the JSU Steel Drum Band, which he directs, to a steel drum festival in Pensacola, Fla. It was also the last year that particular festival was to be held. After returning home, McCutchen was talking to another faculty member about possibly doing something along the same lines at McClellan.
“We figured, why not do our own thing?” McCutchen said. “We knew about the Monteith and that it would be the most logical place to host something like this. It just took off from there.”
With three local bands — the JSU Steel Drum Band, Tropical Breeze Steel Band and Jax Pan — along with high school bands from Georgia, an elementary school band from Georgia and a college band from Mississippi, McClellan’s own version of Carnival is sure to set a unique tone for an amphitheater in the midst of renovation.
“It’s going to be something special,” Conroy said. “What a great event to show off this venue.”
Not since its glory days, when Monteith hosted some 12,000 to be entertained by the likes of comedian Bob Hope, Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall, Rev. Billy Graham and boxer Joe Louis, has the amphitheater garnered so much fanfare. It’s a project more than two years in the making, with most of the work focusing on landscaping and drainage work.
Saturday’s festival will be the first time the hillside of the Monteith will be used for a performance.
“We want to start slow and get a sense of how people will use this space before getting started on the next phase, which will be hard-scaping — including light and sound towers,” Conroy said. “I hope that it opens the creativity for others who can use it for graduations, concerts, dances, whatever. Our goal is simply to make sure this great space is getting used.
“So far … we’re off to a great start.”
Southeast Steel Band Carnival
Saturday, April 14, 10:30 a.m.-6 p.m.
Monteith Ampitheatre, McClellan
Admission is free
Link: For more information, including a list of bands and performance times, visit www.southeaststeelpan.com