Very few youngsters from New York City grow up to become one of the world's leading steel drum players. For that matter, very few child musicians anywhere in the United States even think about the steel drums as their instrument of choice. America's steel pan man Andy Narell was introduced to the instrument at age seven, and never looked back.
Andy Narell credits his father for getting him started on the steel drums, more commonly known as the steel pans. When Andy's father organized steel bands for inner-city youth, he was hooked.
"I started playing when I was a really little kid," explains Narell. "I was about seven years old, and my dad was doing social work with street gangs on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And he hit on steel band music as a community center activity for kids, but everybody wanted to do it.
It was really something that had started as a bunch of teenage kids from the tough parts of town playing percussion," he adds, "and just playing rhythms in the street at Carnival time, [which later] developed into orchestras. And the whole competitive atmosphere had turned away from fighting and towards the music."
Andy Narell was further inspired by a trip to Trinidad, where he met and performed with native steel pan players. His fusion of Western music and Afro-Caribbean rhythms landed him a recording contract in the early-1980s. American audiences were drawn to his blending of Latin melodies with R&B, funk and jazz.
For the past two decades, Narell has performed at steel band festivals in the United States, Europe and the Caribbean. His successful string of albums include jazz and new age-flavored releases, a live recording in South Africa and his current CD The Passage, featuring a world-class steel orchestra and several noted jazz soloists.
For an instrument that has its roots in the Caribbean, the steel pans have always been a passion for Andy Narell. He has a particular interest in explaining its design and workmanship, as well as its history, its sound, and its ability to change with the times.
"They're sunk with a sledgehammer," he explains. "You make it concave. Then you mark out the pattern of the notes, and take a hammer and a punch and then groove separations in the steel. They make grooves in the steel to separate each note. And then they cut the sides to various different lengths depending on how high or low-pitched the instrument is. And then they hammer it from underneath so that each note is convex, so that way it will vibrate because it's very, very tight when you sink the pan down. And then comes the real art, and that's shaping and stretching and loosening the metal in very specific ways so that you can tune it to the exact note that you want it to sound like. And beyond that, and this is where the technique has really been revolutionized in recent years, the control over the overtones around the edges of the notes has come to the point where they tune all the edges of the notes to harmonics."
In addition to his solo work, Andy Narell is a founding member of the Caribbean Jazz Project with vibraphonist Dave Samuels and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera.
Narell's latest album The Passage features Paquito D'Rivera on alto saxophone, Michael Brecker on tenor sax, Hugh Masakela on flugelhorn, and from France, the 30-piece steel orchestra Calypsociation.