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Eugene Novotney: 30 years of pan in the Redwood Forest

Published: 
Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Nestled in the ancient Redwood forests of northern California is Humboldt State University. From this picturesque setting that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, California’s pied piper of pan Eugene Novotney has led a hotbed of steelpan for over three decades.

Novotney is head of Percussion Studies and professor of Music at Humboldt State University where he’s been an award-winning faculty member for more than three decades. Steelpan has always been a major focus of the percussion programme at Humboldt State University and Novotney has inspired a growing number of students to become steelpan fanatics.

His alumni, many of whom have travelled to perform in Trinidad, teach in steelpan programmes up and down the West Coast of the United States, and a former student is even playing steelpan on the forthcoming Star Wars soundtrack.

Since its inception, the Humboldt State University steelpan programme has grown into one of the best known in the United States. The steelband has up to 50 players and performs Fall and Spring concerts to sellout crowds. The steelband also performs regularly across California, often times with alumni led steelbands. Last year, Novotney’s steelban—the Humboldt Calypso Band—had a gala concert that featured guest artists Cliff Alexis, Liam Teague, and Josanne Francis to which one concertgoer enthused, “the presentation, the joy, the talent. I am very, very happy to be here!”

Novotney was first bitten by the pan jumbie in graduate school at the University of Illinois in the 1980s. His first exposure to steelpan, however, came much earlier in high school and undergraduate when he began listening to steelband records. While a graduate student in percussion he was already very curious about steelpan and one of his first duties as a graduate assistant—even before he got to play steelpan—was to set up the instruments and meet the tuner. When the tuner arrived, Novotney was quickly mesmerised by his skill for the tuner was none other than Dr Cliff Alexis.

Alexis made clear that in his mind the whole orchestra of steelpans was one instrument, and he had to tune the whole orchestra to sound right. Alexis’ influence on Novotney was dramatic and the latter quickly realised that this could be a life changing experience. Over the course of graduate studies steelpan became an increasingly important element of Novotney’s studies, over the summer when he was put in charge of a small summer gigging steelband and attended a summer steelpan tuning workshop at the University of Akron sponsored by Al O’Connor, Cliff Alexis, and Larry Snider. By the end of that workshop, Novotney declared to Alexis his intention to purchase a full set of steelpans.

Indeed, Novotney lived up to his word but it was a long slow process. Shortly after being hired to teach percussion at Humboldt State University, he began his quest to start a steelband on a campus that had no instruments. With little university funds at his disposal, Novotney sold his own car to pay for the first steelpans.

The band was called the Humboldt Calypso Band because initially it was just Novotney soloing on the only steelpan with his students accompanying him on vibraphone, marimba, and xylophone; not yet a true steelband. As he slowly acquired more steelpans (and paying gigs) the band plowed money back into buying more steelpans from Alexis and Patrick Arnold.

To this day, Alexis remains a backbone of support for the Humboldt State University programme. And, as Novotney describes, Alexis continued to supply instruments for his band over the years, including a time when they “got empty oil drums from a tortilla company in town who had bought them full of cooking oil. They turned out to be much better to work with than ones filled with petroleum products.”

In addition to his on campus steelband, Novotney also founded the California State University Summer Arts (CSUSA) Percussion in World Music programme, where the students from all over the state learn African, Brazilian, and Cuban percussion as well as steelpan in an intensive two-week summer workshop. The camps were held from 1986 until 2006 and were a collaborative effort between Novotney and the late Michael Carney (1952-2012), himself an American steelpan pioneer who taught percussion at California State University Long Beach. Novotney asserts that the camps were “magical and helped so many students across California learn a love for these various unique avenues of African percussion.”

The camps also featured several notable guest artists including Alexis, Liam Teague, and Ray Holman.

Through the encouragement of Cliff Alexis, Andy Narell, and Ray Holman, Novotney made his first trip to Trinidad in 1993 to play with Hummingbird Pan Groove which was performing Ray Holman’s arrangement of Pan. Novotney was back the next year to play with Phase II and his since been back many times. He was an adjudicator at the 2000 and 2005 World Steelband Festivals in Trinidad as well as the First European Steelband Festival and a several of the school steelband competitions in Virginia Beach.

His impressive accomplishments aside, Novotney’s biggest contribution to the spread of steelpan is through the work of his students. Over the years, alumni from the Humboldt Calypso Steel Band have gone on to create dozens of steelbands. These groups are varied in size and scope, including the Pan Dulce Steel Band, an Arcata community group which has been going since 1999. The band has two albums, the most recent from 2010 is Ah Fus Yuh Sweet—the music of Ray Holman. Pan Dulce also have a smaller gigging band called Pan Tectonics and band members also teach steelpan classes to both kids and adults in the community. Other Novotney students have gone on to form school steelbands, including the Freshwater Middle School Steel Band, the Trinidad (California) Blue Dragon Steel Band, and the Del Norte High School Steel Band.

Novotney’s impact stretches beyond California to places such as Alaska, where recent graduate Niamh Mercer is teaching Alaskans to play Jit Samaroo’s arrangement of Kitch’s Pan in A Minor for the first time. Other graduates have gone on to teach and lead steelbands across the USA though most are focused in California, Oregon, and Washington. With so many alumni steelbands in the region Novotney has partnered with local alumni, Jesse Jonathan Franzen, to host the annual Humboldt Steelband Festival each May in order to celebrate, and raise funds for the community, primary and secondary school steelbands.

For Novotney, the possibilities for steelpan are endless. He sees the activity of former students such as Tyler Hunt, who is now very busy between gigging, teaching, and performing steelpan for the movie and television industry, as part of a larger steelpan movement.

This includes Derek Smith, who has been teaching and performing steelpan in the San Francisco area for 15 years and has a very strong opinion about how Novotney changed his life. “Eugene was an inspirational teacher and leader. His impact on me is unquestionable.” He remembers how he first got sucked into steelpan, noting “it was around 1990-1991 when I first saw the Humboldt Calypso Band performing in the Quad at HSU. … I approached Eugene, and asked ‘how can I be part of this?’. I remember that visit to this day, and that was also the day I decided to become a music major so I could join the steelband.”

To date, dozens of Novotney’s students have travelled to Trinidad to perform in Panorama with a range of bands, including Hummingbird Pan Groove, Phase II Pan Groove, Starlift, Invaders, Silver Stars, Potential Symphony, Fonclaire, and Birdsong. In fact, some students have gone as often as half a dozen times and brought students of their own.

While many Humboldt State University students have travelled to Trinidad, the largest contingent came for Carnival 2017 when eight students performed with Silver Stars. The students stayed between one and two months, fully absorbing the culture while learning the Panorama tune. Humboldt student Erin Laetz loved the experience.

“I remember being highly intimidated; the Trinidadians were all so quick to learn their licks, and the band was so young. I was surprised at the number of really talented high school and university students there were in the band. Panorama itself, and the entire process leading up to it, was hands down the most rewarding and exhilarating musical experience I’ve ever taken part of. .. I’m so eager to get back and play in Panorama again.”

Novotney is a mentor and teacher for his current students and a supportive lifelong friend for his graduates. He possesses a wide spectrum of experiences, integrity and professionalism topped with a tremendous ability to communicate.

Novotney’s devotion to the music and culture of T&T is evident in the accomplishments of his career. As student Erin Laetz summarises, Novotney is “a powerhouse of talent and charisma. A great guy to be bringing pan to the Pacific.”

• Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, panman, and professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota. Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas.