Andy Narell: Trinidad steelpan meets Jazz On The Rocks

Steelpan jazz pioneer Andy Narell returns to South Africa to headline Jazz On The Rocks 2013, bringing his “world jazz” compositions to Cape Town before returning to showcase the steelband sound in Trinidad – and play this unique instrument with an orchestra in France.

Andy Narell: Trinidad steelpan meets Jazz On The Rocks

This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ of 2013/02/24.
Andy Narell is a musician of renown on two counts. Firstly, he is a master of the steelpan, the musical instrument that looks like a drum kit but, with a metal top instead of a hide or vellum, plays notes and melodies rather than rhythmic beats. It’s the de facto national instrument of Trinidad, and its rollicking pitches evoke an almost instant island feel. Secondly, Narell is an accomplished composer and performer of jazz music, which he plays using the steelpan as a lead instrument rather than, say, a saxophone or trumpet. It is these mainstream jazz compositions that first garnered him a South African audience, to the extent that there is a jazz club in Soweto named after him.
Soweto’s Andy Narell jazz club
When Narell first landed in South Africa in 1999, en route to playing the Johannesburg ArtsAlive festival, he was met by members of the Soweto-based Andy Narell Jazz Club, all wearing their club T-shirts. When he played, a Johannesburg audience of over 60 000 people flocked to his first South African show. The album, “Andy Narell: Alive In South Africa” (featuring Louis Mhlanga (guitar), Andile Yenana (keyboards), Denny Lalouette (bass), Rob Watson (drums) and Basi Mahlasela (percussion) and released in 2001, followed, as did many more trips, mainly to Gauteng. In Cape Town, he has charted frequently on Heart 104.9, the city’s second largest radio station, and was invited to  co-headline the North Sea Jazz Festival Cape Town (now the Cape Town International Jazz Festival).
They were drawn by his fusion of world music and jazz styles, and also by his ability to establish the steelpan as a jazz instrument in its own right. Locally, he has also collaborated with Vusi Mahlasela and, on international stages, played with jazz greats like Marcus Miller, Tito Puente and Aretha Franklin, as well as guest slots with superstars as varied as Angelique Kidjo and the Kronos String Quartet.
“One thing that’s different about this trip, is that I am putting together a new band with musicians from Cape Town,” says Narell, from his residence in Trinidad, where he is composing and arranging music for an annual festival of steelpan bands. “It’s headed by Camillo Lombard, and the guys down there are really fine musicians, but with a different feeling and style to Johannesburg. I can’t wait to play with them. For a long time I’ve worked with Louis Mhlanga and Denny and Rob, and different keyboard and percussion players. I’ve been sending music to Camillo – things I’ve worked on in South Africa over the last twenty-something years; some older tunes that were popular on radio there. Cape Town is a real interesting place for me – I remember the first time I came there, playing at the Baxter Theatre; then at the North Sea Jazz Festival; then at the club Manenberg’s down by the Waterfront. It’s always been great for me being there.”
Is it steelpan, or is it jazz?
Inevitably, Narell gets asked questions about melding the sound of the steel-pan with the genre of jazz. “My focus has always been the music, it hasn’t been the about that old idea of trying to expose this instrument to new audiences. I grew up in that culture, but I left it behind when I was a teenager (Narell’s father was a social worker who used steel-pan bands to provide an alternative to gangs and street life for the teenagers of Queens, New York). My role models were the great jazz musicians, and I always wanted to be a composer and a performer and a recording artist. Fortunately, South Africa is a place where my music got popular, not a place where something like steel-pan caught on. I realised there were people there who loved my songs – as well as loving the sound of the pan and me playing it – but it was the music first. It was a shock for me to play in South Africa that first time, and play two bars and see people explode with recognition. For me, that’s a dream audience – to find a public that really loves the music I write and wants to come out and hear me play.”
Of course, Narell’s love of jazz shares space in his heart with a love of his instrument, the steel-pans. “Steel-band music is making inroads all over the world,” he notes. “It’s getting into big orchestras, even if there aren’t so many groups touring. These days, even touring a little quartet is hard, but you find community steel orchestras all over the world. Interest in pan is growing steadily, but as something people do. It’s not something people go to big concerts to see, it is participatory. Japan is exploding with steel at the moment – I take a look on YouTube and see bands there playing my music! I also spend a lot of time teaching in United States high schools and universities.”
2013: ‘Panorama‘, orchestras and University of Calypso
2013 will be a busy year for Narell. “There are the big projects, like a concert with quintet and symphony orchestra in Bordeaux in France, coming in June,” he says. “It’s a really cool quintet: myself and two musicians from Cuba and two musicians from Guadeloupe, so it’s a real Caribbean feel. It’s mostly my music, orchestrated for five-piece, and then for orchestra. I want to do an album of steel band music I’ve been writing for the last two years, and I’m working on an album’s worth of music I play on solo pan. Then there’s a book for pan players about harmonic improvisation. And lots of gigs. After South Africa, it’s back to Trinidad, then up to the USA for a month, teaching and playing concerts, and also doing a lot of work with a Calypso collaboration that has a steel band with a big horn section, playing in different formats. It’s called University of Calypso and we’re taking it to as many areas as we can.”
Andy Narell headlines the 2013 Jazz on the Rocks festival alongside over twenty acts including Andrew Young (UK), Allou April, The Rockets, Dr Victor and the Rasta Rebels (Jhb), Richard Ceasar, Zami Mdingi, Vernon Castle Legends Band, Derek Skippers (Jhb), Zayn Adam, Alistair Izobel, Kanimambo (Mozambique, Angola, Congo, South Africa), Hassan’Adas (Mozambique, Congo, SA), the Clarence Ford (Heart 104.9FM) radio broadcast and more (Thursday 28 February to Sunday March 3, Cape Columbine Nature Reserve, Tietiesbaai (Paternoster), West Coast). Details JazzOnTheRocks.net and Facebook.com/groups/JazzOnTheRocks; tickets from 021-5915208 and camissa.emmie@gmail.com.
This interview by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Good Weekend’ of 2013/02/24.
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