Winnipeg Steel Orchestra
History

Places We Went, Things We Saw, People We Met

The Instrument

Affectionately known as 'Pan', the Steeldrum is the national musical instrument of Trinidad and Tobago and is the only original non-electronic musical instrument invented in the twentieth century. The birth of the Steelpan occurred in the late thirties. Prior to this, lengths of bamboo were used during street parades to beat out rhythms and these bands were known as 'Tamboo Bamboo Bands'. In search of a cleaner sound, old biscuit tins and caustic soda pans were first used to replace the bamboo.

Later, discarded oil drums were cut, beaten until sunk into a concave shape, grooved, heated and tuned. A range of instruments from the Tenor Pan to the Bass now comprises the full orchestra, which plays music that ranges from Calypso to Classical. The Steelpan is a drum made from steel, played with two rubber-tipped sticks offering the full chromatic scale of notes and playing a melodic percussion of heated calypsos, soft jazz and intricate classics. It is this instrument that made its way to Winnipeg.

The Early Years

The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra has been a part of Winnipeg's cultural mosaic since 1972. Some familiar names who were the innovators of the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra were men like Patrick Nunes, Selwyn McSween, Gerry Sampson and Ruthven Nimblett. Patrick Nunes was the first captain of this Steelband. In those days they did not have the luxury of having a hall to practice in as they do now, but were short-term tenants in many people's backyards and basements. Many players have come and gone over the years, but one man has stood the test of time, the present-day captain of the band, Ruthven Nimblett.

In its first decade, the Seventies, this Steelband set their goals on touring Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and the Mid-West United States. They made frequent trips to places like Estevan, Sioux Narrows, Edmonton, Calgary and across the border to North Dakota. They were always received with respect and admiration, but in most cases with amazement and awe.

It was in the Seventies that they performed at many functionas at theUniversity of Manitoba and were featured on a programme broadcasted by the University's radio station. They also appeared at a multicutural event at the University of North Dakota and entertained the Jazz Mobile for a reception at ACAM Hall. However, it was the trip to Edmonton in 1972 that announced the emergence of the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra. Edmonton has never forgotten that day when, after their stunning performance, the Master of Ceremonies announced that Edmonton will never be the same again.

Growth and Development

In the Eighties the Winnipeg Folk Festival invited one of the world's best arrangers/composers/pannists Mr. Len 'Boogsie' Sharpe to perform at the festival. The skill and dexterity of 'Boogsie' astonished the audiences at Birds Hill. 'Boogsie' came to the panyard that week and performed and arranged a special composition for the band called 'Sunshine'. 'Boogsie' himself hailed the band's ambitious goals and the determination to become a powerful force in Winnipeg.

At the International Peace Garden Music Camp, the audience and participants were just as astonished, and even perplexed, about where the sound was actually coming from. Many visitors had to see for themselves to be assured that there were no hidden electronic devices under the pans. The sound of Pan coming from those gardens was its own best advertisement for the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra.

As the Eighties progressed, the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra, under the leadership of Ruthven Nimblett, made headway into becoming one of the best Steelbands in Western Canada. In 1988 Mr. Jim St. Rose came to Winnipeg with Mr. Ray Holman to teach pan at the University of Manitoba. Ray Holman, a renowned arranger in Trinidad, was charged with the development of a University Panside, while Jim was the tuner he brought with him from Trinidad.

With an increase in the number of instruments and performers the band was ready to enter the recording studio, which they did. The Steelband also continued to perform annually at Winnipeg's annual multicultural celebration - Folklorama, toured Western Canada and gave workshops on the Steelband. They became ambassadors of Caribbean culture and played to the wider society, performing calypso, classical and jazz compositions. They successfully exploited various musical fusions including the rhythms and melodies indigenous to Canada's community.

The Recent Past

The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra approached the Nineties with enthusiasm and eagerness to accomplish more than they had in the previous two decades. In 1992 the band was determined to win the heralded Western Canada Panorama Championships in Edmonton. Not only did they win, with a stunning performance, but they also came back in 1993 to repeat their winning ways. During that performance the audience stood still for at least three minutes as the band began their rendition of the popular composition, 'Mystery Band'. Then, consumed with fervour for bacchanal and with unbridled energy, they jumped, pranced and waved their hands in acclamation.

Also in 1993, Caripeg recognized the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra for its contribution to the community particularly its involvement with youth. In 1994, the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra recorded a cassette entitled Mystery Band. This cassette covers a wide range of musical styles from calypso, reggae and Caribbean folk music to classical and pop. In 1997, the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary with a sold-out concert that received rave reviews as well as coverage in The Uptown. The band also received an Organizational Community Service Award from the City of Winnipeg for its 25 years of service to the community.

The one common thread that has kept this ensemble together is teamwork. This Steelband plays and practices as a team and the achievements that they have attained are characteristic of many successful organizations. The Steelband that exists today is not the same one that established and kept this art alive in Winnipeg back in the seventies. The players have changed over the last 25 years, even the sweetness of the pan has improved, but the desire to excel and to better their previous performances remain with the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra.

Towards a New Millennium

The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra has many hopes for the near future. It will continue to perform at a variety of events in and around Winnipeg as well as hold its annual winter concert. The band also plans to go back to the studio to record a CD. The members of the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra also would like to participate in workshops with other drumming groups in the city in which both groups would learn some of the basic techniques of the other group's drumming. Some recent highlights in the career of the band include performing at the Closing Ceremonies of the 1999 Pan Am Games and a joint concert with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and HiLife Steel Orchestra in January 2002.

Steelband music is more than just music; it is a culture and a lifestyle. The grassroots heritage of pan comes from its origins in the slums of Port of Spain. Its history is one of the collective effort and fierce community loyalty and rivalry. Thus the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra has no superstars; they work as a team and perform as a team. Together they will experience 'Pan in the New Millennium' as they take Pan even more fully into the international arena. It is a collective dream of the members of the band to make 'Pan' a household word.

The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra would like to thank Mr. Tony Hatt for preparing the majority of the above article.

 

Recent Developments

 

Movin'...Down South

The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra said goodbye to an era in its history at 8:30 pm CDT on Tuesday, April 27 1999. At this time the band moved out of Cari Cana Hall - the site of its panyard since the 80's. There was much scrambling to find a place to practice and house all the instruments, but thankfully a suitable place was found. The Winnipeg Steel Orchestra gratefully thanks Tony Beach for the use of his recreation hall. Using a moving truck and cars, 3 sets of 6 bass, 3 sets of tenor bass, 1 quad, 2 triple cellos, 1 guitar, 5 double seconds, 1 double tenor and numerous tenors were hauled over to the new practice space. Having found a temporary home for the summer, the group is back at work preparing for its busy summer schedule. There have been many memories, music and friendships created over the years at Cari Cana and the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra hopes to continue that tradition in its temporary site and in its new panyard when a location is found.

Downtown

On August 31, 1999 the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra moved into its new Winter Home at 455 Hargrave St. on the Northeast corner of Notre Dame. This was another temporary venue and we continued to look for a permanent location for our panyard. Meanwhile, the band has become very efficient at moving large numbers of pans. So, the search continues...

Out West

After a few more temporary homes, the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra finally found a more permanent home in the fall of 2000. Our panyard is presently located at Unit # 1110 Sanford Street and we welcome anyone to drop in during one of our scheduled practices.

You Can't Keep a Good Pan Down!

 



 



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Contacting the Winnipeg Steel Orchestra

E-mail us: wpgsteelorch@hotmail.com
Phone our Pan Hotline: 204-488-7WSO(7976)

OR

Drop in on one of our practice times:

Monday 7:30 - 9:30 p.m.
Friday 7:30 - 10:00 p.m.
Saturday: 2:00 p.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Sunday 3:00 - 6:00 p.m. (Beginners)

Location: Unit # 1110 Sanford Street off of Sargent Ave.