restricted access 6 - On the Road—the Niu Steelband Tours America
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C H A P T E R 6 ON THE ROAD—THE NIU STEELBAND TOURS AMERICA An important component of any university music program is performance. In some programs that may be limited to a few campus events, but O’Connor was committed to giving the students in the NIU Steelband as broad a performance experience as possible. Opportunities ranged from local concerts around DeKalb to as far away as he could arrange.Early in the band’s history the range of performances included tours to the East Coast during the late spring and summer built around O’Connor’s home base in Long Island. In addition, the NIU Steelband embarked on several major trips outside the Chicagoland area over the course of its history. The NIU Steelband also trekked forth on several notable tours to professional conferences and meetings such as several trips to PASIC (Percussive Arts Society International Convention) and the 1995 Acoustical Society of America national meeting in St. Louis. Beyond the publicity and prestige generated by the NIU Steelband on these various tours, O’Connor and Alexis sought a hands-on educational experience for NIU Steelband members,and these tours served as a laboratory for experiencing life on the road as a professional musician. “Run Out” Concerts The most common off-campus events were a regular series of daytime school programs known as “run out” concerts. O’Connor saw these as an important part of the NIU Steelband ’s mission. These concerts consisted of performances of eight to ten standard songs or C H A P T E R 6 56 tunes with no extended or overly difficult repertoire performed for local or regional schoolage children. Steadfast in his desire to educate the masses about the history and culture of steelband music, O’Connor (and later Alexis and Teague) insisted that the format of these school concerts include plenty of room for presenting the full picture of steelband, history and all. You can’t talk about Al and his performances without mentioning his notorious “Al Speeches.” It was a sort of a “stall tactic” as there wasn’t always a gig list, as he would feel out the audiences as we played, and he would simply “call out the tune” and expect us to find it in our folder and “clothes pin it up” while he“educated” the audience. These speeches were bits and pieces of steelband history that informed the audience more on the culture and music of Trinidad and Tobago.1 O’Connor viewed these concerts as a dual educational opportunity—that is, educational for the audience to learn about steelband and educational for the NIU Steelband students to learn how to present and perform public concerts of this professional sort and style. The typical concert format consisted of the band playing a few tunes, a discussion of steelband and Trinidadian history, an instrument demo of each of the steelband voices, concluding with several more tunes. According to co-author Jeannine Remy,“Al was the kind of person who liked the music to fit on one page.” This affinity for concise sheet music was created, perhaps out of necessity , because, during this time, NIU’s means of copying was a mimeographing machine. The sheet music was handwritten (in O’Connor’s eclectic left-handed screed) and mostly as chord charts with occasional “licks” that were scored briefly or just plain letter names in the direction of the music. Students had to be able to read a musical road map and know and understand chords, chord voicings, and corresponding rhythmic patterns, the aptly named“Al strum.”2 The NIU Steelband had the set list down to a science and rotated a mix of about twenty tunes. The repertoire itself consisted of calypso, pop tunes, classical tunes, jazz tunes— essentially the full spectrum available to steelbands at the time. O’Connor led the band from behind his“Bertie Marshall style”double tenor steelpan cuing and signaling the band as Remy recalled. While playing with one hand and raising the other with a simple turn around “Out!” shout that meant the solo was done and we were moving back to the head. He never missed a beat, and to this day I can envision him stomping his foot, conducting and playing. I might also add that before Cliff,Al was the soloist improvising over the chord changes, and he was really good, especially on the piece called‘The.’3 Every late spring during the early years of...


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