NIU Steel Band welcomes Trinidad ambassador for Nov. 20 concert, exploration of partnerships

Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague
Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague

His Excellency Dr. Neil Parsan, ambassador of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago to the United States, will attend this weekend’s concert of the NIU Steel Band.

Parsan, who is a veterinarian, contacted countryman Liam Teague a few months ago to learn more about the NIU School of Music and its international reputation for pushing the boundaries of the steelpan.

“The ambassador was curious to find about our program,” says Teague, the head of steelpan studies and co-director of the band with Cliff Alexis, another native of Trinidad and Tobago.

“We’re really hoping he’ll be impressed by what we’re doing here, that he’ll spread that message to his colleagues and that we can forge a very strong relationship with him,” Teague adds.

“Many people there wonder, ‘Why should we send our child to Northern Illinois University when they can receive a free education in Trinidad and Tobago?’ But what we have to offer is so fantastic, and it complements what is available in Trinidad and Tobago.”

Sunday’s concert begins at 3 p.m. in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall The concert is free and open to the public, and the auditorium is accessible to all. Steelpan soloist Leon “Foster” Thomas will perform as the featured guest.

Neil Parsan
Neil Parsan

NIU students are looking forward to this weekend’s whirlwind visit, Alexis says.

“It’s always an exciting time when we get someone from Trinidad, the home of the steelpan, to see the advancement it’s made in the outside world,” he says. “He can actually meet and interact with the students who play the instruments and see for himself the strides the instrument has made.”

As the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the pan already has made many important advances in its homeland while it has equally ascended in musical prominence outside of those borders.

NIU and Teague have played key roles in that.

Launched in 1973 by G. Allan O’Connor, who was head of percussion studies in the School of Music at that time, NIU’s group was the first actively performing steelband formed in an American university

Since then, it has performed throughout the United States and around the world.

Over the years, the NIU Steel Band has broadened the repertoire and performance venues for this unique musical instrument. Students can earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in steelpan.

The ensemble’s resume includes a performance for 18,000 soccer fans in Yankee Stadium, concerts with symphony orchestras (including the St. Louis Symphony and the Chicago Sinfonietta), performances at several Percussive Arts Society International Conventions (PASIC) and two successful tours of Taiwan in 1992 and 1998.

In 2000 the NIU Steel Band had the distinction of placing 2nd in the World Steelband Festival in Trinidad, and in 2002 performed the opening concert and several others at the Seoul Drum Festival in Korea.

For Teague, one of the world’s steel pan virtuosos, and Alexis, regarded internationally for his craftsmanship at building and tuning steelpans, it’s all to provide their native instrument with global legitimacy in the music world.

Students here tackle an eclectic selection of music, from the traditional calypso to classical literature to rhythm and blues to new compositions. In the spring of 2010, they performed with NIU’s legendary Jazz Ensemble.

People who see Teague perform “leave with a greater respect for the steelpan if they haven’t already heard what Liam can do with it,” says percussionist Robert Chappell, a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the School of Music and a longtime admirer and collaborator of Teague’s.

“Liam is the one of the only people in the world who can play steelpan in any style, from classical to raga to jazz to world music.”

Rich Holly, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts and another member of the School of Music’s percussion faculty, calls the ambassador’s visit an “amazing” opportunity.

“We were fortunate to have his predecessor here on campus a number of years ago, but no real partnerships developed. The fact that the ambassador called us first gives us high hopes,” Holly says.

“We’re very interested in creating more scholarships for students from Trinidad, who pay out-of-state tuition to come here. Trinidadian students have even less money than students in the United States,” he adds.

“We’re also hoping he can help us identify corporate sponsors or patrons of the arts. Trinidadians have a great deal of love for the steel pan – it’s their national instrument – so they already have a significant emotional investment. I hope through our conversations we can take it to the next level.”

Teague also hopes to create a mutual relationship that would enable steelpan students from the United States and other countries, which over the last few years have included Aruba, Canada, Denmark and Japan, to visit the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.

“My students need to see what’s happening in the Mecca,” he says. “You have to go the source.”

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