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Article Title: Emily Lanxner and PanAshé A Steel Beat in Stately Montpelier

Edition: June 2001
Category: Horizons
Author: Edie Black Zfass

What a contrast.

When Montpelier's PanAshé Steelband appeared at a party community party to honor outgoing head librarian Janet Nielsen, it was loud and lovely entertainment against a stately backdrop of the 19th century Victorian Kellogg-Hubbard Library.

The music that Emily Lanxner has been performing to an ever-growing cast of Central Vermonters was quirky and entertaining.

Paul Costello of Montpelier listened with delight. "Scintillating! The Beatles medley was very refreshing. This music is about joyfulness. It's very positive music." People were silently bobbing up and down with the music and he appreciated the inter-generational collaboration within the band and in the audience. Delia Robinson, of East Montpelier, had a similar response noting, "how wonderful it is that some of the musicians are children!" She also enjoyed the surprise and "unexpectedness of hearing this music filling the Victorian space." A Fifth of Beethoven brought forth an enthusiastic response.

An Oil Barrel? Music?

Hammering music out of a 55-gallon oil barrel is a tall order. Montpelier's Emily Lanxner, Director of the PanAshé Steelband, is inspiring a number of central Vermonters to do just that. Ever since a small community on the island of Trinidad invented their steel drum instruments in the 1950's, the sounds, melodies and rhythms of their music have attracted a steadily growing number of enthusiasts around the world. The music flows forth; once you've heard it, you'll never forget it.

Montpelier Enthusiasts

Attorney Alan Rome, private detective Steve Pitonyak and local realtor, Lindsay Wade, are steel drum enthusiasts and students of Emily Lanxner, musical director of PanAshé. Unlike Wade's childhood piano teacher, "Emily is an excellent teacher. She improves people. She is sensitive to the realities that adult students don't have a lot of time to practice. Emily takes people as they are. She doesn't scold us." Wade would "like others to know it's great."

For Rome, the attraction to the music is its joyful character. "As a trial lawyer, I have a lot of stress in my life. It's very ethereal music. When PanAshé played at the library recently, they lit it up.

Young people in the group -- off beat -- wearing costumes and sunglasses." As Lanxner's student, "My goal is to make it onto the July 3rd float, like Lindsay [Wade] did last year. Bread and Puppet, watch your step!" Camaraderie characterizes these students. They have fun and Rome seems to be the group comedian. He chuckles, "There are times when Emily says a comedian is very important, but a drummer is also important!"

Pitonyak became interested in steel drums after seeing the preparations for the "West Indian Parade" in Brooklyn last August. In the class with him, his 11-year-old daughter Brittany Sandman-Pitonyak enjoys the dance element of Trinidadian music. Pitonyak is thrilled to have this special experience with his daughter. "She sees me struggle with learning something. That's good. Often the situation is reversed." The father/daughter duo is a nice echo of what happens in Trinidad, where parents and children frequently participate together in the enjoyment of music.

Students' Creatively Weird Alternatives

Most of Lanxner's instruments are from Trinidad, although some were made in Boston and Brooklyn. The American ones are more expensive and can cost $1000 per drum. Although drums are available at Lanxner's studio, her students turn to creative alternatives at home. Wade relates that she took two pizza boxes, marked them up and practices at home with two wooden spoons. Rome gesticulates in the air or taps on the table as though he's drumming, which sometimes elicits a "Dad, are you OK?"

The sound of a steel drum band is a complex marriage of chaos and order. In Trinidad, bands can be 100 people or even larger in size, and like classical symphony orchestras, are highly rehearsed. Steel drums are pitched percussion instruments, and by striking the drums with mallets, melodies in all ranges can be played. The tone of an individual pitch, however, does not have as pure a sound as those of the more familiar orchestral or band instruments. Due to impurities and eccentricities in the simple metals used in steel drums, the instruments produce complex overtones that create a somewhat clattery, somewhat bell-like tone color. The matchless sounds resonate in memory long past the performance.

Emily Lanxner grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland. Coincidentally, she was born the week in 1962 that Trinidad gained independence. Her introduction to steel drum music at age twelve was at the American Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington, D.C. She was a classical piano student and the 15-piece steel drum band playing a Chopin etude was inspirational. From an instruction book, she and her father tried to make a steel drum. She laughs at the recollection, "We didn't get far."

Notes on a Barrel? How?

A typical drum is about 2 feet in diameter. Slice off the bottom half of a 55-gallon oil barrel. The flat top of the barrel is pounded down with a sledgehammer, or shot put, to a concave form about "the shape of a wok," as Lanxner describes it. Then grooves are made on the surface into different sized segments; "imagine a turtle shell," says Lanxner.

Each sub-area produces one note. Musical sounds are made by striking the note with a mallet in the middle of the concave area. Final tuning and pitch is achieved by hammering from the backside of the metal. That's it. You have your steel drum, or as they say in Trinidad, your "pan."

Steel drums come in all different sizes. The smallest pans produce only high notes, are approximately the size of a snare drum and are mounted on stands. Each drum has 15 notes, but instruments are sometimes paired, allowing a single musician to play up to 30 notes. The midrange instruments (those that play around middle C on a piano) are intermediate size; the bass drums are full, freestanding barrels. As bass pans have far fewer notes per drum, you need to set up four of them around you and athletically jump back and forth to get to all the possible notes.

A Trinidadian Odyssey

At age twenty, Lanxner fulfilled her mission to become totally immersed in Trinidadian culture. For six months, she lived in a hilltop ghetto above the capital city Port of Spain, in a neighborhood of concrete, tin roofed houses. She joined a local steel band and was quickly welcomed into the community. According to Lanxner, women play an important role in the Trinidadian music world. Some of her instruments were gifts given her when she left Trinidad to move back home.

Festival steel band competitions feature heavily in island life. Their status is comparable to our Super Bowl. "You hear everyone talking about it. They have one television station there, and everyone in the country watches. I think it's more popular than sports. Every neighborhood has a steel band. It's a tiny country, the size of Rhode Island, yet they have hundreds of steel bands there. You hear people arguing about the best arrangement or a passage they love. When you see the contrast, you see how starved this country [U.S.] is for the arts in general. Music and art are so downplayed in our culture."

According to Lanxner, big corporations, such as "oil, rum and beer companies", sponsor steel drum orchestras in Trinidad. From ages 8 to 70, the community-oriented nature of the bands engages everyone. Lanxner looks forward to similar corporate sponsorship here.

Calypso To Jazz To Mozart

Trinidad steel drum groups have for a long time expanded their horizons beyond the traditional calypso and traditional Trinidadian soca tunes to arrangements of jazz, pop music, and classical compositions.

Huge steel drum orchestras play everything from Mozart's A Little Night Music to Glinka's thunderous Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. While steel bands follow the printed music to these classical pieces quite religiously, they have little knowledge of centuries of European performance traditions and phrasing styles. The Trinidadians overlay their own sensibilities on the classical pieces they play. Their sudden, spiky crescendos can add a zany edge to Mozart or Chopin. PanAshé supplements its traditional island tunes with everything from Beatles songs to jazz, disco, funk, and bossa nova tunes.

A Pun on Pan

PanAshé is a pun on the word panache. A steel drum is called "pan" in Trinidad, therefore, bands on the island frequently pun the word "pan" into group names such as "Pandemonium" or "Panatics." The word "ashé" is a West African word similar to "amen" or "grace of God," a word used as a response to something spiritual. It seemed appropriate to include the word in the group's name, since the community in Trinidad that invented the idea of the steel drum fifty years ago was of West African origin.

Rehearsal Time

At a PanAshé rehearsal in Lanxer's tropically painted studio, Lanxner stops the music midstream to rehearse a spot where someone came in wrong. They work on it. Like an orchestra conductor, Lanxner is responsible for having an ear sharp enough to pick out an off part in a fairly dense thicket of rhythms and pitches.

Thirteen-year-old Noah Schy asks, "What am I doing before your solo?" Lanxner demonstrates on her instrument, adding, "when I get really possessed, you might fade out." Each person has different body motions while playing. Some tap their feet, some bob up and down, some rock back and forth, some are studious. Oddly enough, their motor patterns don't necessarily match the beat, yet they all play well together.

The PanAshé band frequently acts as though they are a rock band, dancing on stage when they aren't playing for a few measures, pointing arms in the air, or rotating a 360-degree circle. No sheet music is used.

Lydia Mackey explains, "We learn music totally by ear. You get it in your arms." By "it", she's referring to the patterns of physical motion needed to get from note to note in a particular phrase.

Lanxner says "sometimes, if I'm working out an arrangement, I'll write down certain parts so I can remember what all the different voices are playing. But when I show the students what part they're playing, I pretty much just show it to them on the instrument, and they learn it directly from my hands to their hands … I strongly discourage them from having a chart while they're playing," although one can be used as a reference.

PanAshé's music is fast and rhythmically active, with occasional "breaks" to allow for dramatic re-entrances. The players switch off which steel drum they play from tune to tune. The drum set works well, especially in the American tunes, and is expertly played by Geza Wesh, a talented 15-year old who is Lanxner's son. He's played in the group since age 11.

At the rehearsal, the players are having a little confusion over the opening of Miles Davis' All Blues. Lanxner explains, "You have to hear the change of chord. Take your cue from when you hear the B-flat."

Bold Experimentation

Although Lanxner's arrangements are worked-out and set, the group has an experimental, "let's try it" approach to new ideas. For example, on one tune they're rehearsing, PanAshé has Lydia Mackey play some slow, swirly lines on her oboe. Mackey has played steel drums for six years, and finds PanAshé's "upbeat and rhythmic" music a nice contrast to her classical oboe studies. What's the hardest aspect of the music for her? "The rhythms can be kind of tricky, especially on the guitar pan."

Noah Schy has been playing music for six years and has studied steel drums for the past six months. He agrees with Mackey that, "the rhythms are kind of confusing. It's amazing that Emily can hear all seven parts in her head." Renowned for its super-relaxed culture, the juxtaposition of intricate, highly rehearsed orchestral music within a culture at the opposite end of the classical music spectrum is intriguing.

Student Stories

Lanxner's beginner students work on a soca entitled Take A Man. Lanxner played the drum set, occasionally yelling out beats "1, 2, 3, 4". Student Alan Rome was heard to mutter under his breath, "Oh, so fast!"

Rome likes to joke, "the band is Pan-Ashé; we students are papier-mâché!" They cheer as they reach the end of the tune. Although supportive, Lanxner points out a passage in the middle of the piece they omitted. She coaches Steve Pitonyak on his bass steel drum part; "You waited too long before the bounces," she explains. The group proceeds to run through the entire tune six times; repetition is the name of the game.

Montpelier's July 3rd celebrations will see PanAshé Steelband perform at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library between 2 and 4 p.m. A trailer provided by the city will roll the steel drum students along with the PanAshé Steelband, as they brighten and cheer the parade route with their inimitable sounds.

Lanxner's Crystal Ball

Asked for her assessment of the local scene, Lanxner replied, "It's pretty limited. There are a few places that are performance opportunities, but the pay scale, for the most part, is so low, it's like why bother? And I think part of the problem is that there isn't really much of a nightlife audience in Montpelier, so that's why the places here can't really afford to pay more. They don't get enough people there." As a new venture, she will be starting to play with a jazz trio, with an engagement upcoming at the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington.

For the future, Lanxner says she would eventually like her steel band to move to the new Pyralisk Arts Center and rehearse there outdoors all summer, so people on the bike path and by the river can listen to the music. Steel drum music, like bagpipe playing, just seems to be naturally more at home in outdoor performance.

"What I'm really hoping for is to get more of a broad base of community support. I'd like to expand my band to be more of a community-sized band, more like an orchestra. In Trinidad, in a town this size, they would have a steel band with eighty people."

Making music out of an oil barrel doesn't rate to be easy. Whatever its future, the bright and joyful music of Montpelier's PanAshé Steelband is a welcome and sparkling addition to Vermont's musical landscape.

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