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Once-scorned steel drums basking in prestige Caribbean immigrants spark popularity, and New York schools follow


NEW YORK -- As a young girl in Trinidad, Cynthia Leveine used to peek from her windows to catch a glimpse of the steel bands, defying her parents, who forbade her to listen to the popular street music that was tapped out on refurbished 55-gallon metal drums.

"You dared not ask about it," said Leveine, who is now in her 50s and lives in East Flatbush, Brooklyn. "It was the music for the people who lived on the other side of the tracks."

But Leveine, who immigrated to New York 30 years ago, vowed that her children would not only listen to the soothing sound; they would also learn to play the steel drum, or pan, as it is commonly called. And to her joy, Leveine's 22-year-old daughter, Jacquii, a music major at City College, has been playing the steel drum for nearly a decade.

The drumming of Jacquii Leveine is part of a rising sound of the pan in those New York City neighborhoods transformed by the large influx of Caribbean immigrants. Reflecting a growing appreciation for steel drums in the Caribbean and around the world, the drum has even taken a place next to the trumpet and clarinet as a musical option for students at some city schools. Its popularity has been increased immeasurably by the annual West Indian American Day Carnival, the sprawling pageant that showcases the artistry of the steel drum.

This is all a bit of a passage for the pan, which was once burdened by its image as an instrument of rabble-rousers -- an image promoted earlier this century by Trinidad's British rulers, who saw the music as a magnet for subversive gatherings.

"This is the way the world turns," said the elder Leveine. "Parents are realizing the value of the instrument. Music is music no matter how and who plays it."

In Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, many public schools now offer steel drum classes as part of their music education programs, and professional pan players from Trinidad and other islands are offering private lessons. Many bands that take part in the Carnival celebration are also conducting classes for teen-agers.

The instruments, once fashioned crudely out of used oil drums, are now custom-made at several storefronts in Brooklyn where entrepreneurs make a living carving, tuning and painting drums for sale. They sell for about $500 to $900, said William Jones, a drum aficionado from Brooklyn.

The steel drum is trimmed with chisels and tuned with sledge hammers. It produces muted, bell-like tones.

Teen-agers, who now form the core of many steel bands in Brooklyn, hold jam sessions in so-called pan yards, a term borrowed from the outdoor sites where steel drums are played in the Caribbean.

"To me it's like another language," said Horace Moore, 17, of East Flatbush, at a steel drum jam session on a recent night at the St. Francis of Assisi Church on the edge of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. "At its highest, the steel drum has a crisp, straight sound with no after-effect."

Nicole McCarthy, 17, who was playing a double drum set nearby, chimed in: "It's really soothing. It's like you're in this groove and you're making a sound unlike anything we're used to here."

McCarthy's friend Sandra Thompson, 17, pointed to McCarthy and said: "I started playing because of her. I used to go to her house, and her father and her played it and it sounded good. So now I'm into it."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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