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Drumming Up a Caribbean Sound

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The scene is Greenwich Village, New York City in the late ‘60s. A steel-drum band is playing on a crowded street corner: complex rhythms offered mostly for pedestrians too rushed to pay attention.

But one kid from Rochester, who commuted into the city to take percussion lessons, stops to listen. It becomes something akin to a metaphysical experience.

“The steel drum sounds like no other instrument,” said Michael Carney, now 40 and director of the Cal State Long Beach Steel Drum Orchestra. “It almost does something for a person’s psyche. There is a . . . spiritual quality.”

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Carney’s love of the steel drum has left him committed to taking his hammered steel plates out of the musical ghetto and into the mainstream.

To that end, Carney and the Pandemonium Steel Drum Band--consisting mostly of former students--will be joining the Long Beach Symphony this weekend for one night of Caribbean sounds in the symphony’s second concert of the 1992-93 POPS! series.

“This is probably the first time a steel-drum band will play with an orchestra in the United States,” Carney said. “I know it’s a first for Long Beach.”

The steel drum has long suffered from an image problem, Carney said, and the misconception is rooted in the “steel pan’s” origin.

Several stories circulate about the birth of the steel drum. All agree it arose from the streets of Trinidad, the southernmost Caribbean island, and was created by rhythm bands who marched through impromptu carnival parades. In the 1930s, these rhythm bands switched from bamboo sticks, which were outlawed when they were used as weapons in rhythm band rivalries, to paint cans, pans and trash-can lids and began experimenting with a variety of new sounds.

Trinidad now hosts an annual islandwide steel drum competition, called The Panorama, which Carney expects to play in next month.

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But first he will play with the symphony, which Carney hopes will further legitimize the instrument.

The Long Beach Symphony, joined by Pandemonium at the Long Beach Arena, will premiere “Island Fantasy Suite,” written by Carney, and play other favorites of Caribbean influence, such as “Kiss the Girl” and “Under the Sea” from Disney’s movie “The Little Mermaid.”

For more information about the Saturday 8 p.m. concert call (310) 436-3203.

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