Steel drum artist Andy Narell sets standards, inspires musicians

World-renowned steel drum artist Andy Narell performed at Oakland University alongside two OU world music ensembles on April 5.

World music has existed at OU for over 40 years, according to World Music and Percussion Coordinator Mark Stone.

“The program was started in 1975 by Marvin ‘Doc’ Holladay,” Stone said. “He also started the jazz program, and he has a background in the field of ethnomusicology. [Holladay] thought it was important to develop a world music program.

“In the early days of our world music program, Doc wanted to focus on the African roots of jazz,” he said. “The main focus of the world music program in the ’70s and ’80s was playing traditional West African music because that is such an important root of American jazz. One of the reasons he was doing that was to help people become better jazz musicians, to know that root of the music.”

In the 2000s, Stone formed a steel drum ensemble known as the Pan Jumbies — “Pan” referring to the instrument, and “Jumbies” being the name for steel drum enthusiasts.  The Jumbies are the members of the MUE 3045 “Steel Band” class and play around campus and the region. Anyone interested in steel drum can join the class.

“I took the students to Trinidad [and Tobago] in the early 2000s, which was where the steel drum was invented and developed by people like Ellie Mannette,” Stone said. “And just this past year, my colleague Patrick Fitzgibbon took the students to Saint Lucia to work with Narell.”

One of the original American steel drummers, Narell got his start during his youth in 1960s New York City.

“My dad was doing social work with street gangs on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” Narell said. “He was always looking for something the kids could get interested in.”

One day, his father came across an Antiguan who taught him how to make and play the steel drum. 

“Within a year and a half [of using the pan in social work], he had 20 steel bands practicing on two sets of pans in two rooms,” Narell said. “Everybody wanted to do it.”

While Narell’s OU performances were based around jazz, one of his goals is to push the boundaries of steel drum settings.

“I pretty much decided early on that I was going to see what I could do to implicate this instrument into as many kinds of music as I could,” Narell said. “Not just jazz but popular music, all kinds of African music, Brazilian music, Caribbean music, classical music, film music, TV — whatever.”

This is the third time OU has worked with Narell. The first was for a similar concert in 2012, while the second was for a 2014 concert in East Lansing with a Michigan State band.

“It is really important in any discipline on our campus for students to be able to see what is the highest standard of that discipline,” Stone said. “It is widely recognized that Narell represents the highest stand of steel drum performance, steel drum composition and of steel drum education.”