BY: ALYSSA MAHADEO
Steelpan or Steel drums are a musical instrument originating from the Island of Trinidad and Tobago. It is made from large 55-gallon industrial steel drums and it’s unique high-pitched tinkling sounds when struck is a clear and beautiful sound that transports its listeners straight to a beach in the Caribbean Sea. Steel pan has been around for generations, and it is an instrument that is as diverse as the land it comes from.
The Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra, formally known as TASSO is a local steel pan band established in 2000. It was founded by Salmon Cupid, Musical Director for TASSO and a group of parents who wanted to allow their children to continue to play pan post-elementary school into middle and high school Parents agreed it would be in the best interests of the children if they could come together once a once a week to practice steel pan under the tutelage of Salmon Cupid, to foster and further develop their love of playing pan.
Their group is comprised of a band of students who are between the ages of 11 – 23 starting in Gr. 6 all the way to university. Their fierce love of pan is what bonds them together and they all come from different backgrounds each with a unique story to share about what they enjoy most about Steel Pan.
Not long after the band came together, Cupid began entering them into local competitions to test the band’s skill competitively, gain a reputation for themselves in the industry and also potentially get them some exposure to book more concerts in the community.
In 2004, they entered into their first competition on an international stage. The band travelled to compete in Scotland. They aced their audition and were invited to play in the Aberdeen International Music Festival.
Every other year after that they have participated in international festivals and competitions all over the world.
“I always like to set the bar one step higher every time,” Cupid shares. “After winning ten consecutive years at music festivals locally I decided to up the ante a bit and put them into harder competitions to develop their sound and put them on a higher level of music.”
The world stage is a different level of competition where you get people from all across the globe with a wide spectrum music from different genres. When people hear about steel pan, they immediately think about Calypso music. But Salmon Cupid’s approach to the sound doesn’t just focus on what it’s known for and is always looking to take pan more mainstream.
“We don’t only play calypso, we play classical and contemporary pieces as well changing up the rhythm and the beat,” Cupid says. Because the band is young, it’s important to keep things interesting, practicing out of the box style pieces that incorporate a more mainstream and modern sound that is better received by their audiences.
“I try to stay away from the Calypso, that is something people are accustomed to,” Cupid explains. “Young people are really interested in new music, Top 40 tunes you wouldn’t normally hear played on that instrument and I would much rather arrange a contemporary song on a Calypso beat.”
The versatility of a steel pan is always a surprise to audiences that hear TASSO play, and it is refreshing to hear something that doesn’t only sound like Calypso. “I don’t want people to keep thinking that steel pan is limited to a certain genre of music,” Cupid explains.
This July TASSO had the privilege of playing on one of their biggest international stages to date, the highly esteemed Sydney Opera Hall, in Australia. Described as the eighth wonder of the world, the Sydney Opera House is one of the 20th Century’s most spectacular architectural triumphs. It is Australia’s greatest performing arts center and one of their leading tourist attractions. The Concert Hall, with its high vaulted ceiling, has a seating capacity of up to 2,680 and a maximum stage area of 224 square meters.
Fifty-seven orchestra’s and bands from all over the world went to compete, each country bringing their own flavour and culture to the stage, while Canada let their multiculturalism shine through the sounds of the steel pan. The band was in the spotlight throughout the competition, and they received much praise and recognition from the other performers.
“We were a bit nervous going into the experience, as this group that went was a bit younger than we were used to taking internationally,” Cupid shares.
Each band had twenty minutes of music to present which is then scored accordingly in that category. The group played a selection of pieces that included a mix that demonstrated their wide range and versatility including a version of Phantom of the Opera. On the day of the closing ceremony, the results were announced and TASSO won Gold in their category. It was a momentous and highly celebrated achievement for the group. On this trip, they were fortunate as well to gain sponsorships for their uniforms from Redwood Carpentry and CIBC VISA providing each band member with an Air Canada Conversion Visa Card to cover all of their meal expenses.
In 2007 exactly tem years ago the band had competed in that same competition and won Gold. They were not expecting it this time but were overjoyed to hear their band called as winners again this time.
“I don’t see myself as a stereotypical person, I look at the void and I try to fill it, I’m the guy who would take steel pan to the moon,” Cupid says explaining that his band will continue to keep differentiating themselves, and developing their sound to stand out above all the rest. “These kids always put so much hard work and dedication into their practice, they rise to the challenge and always give it their best. I’m always looking for new ways to critique them, to show them that they can always be better, and they continue to surprise me every step of the way.”