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Teague: ‘We have just begun to scratch the surface’ of steelpan’s potential

May 29, 2014
Liam Teague, Karen de Souza and Richard Robertson

Liam Teague, Karen de Souza and Richard Robertson

Liam Teague, head of steelpan studies and an associate professor in the NIU School of Music, was named the 2014 Laureate in Arts and Letters by the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards For Excellence.

Here is the speech Teague gave May 10 at the Trinidad & Tobago’s National Academy of the Performing Arts.

It has been my life’s work to consistently highlight the steelpan’s profundity, versatility and beauty, and I am sincerely grateful to the ANSA McAL Foundation for recognizing my humble efforts. This evening, I’d like to pay homage to a number of people who have played integral roles in my life.

My mother, Pearl Teague, and my late father, Russell Teague. I have often wondered why my parents never tried to dissuade me from following a life in music; which, truth be told, does not always offer the type of security that other disciplines may. I read recently that the late John Lennon, of the Beatles, when asked by his high school teacher what he wanted to be when he grew up, simply responded: Happy. To my mother and late father, I am so appreciative of all the sacrifices that you have made and I thank you for allowing me to follow my passion and be happy.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. The people that I am about to recognize, inspired, supported and helped to shape my early life as a musician.

Mrs. Shirley James made it possible for me to have violin lessons from an early age, and also invited me to be a part of the then National Youth Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago. The experience playing in that ensemble proved to be an invaluable asset in my musical development. Mrs. James has been instrumental in assisting so many young people, and because of her caring and generous nature, the importance of serving others was embedded into my consciousness from a very early age.

Liam TeagueMs. Joy Caesar. When I was accepted to read for a bachelor’s degree in music at Northern Illinois University, the university offered me a partial scholarship. Not having the means to personally fund the rest my education, I contacted several individuals and businesses for assistance, but to no avail. Luckily, God sent an angel in the form of Ms. Joy Caesar, who was then vice president of CitiBank, and also the director of the Southernaires choir. Ms. Caesar made it possible for me to complete my freshman year at NIU. She also took a genuine interest in the well-being of my family. Ms. Caesar, were it not for your intervention, I probably would not have been able to realize many of my dreams. I remain eternally grateful to you.

Mr. Robert Foster. Before leaving these shores to further my education, I was approached by Robert Foster to do a recording. The work that resulted was the CD “Hands Like Lightning.” Because of the popularity of the CD and video to the title track, which was played on the television with amazing frequency, I received a great deal of recognition and, particularly in the steelband world, my work garnered a significant amount of attention. Mr. Foster eventually assumed the role of my manager and our collaborative efforts resulted in several other recordings. While I have been always thankful for Mr. Foster’s support and guidance career-wise, it is the life lessons that he taught me – particularly the importance of respecting and honoring one’s parents and preparing for the future – that I have cherished even more. Mr. Foster, you have been a father figure and I will never forget what you have done for me.

Al O’Connor. I give thanks to Al O’Connor, former associate dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and former head of Steelband Studies at NIU. O’Connor made it possible for me to receive a partial scholarship to NIU; and, during my time as a student, he cemented many opportunities around the USA for me to highlight my talent. He also, in no small measure, helped me develop a proper career as a steelpan musician. I continue to hold him, both as a teacher and mentor, in high regard.

Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague

Cliff Alexis and Liam Teague

Cliff Alexis is one of the greatest figures in the steelband world, and I am blessed to co-direct the NIU Steelband with him. He has served as a mentor and confidant and is the definition of a true friend. It has been an honor to learn from this great man and to consistently collaborate with him in breaking down musical barriers and taking the steelpan to new audiences.

Les Trilla. The former CEO of the Trilla Drum Corporation in Chicago. This amazing human being has been the main benefactor of the NIU Steelpan program since the early 1990s and, from my sophomore year at NIU, funded my entire education. Since that time hehas gone on to found the Les Trilla Scholarship, which primarily supports graduate steelpan students from the Caribbean to study at NIU. His generosity has profoundly impacted my life and numerous students who have graduated from NIU – many of whom have gone on to share their knowledge at institutions such as the University of the West Indies and University of Trinidad and Tobago.

Ms. Cynthia Stiehl. Yet another angel that was very generous in her support of my studies and also my passion to commission new pieces for the steelpan. I am very grateful.

Lorena, Jaden and Jeida. To my wife, Lorena Nunez, and children, Jaden and Jeida Teague-Nunez, thank you for everything. Lorena – we could write volumes about the trials and tribulations that we have encountered and the sacrifices that we have had to make to actually be together. Thank you for being such an amazing wife and mother and for putting up with the not-so-conventional life that is part of being married to a musician. To my children, Jaden and Jeida – you are my everything!

The pioneers of the steelpan. During the embryonic stages of the steelpan, its practitioners were often treated with utter disrespect and indifference and were ostracized by Trinidadian society. To amplify this point, allow me to read you a commentary that was sent to the editor of the Trinidad Guardian on June 6, 1946: “Pan beating is pan beating in any language and in any form. It does nobody any good, and when it is indulged in all day all night, day in and day out, it is abominable. Why is there no legislation to control it? If it must continue and if by virtue of its alleged inherent beauty and charm it will someday bring popularity and fame to the island and fortune to the beaters, then by all means let it go on- but in the forests and other desolate places.” Having to face such attitudes on a daily basis, it is nothing short of miraculous that pan’s pioneers could maintain the vision, belief and fortitude which would prove influential in the realization of the steelpan as a legitimate musical instrument. In addition, whether directly or indirectly, their “audacity and boldfaceness,” as Dr. Kim Johnson, so accurately puts it, has allowed people like myself, through the medium of the pan, to captivate the hearts, souls and imaginations of people across the globe.

While there is no doubt that the steelpan has made astronomical strides, I remain convinced that we have just begun to scratch the surface of the instrument’s potential. Whether as a performer, educator, composer and/or arranger, I am committed to taking the steelpan to heights unknown, and will remain a humble servant of Trinidad and Tobago and the rest of Caribbean region. Once again, I thank the ANSA McAL Foundation for this tremendous honor.