Matt Potts and Anthony J. Houston joined musical forces to forge a business out of used steel drums.
Together they created the Cultural Arts and Music, 1039 Wanda Lane Woodstock.
The two will perform at their fifth annual Great Lakes Steelpan Festival April 8.
They try to perform new pieces each year — perhaps a world premier, a commissioned piece, or a piece that’s been performed only once — Incorporating flute, vibraphone, a variety of drums, and electronics.
Potts makes and sells steelpan percussion instruments from previously used 55 gallon drums. He and Houston promote the steelpan music in a variety of ways. Their nonprofit arm performs as “Potts & Pans” band, as well as outreach events for teachers, community groups, school assemblies, and library shows.
They also do corporate events and team-building exercises.
“We look at the corporate mission statement,” said Potts. “We incorporate the words into a rhythm and use the variety of people and drums to create a song of sorts.”
Steelpan history can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Caribbean islands during the 1700s. They carried with them elements of their African culture, including the playing of hand drums. These drums became the main percussion instruments in the annual Trinidadian canboulay festivities. The Canboulay festival is the slaves’ version of their owners’ Carnivale. In 1877, the ruling British government banned the playing of drums because of the offensive nature “canboulay.”
Bamboo stamping tubes soon replaced the hand drums as they produced sounds comparable to the hand drum when they were pounded on the ground. These tubes were played in ensembles called tamboo bamboo bands. When even the tamboo bamboo drums became forbidden, nontraditional instruments made with scrap metal, metal containers, graters and developed.
The metal pan players discovered that the raised areas of the metal containers made a different sound to those areas that were flat. Through experimentation, coincidence, trial and error, and ingenuity on the part of numerous innovators, the metal pan bands evolved into the steelpan family of instruments. As the pan makers’ knowledge and technique improved, so did the sound of the instrument.
Both Potts and Houston, graduates of Prairie Ridge High School, have college degrees in music education. Potts began making steelpans over eight years ago. He started a retail store when he was still in college.
“I always liked working with my hands,” Potts said. “I became fascinated with making the steelpans.”
He began studying piano tuning so he could adjust the tooling to create the best sound.
“I start with a 6-inch sledge hammer,” said Potts. As the work progresses the hammer gets smaller. “I use smaller hammers to add and release tension as I adjust the harmonics.”
It’s physically challenging work. Potts works on a new drum for 7-8 hours a day. Potts and Houston begins work around 8 a.m. and locks up around 11 p.m. Still, they are in and out of the shop because they lead different local, off-site events.
Anyone interested in learning how to play the steelpans can visit from 6-7:30 p.m. Monday when the Earth Steelband plays. Anyone over 10 years old is welcome.
From 6:30-8 p.m., adults of all levels of expertise get together as the Wind Steelband. A more experienced Fire Steelband meets on Thursday 5-6:30 p.m.
Potts and Houston teach lessons and started a “Latin-Funk” trio as an offshoot of one of the regular steelpan bands. Houston’s specialty is the vibraphone, common to jazz. Christina Guerrero joins the group on flute.
Salsa nights begin Feb. 10. Lessons are from 8-9 p.m. and dancing from 9-11 p.m. A variety of Latin style dances will be taught.
Steelpan music, of course, will accompany the dancers.
Potts stresses that “this is a communal art space.” They have art shows, rent areas for recitals, and have recording studios. For more information about Cultural Arts and Music or the Great Lakes Steelpan Festival, visit PottsandPans.com.
— Woodstock’s Cultural Arts and Music owners march to different beat —