In the l960's the Tripoli Steel Orchestra toured the United States, exciting audiences with music from instruments made from 55-gallon oil drums and invented half a century ago in Trinidad and Tobago. Since then several steelbands have visited the U.S. for performing dates. There are also two dozen small groups in West Indian communities here, and steelbands can be found in the percussive arts departments of over thirty U.S. colleges and universities.
Maintaining a steelband anywhere is difficult. Rehearsal space is scarce since steelbands are cumbersome ensembles, bookings are infrequent and recording contracts rarer than some endangered species. For these reasons alone Our Boys Steel Orchestra must be congratulated for taking up the daunting challenge of being a professional steelband-in-residence in the U.S. The hurdles have been enormous, but in a communal atmosphere where generosity of spirit abounds band members have made a home-away-from-home in San Francisco. This talented and disciplined group of young musicians have struggled out of anonymity with admirable grace and plenty of island charm.
The band has also benefited immensely from the special attention of producer Andy Narell, perhaps the most widely-known pan player. Narell featured Our Boys in his first music video, and produced the band's premiere album, "Pan Night and Day", the first digital recording of a steelband on an American label. That album brought Our Boys to Mango's international audience.
Pleased with the outcome, Mango agreed a year later to put Our Boys on disc again. On this album Our Boys celebrate one of the most specialized musicians: steelband composers. The album presents an intelligent sample of the work of Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, the instruments most prolific composer, along with compositions from Ray Holman and Narell himself.
Those who have heard the sometimes disastrous results on a steelband of a change in arrangers know how difficult it is to interpret with equal enthusiasm the styles of musicians as different as these three composers. But Our Boys has done just that, and still maintained the integrity of the music. Their expression of Boogsie's "Pan Progress" illuminates the spunk and daring in all his music. The band's condensed version of "My Band" carefully captures Ray Holman's melodic elegance, intelligent chord structure and control of rhythm. And in a calypso version of the soca/jazz hit "We Kinda Music" Narell shows he can arrange calypso with the same care and complexity he brings to his jazz compositions.
For technical excellence alone this album stands out since most steelband records are poor reproductions of the instruments' airy tone. Narell, as producer and perhaps the foremost expert on recording pan, achieves a sound that resembles the rich presence of a steelband concert. There is delicate clarity and coherence in the tonal quality. Most of all, there is that catchy calypso beat that Our Boys renders so well. Pan lovers everywhere will be grateful.