NIU Steel Band proves successful in Taiwan

By Carol Ekstrom

NIU’s Steel Band performances drew standing ovations and encores from the people of Taiwan during last month’s trip to the Republic of China, according to NIU music faculty members.

The 20-person band became the first student musical group ever to be invited to present a concert at Taipei’s National Concert Hall.

NIU Music Professor Rich Holly said the response from the audience was tremendous.

“It was really interesting to see the delight on the people’s faces as they watched the band perform,” he said. “Hundreds of people lined up for autographs at the end of the performance.”

The band played six concerts at various locations in Taiwan using mixed calypso, American pop and classical music.

Original music written by band Co-Director Cliff Alexis and NIU Music Professor Robert Chappell was also performed by the band.

Chappell said the students benefited from the trip by being able to view a different culture.

“Students were able to see how people from a different country place such an importance on music,” he said. “It was a real eye-opener for them.”

NIU graduate student Susan Kauffman has been in the NIU steel band for more than three years. She said she was amazed at how well they were received by the people of Taiwan.

“The experience of performing as a professional was invaluable,” she said. “We were treated like celebrities on a professional tour.”

The band was founded in 1973 by NIU Music Professor G. Allan O’Connor, making NIU the first American college to build a performance group around the West Indian steel drums.

O’Connor said he presented recordings and videos of the band to officials in Taiwan when he was on sabbatical there in 1988.

“A package was submitted to the government, which is the procedure to be able to play at the National Concert Hall,” he said. “It is such an honor for NIU to be the first student group ever to be chosen to play there.”

O’Connor said he was apprehensive at first about the trip because the Asian people are so unfamiliar with the type of music a steel band plays.

“I was overwhelmed by the response from the audiences we played to,” he said. “I hope the success of this trip has raised the level of recognition for the band on campus one step further.”

Alexis has been building steel drum instruments for NIU since 1985.

He said the drums provide a unique sound but at the same time are fashioned to correspond with a traditional instrument.

“The drums are cut into different lengths to achieve a variety of pitches,” Alexis said, who is also an NIU music professor. “For example, the full length of the drum gives a sound of a bass drum.”