Seduced by a summer siren

Baltimore Sun

It was love at first sound.

About 25 years ago, Kevin Martin, then a guitar-happy high school freshman, walked into Ocean Pines Yacht Club in Ocean Pines, Md., with his parents and had what one might call an aural epiphany.

A couple of steel drummers were playing Caribbean music, and he'd never heard anything so sweet; like church bells in a giddy mood, like diamonds raining on a tin roof.

"The steel drum is a drum that plays melody. That's what's so weird about it," says Martin. "The closest thing to it is the talking drum from Africa."

He went on to earn a business degree from Cornell University, then worked a few years for his father's financial planning firm but eventually surrendered to the "pan," as the steel drum is colloquially known in its native Trinidad.

Martin, now 38, plays in several pan bands and runs his Rockcreek Steel Drum School in Maryland. He's also that rare off-islander who has mastered the craft of building (and selling) pans.

Practitioners insist the steel drum can accommodate any musical genre, from classical to blues. But it's primarily associated with bouncy, sand-in-your-shoes rhythms, as much an accouterment of summer as umbrella drinks.

Thanks in some measure to Jimmy Buffett and his pan-singed beach music, steel drumming is on the upswing. According to Angel Bice, president of the International Assn. of Pan, based in Akron, Ohio, there are more than 3,000 players in the U.S. and about 400 bands. The tinklings of steel drums are heard as far away as in China, Denmark and India.

"It's exploding," says Bice, adding that 50 colleges now make steel drum part of their music curriculum.

Four years ago, Martin accepted a solo pan-playing gig aboard a Caribbean cruise ship so that he and his wife, Greshen, could make a trip to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad.

"It was like going to Mecca," says Martin.

While under British colonial rule, Trinidadians endured several periods when drums of any kind were outlawed by authorities, who feared they inspired gang violence and political unrest. As an alternative, locals reached for biscuit tins and garbage can lids, eventually graduating to empty oil barrels.

By the 1950s, those barrels had found their voices through shaping and tuning. The government decided to harness that energy, opting to combat gang activity by turning drumming into musical competition. It worked.

There are now hundreds of neighborhood steel bands based in clubhouse-like "pan yards." A gigantic battle of the bands, known as "Panorama," has become the highlight of carnival season. Steel drums are pictured on the country's currency.

Pan music bubbled up from the streets, much like rap and hip-hop would decades later. It's oral culture set to a beat. Succeeding generations must pass the torch of that tradition -- wherever players are found.

"It's what I'm going to do the rest of my life," says Martin. "For me, I feel like it's a responsibility of the [pan] builder to provide education."

That's where Rockcreek Steel Drum School comes in. Think of it as a musical obligation without walls. Martin is owner. Mike Miller, a longtime friend and fellow pan man, is education director. Miller's day job is music teacher at Old Mill High School in Millerville, Md., where he does double duty as director of the steel band he founded.

Martin and Miller team-teach Rockcreek drumming classes. They also supervise a steel ensemble.

Miller has a degree in classical music. Discovering the steel drum breathed new life into his teaching career.

"It was born out of poverty and the need to play music," he says. "I know how things can become institutionalized and elitist. I don't want that to happen to the pan."

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