By Chris Plumery

The steelpan originated in Trinidad and Tobago and its culture has shaped the identity of NIU’s Steelband.

According to NIU’s Steelband webpage, the band is dedicated to demonstrating the profundity of the steelpan, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.

G. Allan O’Connor was the architect for that identity. 

O’Connor, founded the NIU Steelband in 1973. He formed the first active steelband ever at an American University. This led to NIU being one of the few institutions in the world to offer students an undergraduate and graduate music degree with the steelpan as the major instrument of choice, according to NIU Steelband’s webpage.

According to Door County Pulse, in 1968 O’Connor was appointed Head of Percussion Studies at NIU, and served as Associate Dean of NIU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts from 1989-2000. O’Connor took the band to perform all over the world, from places as far as Trinidad and Tobago, Taiwan and Yankee Stadium in New York.  After leaving his mark on NIU, he retired in 2002.

O’Connor passed away this June, at the age of 75. The NIU Steelband will be having a concert dedicated to O’Connor this Sunday from 3 to 5 p.m. at the Music Building inside Boutell Memorial Concert Hall.

The NIU Steelband will be collaborating with All-University Steelband, Steelpan Studio and Community School for the Arts Steelband.

Tickets for the performance will cost $5 for adults and $3 for students. The concert will be free for NIU music majors, according to NIU School of Music.

The NIU Steelband today is a 35 member group that consists of steelpan and percussion majors. The band performs for public schools, colleges and universities. The band also plays at conventions and art series. The band has four recordings currently to its credit; including the most recent, “Dangerous,” featuring an eclectic blend of styles, according to their webpage. 

O’Connor helped develop a travel culture and a love for the steelpan. Director of CSA Steelband, Yuko Asada said, “I came after Al retired, so I didn’t get to study with him, but I did get to speak with him from time to time.” She said, “he would share stories about the way he started the program, to when he took the band to places like Taiwan and Trinidad and Tobago.”  

Asada has been working at NIU since 2016. Asada said, “it’s been amazing and definitely a dream job, I love steelband.” She said, “I love all aspects of steelband from the history, the culture, the music and the people of Trinidad and Tobago.” 

Asada has been to Trinidad and Tobago over 15 times and learned of NIU at a competition in Trinidad, where NIU took 2nd place. Asada heard that NIU offered a masters program for the steelpan and she enrolled and graduated here at NIU. O’Connor did the groundwork to make that possible.

Asada now assists the NIU Steelband directed by Liam Teague and she directs the CSA Steelband. She said, “Liam is the head of steelband studies and the director of NIU steelband and runs the whole program. If he needs assistance running a rehearsal, an ensemble piece or writing a piece that where I comes in and I also play in the band.” 

The bands have different purposes according to Asada, NIU Steelband is the advanced steelband which is open to all NIU students. All university steelband is for beginning students and is open to all university students. Her CSA steelband is open to all community members from middle school, high school and adults.

There are also different types of steelpan that the band plays according to Asada. She said, “NIU Steelband consists of six different types of steelpan, we use the tenor, double seconds, quadraphonics, the cello and the bass.” Asada said, “Upper voice has higher ranges of tenor and steelpan plays the melody. Double tenors sometimes play the harmony to the melody and double seconds and quadraphonics often play strum patterns.”

The director, Liam Teague has been the successor to O’Connor’s program. His homeland being Trinidad and Tobago, Teague fits the culture the band has exhibited in the past.

After traveling around the world performing and receiving invitations as a teenager to showcase his skill, Teague pursued his degrees in music at NIU and became a faculty member in the early 2000s.

O’Connor and Dr. Cliff Alexis another of the stalwarts of the program who passed away this year were responsible for recruiting him to NIU. Teague said, “They changed countless lives by their generosity, teaching, and music.”

The tradition of the steelpan is in the bands core, but there have been changes since O’Connor left. 

Teague said, “I have tried to continue much of what my predecessors started while also making incremental additions. He said, “For example, we now have steelband concerts in the fall and spring opposed to just the spring. Students are given space to showcase their arrangements and compositions on our on and off campus concerts. “We even present them with opportunities to conduct the band and play solo musicians,” he said.