Though her musical knowledge is limited, Karen Nelson understands the power of cultural expression.
Coming from Trinidad & Tobago where the steelpan is the national instrument, she was anxious to introduce the unique musical tool to young people in Hamilton, where she has lived for the last 43 years.
“We wanted to do something for the youths to keep them out trouble and the malls,” said Nelson. “We could not give them something abstract, so why not steelpan.”
Nine years ago, Nelson and Cathy Ferreira started the Hamilton Youth Steel Orchestra (HYSO) in the city’s north end.
“One of the things that motivated me to do this was that my musical knowledge and education are limited,” said Nelson, who graduated from Westmount Secondary School and McMaster University. “I admired my peers who had music in their upbringing and I wanted these kids to get a little bit of that experience. These young people are very poised and they have the right stuff.”
Young people in the community-based music program are offered year-round group instructions in pan playing techniques, music literacy and life skills.
Among the first batch of recruits was Dejehan Hamilton, who was 11 years old at the time.
“He came to us as a drummer, but switched to pan after a year,” said Nelson, who is confined to a wheelchair following a gunshot injury 25 years ago. “Now, he’s the star of the band.”
Nelson has every reason to be proud of Hamilton.
He is the first Canadian to enroll in the Berklee College of Music’s steelpan program. Impressed with the young man’s audition piece, ‘Spain’, which is an instrumental jazz fusion composed by pianist Chick Correa, the world’s largest independent college of contemporary music offered the talented Canadian a full four-year academic scholarship.
“My first-year was just so amazing,” said Hamilton, who is the drill master for the HYSO, which finished eighth at last Friday night’s Ontario Steelpan Association (OSA) Pan Alive competition at Lamport Stadium. “It was filled with lots of work, but Berklee is such a great place to hone your skills. I am so happy that my mom encouraged me to learn a new instrument.”
The mother of six siblings also urged her son to apply to Berklee.
Nelson said Hamilton’s success is an inspiration for the rest of the band members.
“He’s set the bar high and they want to get there too,” she said. “And, he’s certainly not forgotten where he came from. He came back this summer to us anxious to share everything he has learnt in the last year. That’s so satisfying.”
Hamilton, who was on the Dean’s List in his first year at Berklee and resident instructor, Kambreia Cumberbatch, teamed up with T & T arranger, Terrence Sealy, to prepare the band for its seventh Pan Alive appearance this year.
From his home base at the Birdsong Academy in Tunapuna, Sealy communicates with HYSO through Skype and Internet.
“We have a Skype account set up and they have two large TV screens in their panyard,” said Sealy, who has been HYSO’s arranger for the last four years. “I send them the music by e-mail, they go through the score and every week I would fix whatever needs to be done before I come up for the final rehearsals and the competition. It’s an arrangement that works well.”
Founded in 2004, Birdsong offers free music education to young people in Tunapuna and the wider Caribbean Diaspora. Several of its members are enrolled in the University of Trinidad & Tobago and the University of the West Indies music programs and two are in the T & T Police Band.
Birdsong and HYSO established an exchange program a few years ago and in 2009, the HYSO band visited T & T shortly after the Toronto Carnival.
“The kids had a good time and it was a great experience for them,” said long-time member, Edwin Terry.
This year, four Birdsong members – Kathryn DeFreitas, Chanel Pierre, Neisha Smith and Anaika Portell – accompanied Sealy to Toronto.