Living the life of pan

By Sarah J. Augustinas

Cliff Alexis, having been at NIU for 19 years and teaching for 31 years, has instructed hundreds of students on the steelpan. He recently received the Outstanding Development of the Steelpan in the U.S.A. Award in June.

Labeled a “legend” by some steel band enthusiasts, NIU steel band co-director Clifford Alexis has brought a steady stream of lime light to NIU’s musical reputation.

Alexis received the Outstanding Black Musician award twice, and the Outstanding Development of the Steelpan in the U.S.A. award in June. In 2000, Alexis was elected as a “Pan Legend” in Madison Square Garden.

“He just lives pan from when he wakes up in the morning until he goes to bed at night,” said Al O’Connor, the founding director of the NIU steel band.

O’Connor initiated NIU’s steel band in 1973 when it was the first actively-performing steel band formed in an American university. When O’Connor decided it was time for retirement, he began to search for his replacement.

“Cliff was someone I met through the U.S. Navy steel band. I kinda had Cliff in the back of my head as an option to replace me. When I started to think about retirement, it took me a couple of years to tell him and say, ‘Hey guess what,’” O’Connor said.

After visiting America from his homeland, Trinidad, in 1964, Alexis began to think about moving permanently to the States.

“I came in 1964 and saw the crowd appear for the instruments. It made me feel … since there was so much crowd appeal, maybe I should come to the United States to live and play,” Alexis said.

Alexis has played the steel pan since he was a young teenager.

“I started playing in the ‘50s. I was probably around 14 or 15,” Alexis said. “Back then the bands didn’t have good behavior. It was another taboo, my family members didn’t want me to play mostly because the pan was played in the underprivileged areas in Trinidad at the time.”

Also known as the steel drum in the U.S., the pan is made from a 55 gallon oil drum that has been cut to the required size and adjusted for pitch. The process requires extreme patience and dedication, as each pan can take several weeks to make. Each note must be hammered onto the metal surface before it is strengthened during a process called tempering.

The pan evolved out of rhythm bands in Trinidad and Tobago, where group members would use any available resource as an instrument, including coffee tins, garbage cans and storage containers.

NIU is the only university worldwide where students can receive both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in music with the steel pan as their specialty, bringing performers across the world to DeKalb.