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NIU to honor Cliff Alexis—‘the Stradivarius of the steelpan’

April 19, 2017

Cliff Alexis

NIU’s Cliff Alexis is retiring, and he’s going out on a high note.

The longtime co-director of the world-renowned NIU Steelband – and master of the art of building steel drums – will be feted during a concert in his honor beginning at 3 p.m. Sunday, April 30, in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

Additionally, Alexis will be presented with an honorary doctoral degree during the NIU Graduate School commencement ceremony at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 12, at the NIU Convocation Center.

Friends and dignitaries from around the world will be in attendance for the Steelband concert, including the Honorable Anthony Phillips-Spencer, ambassador from Alexis’ native Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, where the steelpan was invented and remains the national instrument.

“It is not an exaggeration to state that Mr. Alexis is the Stradivarius of the steelpan,” said Paul Kassel, dean of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts. “His instruments are each a masterwork, and his skill has moved the instrument from its rough and homemade origins to a musically nuanced and finely tuned piece of craftsmanship.”

NIU is one of the few institutions worldwide where students can pursue music degrees with the steelpan as the major instrument of choice. Alexis officially retired from the university in October but remains active in the steelpan world and as a volunteer with the NIU Steelband.

He has been the recipient of numerous awards throughout the years, including induction into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. In March 2014, he was honored by Pan Trinbago in Trinidad for his distinguished service to the steelpan movement.

“Alexis’ teaching and mentorship have helped numerous students discover and develop their talents, with many of them going on to distinguished musical careers,” Kassel added. “His compositions are routinely played by NIU students, as well as musicians worldwide. Similarly, universities and bands worldwide have commissioned his instruments.”

Alexis began playing the steelpan at age 14 in his homeland. By 1985, when he joined the NIU School of Music staff, he was a road-seasoned musician and talented educator pursuing a mission.

Along with Al O’Connor, he created the steelpan studies program at NIU. His responsibilities included maintaining and upgrading the school’s large inventory of steelpans, arranging, composing and co-directing the NIU Steelband with O’Connor and more recently, with famed steelpan artist Liam Teague.

Teague, who came to NIU as an 18-year-old student chasing his dreams, will perform a duet with Alexis during the upcoming concert.

“Cliff is considered to be a living legend in the steelband world,” Teague said. “He started playing the instrument almost from its inception. He’s seen it all.

“It’s been an amazing experience, learning from him,” he added. “He’s so supportive of the younger generation. He’s not just concerned with the past but looking to the future.”

This November, NIU Press plans to publish Steelpan in Education: A History of the Northern Illinois University Steelband by Andrew R. Martin, Ray Funk, and Jeannine Remy, with a foreword by Al O’Connor. More information about the book will be available soon on the press website,

A pre-concert lecture by Dr. Andrew Martin will take place in the Music Building, room 173, at 1:30 p.m. Dr. Martin is a Professor of Music at Inver Hills Community College in Inver Grove Heights , MN