Positive Vibrations: Young steel drum players share Caribbean flair
By Michael Livingston II,
“Completely submerged in music.”
That was how Jeremy Caesar, 23, of Beltsville described what it takes to become a good musician, and that was him this past Saturday night at the annual Christmas concert of First United Methodist Church of Hyattsville.
With the steelpans, or steel drums, placed at center stage, Caesar controlled the pulse of the orchestra, creating the heartbeat of the live performance. The Georgetown Chorale gave voice to the music, echoing throughout the church.
A heartbeat, a voice: This concert even had hips — the swinging and swaying, “wining” and wobbling of the Positive Vibrations Youth Steel Orchestra. Together, the ensemble brought the warmth and radiance of Trinidad and Tobago to Hyattsville, through the lush, vibrant sound that is the steelpan.
“This never feels like a job,” says Caesar about his leading role with Positive Vibrations.
The orchestra is the brainchild of Lorna Green, founder and executive director of the Saturday academics program Cultural Academy for Excellence, also known as CAFE. She was introduced to the steelpan by her daughter, who picked up the instrument when she traveled to Trinidad. “She played piano at the age of 6, went to Trinidad at age 12, and learned how to play the steelpan. She came back and promptly announced that she’s not playing the piano anymore,” said Green.
Green saw that her daughter was hooked by the steelpan and decided she could expand this to other children. With a $7,500 loan, she founded CAFE in 1996 in her Mitchellville basement. After a year, she moved it to the church.
The steelpan emerged in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s, but its history goes back to the late 1700s, when enslaved Africans added their home culture to the carnival traditions that arrived on the once Spanish, then British islands with French planters who immigrated during the French Revolution. The slaves “wanted to express themselves musically but couldn’t because of the restrictions placed on them,” said Green.
“The steelpan is different because it’s not a linear instrument,” said Adam Grisé, musical director for Positive Vibrations. “When you think about a keyboard, the lowest notes are down here, the highest notes are up here, and the progression is straight up. But with a steelpan, it’s like the notes are in a constellation. They’ve been pushed and moved around in space, so it’s a lot more three-dimensional.”
As for steelpans’ role in CAFE, “We wanted to have programs that were fun and taught fundamentals, that will help [young people] become better students,” said Green. The skills and lessons that CAFE students learn through Positive Vibrations transfer to their academics, she added. “Music is discipline,” she said. “You are not going to be a good musician if you don’t have the discipline to practice. They learn that through CAFE, through playing music. You see those kids out there? They are hooked!”
The audience was the one captivated on Saturday, even more so than the kids playing the steelpans. The crowd sang and danced along to Caribbean version of songs like “This Christmas.” “That’s something we set out to do . . . to push the envelope and their musical horizons,” said Grise.
Caesar, nephew of Trinidadian composer Lennox “Boogsie” Sharpe, has been a member of CAFE since he was 9 and is now one of the leaders of Positive Vibrations. “I was in this program when some of them were young ones just running around,” he said.
“They’re here to offer their gifts to the church, and we’re here to offer our support,” the Rev. Joan E. Carter-Rimbach said. As pastor of a multicultural church, Carter-Rimbach said, she finds Positive Vibrations an “added blessing to our worship experience. We are many cultures and one lord, so having Positive Vibrations as a part of our worship experience is a given.”