Dr. Chris Tanner pulled his pair of drumsticks from his back pocket and clicked them together to silence the cacophony in room seven in the basement of Presser Hall.
It was 7:45 p.m. and the members of Miami University’s Steel Band had spent the last 15 minutes lugging blue, maroon and black steel drum cases into the room one by one, hanging the instruments on their stands and warming up. Everyone was playing a different tune at a different time.
It was their last rehearsal before PanFest on Saturday, April 14. Their practice agenda was scrawled on the whiteboard and consisted of three songs that they were going to perform:
8:05 Acadia Sunset
PanFest is a steel band musical showcase and one of the biggest steel band gatherings in the United States. This year’s show featured bands from the University of Akron, Canal Winchester High School, Talawanda High School, Toledo School for the Arts, Bowling Green State University, Elder High School, Clark Montessori High School and the Divine Steel Community Band.
Miami also welcomed special guest Liam Teague, professor of music and head of steelpan studies at Northern Illinois University and world-renowned steelpan artist. He is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, which is where the steelpan originated.
It’s the the first time Miami has hosted the event since 2011.
A black curtain hanging from the ceiling divided Millett Hall in half. On one side, seven rows of steel drums — enough for all 150 musicians — sat waiting to be played, the red and blue spotlights illuminating their metal exteriors. They were set up in circles of six tall bass steel drums, sets of two or three steel drums for playing chords and harmonies and single drums for playing the melody. The drums were joined by other percussion instruments such as a cowbell and a drum kit.
On the other side of the curtain, the musicians stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the stands, posing for a pre-show group photo.
The members of Miami’s Steel Band wore different colored polo shirts — some green, some orange, some blue and some purple.
The band is comprised of 40 students of all majors. They had to audition to earn a spot, but didn’t need to have played steel drums before — the majority of the students hadn’t. They just had to be able to read sheet music.
From behind the curtain, Miami’s band cheered, hyping themselves up for the show that was about to begin.
The show opened with Miami’s Steel band performing several pieces with the band from the University of Akron — Miami on the right and Akron on the left, wearing their purple steel drum band t-shirts.
One piece featured solos from Liam Teague and a student from the University of Akron, both of whom were standing front and center of the band.
The crowd cheered a little extra for the two soloists after the piece was over. Teague stepped to the left and motioned toward the other student soloist, letting him soak up the audience’s recognition.
Teague and the student shook hands, then pulled each other in for a hug.
A low chime tone rang through the hall.
The musicians stood with their heads bowed, arms at their sides, grasping their mallets. It was the only time during the night that they stood motionless. It marked the beginning of “We Are Conquerors,” the intense 8-minute piece that Teague arranged in 2017 for Panorama, a steelband competition in Trinidad and Tobago.
In his introduction, Teague admitted that this is a challenging piece. Miami’s band had been practicing it since late October.
Teague used his mallets to tap out the opening rhythm on the outside of the steel pan, creating a hollow, tinny sound. The taps sped up, leading into the band exploding with sound and motion. They tapped their feet, jumped up and down and swayed back and forth while playing their instruments.
Before the final three pieces of the night, Miami and Akron’s steel bands changed out of their uniforms and into white PanFest shirts to match the other musicians. You couldn’t tell who was from where — they were all one big band.
With over 125 people playing at once, the sound was louder and fuller.
Their last song, “Supercharger,” was an upbeat tune that had everyone jumping around, including one boy, about 5 years old, who was flailing his arms and shuffling his feet in the aisle of the stands.
After the song ended, the student seated behind the drum kit hit the bass pedal and all of the performers bowed.
But they weren’t done yet.
“How about one more?” Dr. Tanner asked over the microphone. But it was more of a statement than a question.
The audience cheered.
“I won’t introduce the next song,” Dr. Tanner continued. “You all probably know it. If you want to sing along, please do!”
“Play ‘Freebird!’” a member of the audience shouted.
“Unfortunately, it is not ‘Freebird,’” Dr. Tanner said, laughing.
Everyone sang along as the mega steel band played a rendition of “I’m a Believer.”
The echo of the final note was cut short by the crowd’s applause and cheers as they rose to give a standing ovation.
Everyone could feel the steel. And it wasn’t the shock of cold unforgiving metal being pressed onto bare skin. It was the warm pang of the mallets hitting the drums. The effortlessly tropical sound, and the energy that flooded the entire room.