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New Orleans funk on pan goes to Northern Europe and Ukraine

Published: 
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
Gregory Boyd:

Gregory Boyd is one of a handful of experienced pannists in Denmark and the only thing more unique than this fact is the unconventional road he took to a career playing T&T’s national instrument in northern Europe.

Boyd is an accomplished performer of pan; yet, his path to a steelpan career based in Denmark came not via Trinidad nor local sources but rather through New Orleans and the US Navy Steelband.

An American, Gregory Boyd grew up in Detroit and Milwaukee and was raised in a family of drummers and church singers.

When he was old enough, Boyd joined the US Navy and was based at the Naval Technical Training Center Corry Station in Pensacola, Florida training as a Cryptologist. Here he auditioned, without success, to make it into Navy Band Southeast as a drumset player. Upon finally passing the audition after four tries was told there was no opening and on the advice of one of the band members Boyd was suggested to check out the US Navy Steel Band which was based in New Orleans. Boyd took the advice, checked out the band, and became entranced by the steelpan and steelband. Convinced that he had found his calling, Boyd auditioned and joined the US Navy Steel Band. This was the mid- 1980s and Boyd enjoyed playing in the US Navy Steel Band and performing in Mardi Gras and across the United States. During this time New Orleans was as vibrant of a music scene, as it is now, and Boyd found he could supplement his US Navy salary by gigging throughout the region on percussion, drum set, or steelpan. By the early 1990s, the US Navy Steel Band enjoyed a well-established tradition of community involvement and musical excellence in New Orleans nearly two decades in the making. The US Navy Steel Band members fed off the energy of New Orleans, and many band members such as Boyd felt the love of the Crescent City: “Out in town, just the mention of the steel band gets positive feedback.” After three eventful years performing in the US Navy Steel Band, Boyd’s enlistment in the US Navy was almost over and he was faced with a change in his vision of the future. Boyd found he was more interested in working and touring as a professional musician than being in the US Navy. By this time, he had built up a strong reputation as a skilled percussionist and pannist throughout the rich music scene in New Orleans. While a member of the US Navy Steel Band Boyd performed, as a freelance musician, had performed as a guest musician several times for leading rhythm and blues singer Charmaine Neville.

Herself a member of the legendary Neville family of musicians which also includes her father Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, Charmaine happened to be in need of a fulltime percussionist hired Boyd to fill the role.

Pan swings Rhythm and Blues in New Orleans Boyd performed regularly with Charmaine Neville at many of the leading Rhythm and Blues and jazz clubs in New Orleans, including Snug Harbor and many others.

Playing with Neville’s band was, in many ways, an education for Boyd. Here he had the opportunity to hone his skills and perform along with musicians such as the great saxophonist Reggie Houston himself a roadtested musician playing with the likes of Fats Domino. Boyd used his time playing in Neville’s band to develop a new style on his double seconds steelpans that effectively translates a unique New Orleans funk sound.

“I was one of the first to come out with a New Orleans sound with my instrument. There have been others performing surely but I like to think I added something to the mix.

“I like really trying to imitate great piano parts, guitar, or horns and trying to meld my four-mallet, Quadraphonic Stick technique and make the instrument sound thicker in a band setting and maybe try to achieve some of these textures,” notes Boyd.

His experimentation with a new style of steelpan-playing is evident in his first studio work as a steel pannist on Neville’s album It’s About Time (1992) and his current single Beating on a Drum (2016).

In addition to his work with Neville, Boyd also spent much of the 1980s and 1990s freelancing as a musician for a variety of bands playing a variety of styles in New Orleans and Gulf Coast region.

This includes performances with Cyril Neville, another talent member of the Neville family, trumpeter and current band member of The Sun Ra Arkestra band and Kool and the Gang’s Michael Ray, as well as with legendary trumpeter Kermit Ruffins.

While happy in New Orleans, Boyd’s pursuit of a new adventure intervened. He began working with the Ballet Renversé dance company writing original music for the company—a process he greatly enjoyed. Life changed even further when Boyd fell in love with a Danish woman visiting in New Orleans. In 2002, they married and promptly moved to Denmark where he has lived ever since.

Boyd woos Europe with pan Leaving behind his career and the rich musical traditional of music in New Orleans was hard for Boyd; yet, he embraced the change and took the opportunity to introduce Northern Europe to his unique style of New Orleans steelpan playing.

Since his move to Denmark in 2002 Boyd has built a new career as a percussionist, pannist, singer and, composer. He began gaining fans from across the globe and the late Bruce Lundvall of Blue Note Records noted: “I thought he (Boyd) was also very original as a lyricist. Those lyrics are very interesting. The way he was able to scat and play the pans simultaneously is incredible.”

In Denmark and Northern Europe, Boyd performs and leads his own band and works as a jazz soloist performing with various bands across the region.

Even in Europe, however, Boyd is known for his unique sound—he still uses his “Quadraphonic fourstick technique”—which combines steelpan as an accompaniment instrument with vocals and composing and songwriting.

Boyd has recorded three releases including his first solo album Rich in a Troubled Time, (2000) Transformation (2011) and recently released Beatin’ On A Drum (2016). Boyd is pleased with how life has changed for him.

“Things have going steady and onward. So I am happy and look forward to excellent working relationships all over the world in the future,” he admitted. In addition to performing, Boyd leads workshops on his pan technique and ensemble work and has taught as an adjunct professor of two courses that he designed on Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans and the Golden Era of Funk Music 1969- 1973 study and performance classes at the Royal Danish School of Music.

Exploiting virgin territory

Though he wishes people in Denmark could experience Trinidad and Panorama, Boyd sees the lack of steelpan tradition and Trinidadian diaspora in Denmark as something of a benefit as he feels free to continue experimenting and taking his art in a new direction.

Currently, Boyd is experimenting with his Amplified Steel Pan Instrument or Electro Pan with which he sings and play it in a soulful R&B style, strongly connected to his New Orleans experience.

According to Boyd, he treats the steelpan as a “sort of blues instrument and just basically just turn it as loud as possible and just get it raw as I can. I’m working with a lot of pedals and a Fender amplifier although I am not against going direct.”

Similar to the electric guitar, Boyd wants the ability to enhance his steelpan’s sound by directly miking his instrument and using accessory devises to alter the sound. The result is a sound described by some as “Funk with a bit of the Caribbean.”

What is for sure, however, is the Gregory Boyd is bringing his version of steelpan from Carnival to Mardi Gras to Northern Europe and the World.

n RAY FUNK is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

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