restricted access 7 - Panning to the East—the Niu Steelband Captures Asia
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C H A P T E R 7 PANNING TO THE EAST—THE NIU STEELBAND CAPTURES ASIA The East Coast tours of the 1970s,the trips to PASIC,and the performance and demonstration at the Acoustical Society in 1995 served to bolster the reputation and status of the NIU steelband program. O’Connor and Alexis spent the better part of the 1980s slowly earning the respect of the Trinidadian public and steelpan community. But it was two highly successful tours to Taiwan in 1992 and 1998 and a tour to South Korea to perform at the 2002 World Cup and the fourth annual Seoul Drum Festival that solidified the NIU Steelband’s international reputation. Upon returning from a visit to Trinidad in 1957, American folk musician and political icon Pete Seeger announced that steelpan “was destined to spread to the farthest reaches of the globe.”1 And indeed, the past half century has seen the sounds and spirit of steelpan infiltrate six continents and countless countries. In places such as Europe and North America, the inroads have been brisk, and in others, more gradual or not at all. Asia falls in the latter category. The continent saw small pockets of active, though isolated, steelband activity in Japan and Australia prior to the 1990s; however, these steelband scenes were not widespread, and Asia remains by and large a relatively recent conquest for the music of steelpan.Asia, the island of Taiwan included, had never before seen or heard the likes of the famous touring Trinidadian steelbands. Bands such as Amril’s Cavaliers had previously toured Australia and gone to Hong Kong, but until 1988, Taiwan and mainland Asia were virtually untouched steelpan territory. How and why was the NIU Steelband able to successfully tour Taiwan in 1992 and 1998? One need look no further than fellow NIU School of Music professor Kou-Huang Han for C H A P T E R 7 66 the spark and connection that led to open doors in Taiwan for the NIU Steelband. Despite earning a Ph.D. in musicology from Northwestern University, with a dissertation in Marian antiphons (early religious music from the Western European tradition), Han was an ethnomusicologist at heart, and through his upbringing in mainland China and Taiwan, he developed a deep love of Chinese and Indonesian traditional music.2 He was hired as a musicologist to teach Western music history at NIU in 1974 and quickly took advantage of the open-mindedness of the faculty by starting an Indonesian gamelan and Chinese music ensemble. Han, like O’Connor, was much more interested in world music than in Western classical music and eventually was able, over time, to shift his teaching responsibilities away from the traditional Western canon to exclusively world music and ethnomusicology. According to Han,“The Music Department (not School yet) seemed very eager to accept new ideas. It was also one way to compete with other big universities in Illinois.‘We have something you don’t have.’ After all, they let me introduce world music from scratch even though I was hired to teach Western music history initially.”3 Like Alexis’s relationships to Trinidad and Tobago, Han kept very close contact with friends, family, and colleagues back in Taiwan, and he was eager to bring a group of his American students from NIU to Taiwan to perform. The opportunity came during the period from December 1978 to January 1979 when Han and the NIU Gamelan and Chinese Orchestra toured Taiwan and Hong Kong at the invitation of the Taiwanese government .4 The tour was a success, and the NIU Chinese Orchestra—billed at the time as the only Chinese orchestra in the world comprised of non-Chinese performers—made a very strong impression upon the government and academic institutions of Taiwan.5 In the mid-1980s, the president of the National Institute of the Arts in Taiwan, Professor Shui-Long Ma, came to visit Han in DeKalb. Professor Ma was a close friend of Han, and in addition to his administrative duties at the National Institute of the Arts in Taiwan, Ma is a well-known composer of contemporary Western European classical music.6 According to Han, Professor Ma was impressed by the diversity and quality of the NIU world music ensembles.“He [Ma] was amazed in seeing so many world-music-related activities at NIU and invited me to go to his school as a visiting professor to set up a similar program which was ‘far...


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