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Liam Teague: Paganini of the steelpan

Published: 
Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hailed as the “Paganini of the Steelpan,” 40-year-old Liam Teague currently serves as the head of Steelpan Studies and associate professor of Music at Northern Illinois University, and he co-directs the NIU Steelband. He has received many awards, including the Humming Bird Award (Silver) for “loyal and devoted service,” and won a number of notable competitions such as the T&T National Steelband Festival Solo Championship and the Saint Louis Symphony Volunteers Association Young Artiste Competition.

His commitment to demonstrating the great musical possibilities of the steelpan has taken Teague to Europe, Asia and Australia, as well as North and Central America and the Caribbean, following in the footsteps of other steelpan luminaries like Hugh Borde, Ellie Mannette, Bertie Marshall, Tony Williams, Boogsie Sharpe, Jit Samaroo and Dimes Fernandez.
Teague has performed with many diverse ensembles, including Taiwan National Symphony, Czech National Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, Panama National Symphony, Chicago Sinfonietta, Vermeer String Quartet, Dartmouth Wind Ensemble, University of Wisconsin-Madison Marching Band, Nexus, TCL Group Skiffle Bunch Steel Orchestra, bpTT Renegades Steelband, Starlift Steel Orchestra, and most recently as the arranger for the 2014 Panorama for Silver Stars Steel Orchestra.

 

Teague has collaborated with such prominent musicians as Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Samuels, Zakir Hussain, and Evelyn Glennie. As a performer and clinician, Teague has given presentations at several Percussive Arts Society International Conventions (Pasic) and at many educational institutions throughout the world. He is steelband director at Birch Creek Music Performance Center in Door County, Wisconsin, and he has also taught and performed at the California State University Summer Arts Camp and at the Interlochen Academy for the Performing Arts.
A strong advocate for original steelpan compositions, Teague has commissioned a number of significant composers to write for the instrument, including Michael Colgrass, Jan Bach, Libby Larsen, Deborah Fisher Teason, Joey Sellers, Ben Wahlund, Erik Ross and Kevin Bobo. 

 

Many of his own compositions are published with MaumauMusic, PanPress and RamajayMusic. To date, Teague has recorded/produced ten cds, including Hands Like Lightning (1993), For Lack of Better Words (2002), Panoramic: Rhythm Through an Unobstructed View (2005), and Open Window (2010).  He was recently named the Arts and Letters 2014 Laureate of the Anthony N Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence. 

 

When and how did you get into playing and teaching the steelpan?
In the late 1980s, my father, Russell Teague (deceased), had a Cub Scout Troop when I was a boy. One of the members, Darren Sheppard, brought a steelpan to a meeting. I instantly fell in love with the sound and asked my father if I could join a steelband. He agreed, and I eventually started playing with the T&TEC Motown Steel Orchestra in San Fernando. From there, I eventually moved on to Hillside Symphony Steel Orchestra. My first official role as a steelpan teacher came in the 2000s at Northern Illinois University, shortly after graduating with a masters degree in Music.

 

Was it something you had to work hard at or did it come naturally?
I think that in some ways playing the pan came naturally. However, I definitely had an insatiable thirst for learning music and was an extremely disciplined practicer.

 

What was your full-time job? 
Head of Steelband Studies/associate professor of music/co-director Northern Illinois University Steelband.

 

Where were you born, where did you grow up, and where do you currently reside? 
I was born and raised in San Fernando and currently reside in DeKalb, Illinois, USA (about 60 miles west of Chicago).

 

Who were the people who have influenced you the most in your career and in life in general, and how did they?
There are numerous people who have helped and/or influenced me in my life, so it is impossible to mention all of them. However, I’ll mention a few: my parents—Pearl and Russell Teague; Shirley James—one of the first people to assist with my early musical development; Gunilla Tang Kai—my violin teacher in Trinidad; Robert Foster—former manager and producer of some of my early CDs; Joy Caesar—former vice president at CitiBank, who made it possible for me to get through my first semester at Northern Illinois University; Al O’Connor—former associate dean and founder of the steelpan programme at NIU; Cliff Alexis—one of my best friends in the world and co-director of the NIU Steelband; Robert Chappell—one of my very close friends and musical colleagues at NIU.

Who are your role models/who inspires you?
Other than my parents, I can’t really say that I have had role models, though I have been inspired by countless people—especially musicians. My early musical heroes were violinists like Heifetz and Perlman. Later on, I started emulating steelpan musicians like Ken “Professor” Philmore, Len “Boogsie” Sharpe, Robert Greenidge, Rudy “Two Left” Smith, Dr Jit Samaroo, to name a few. Once I moved to the USA, I started to be enamored with jazz and was deeply moved by the music of Charlie Parker, Chick Corea, Joshua Redman, etc.

 

At what schools/institutions did you receive your education?
Coffee Boys’ Anglican School; San Fernando East Junior Secondary; Pleasantville Senior Comprehensive; Northern Illinois University.

 

What are your favourite calypso/soca songs of all time other than your own?
I really love the music of the past and hold musicians like Lord Shorty (Ras Shorty I) Om Shanti, Watch Out My Children, etc), Lord Kitchener, Sparrow, and people of that ilk in high esteem. They knew how to craft a good song as they actually understood melody, harmony and rhythm. I’m really into what Bunji Garlin has been doing (loved Differentology, Truck on de Road and Carnival Tabanca). Of course, there are a number of other musicians out there (famous and not so famous) who are doing good work.

 

What do you still want to accomplish with your steelpan talent?
I have only skimmed the surface. I am still at a very elementary stage of my musical development, and I know that it will probably take many lifetimes before I feel like I have actually arrived close to what I’d like to achieve. I’d love to be able to spearhead a movement which could bring the steelpan to the masses internationally on a consistent basis. It would be made up of stakeholders, all of whom would be conscious of the bigger picture, and were driven and inspired by peace, love and music—no competition necessary.

 

What daily motto/credo do you live by…your recipe for success?
Be happy, peace, love and music

 

Would you like to tell our readers about your family?
I am a very private person, so I would prefer not to divulge too much. However, my wife Lorena is from Panama, and she used to play the viola with the Panama National Symphony. We met when I was a steelpan soloist with that orchestra. I immediately fell in love with her fantastic viola technique—at least, that’s what I tell everyone…lol. Our son, Jaden, is six-years old and was born in Panama. He’s now in kindergarten. Our daughter, Jeida, is one year old and basically has me wrapped around her finger. I had heard rumors that that would happen, but I didn’t believe it— little did I know how wrong I’d be…lol.

 

What are your most prized possessions: one tangible, one intangible?
Tangible: my tenor (soprano) steelpan. I’ve had it since I was about 15 and continue to play the same instrument at the ripe old age of 40. Intangible: the love of my mother, sisters, wife, children, friends and family.

 

Of all your shows, concerts, performances, which would you like a first time audience, listener or viewer to experience? 
Tough question, but probably my performance a few years ago with the Czech National Symphony in Prague, Czech Republic. I was not prepared for the love that the audience showed as they called me back on stage for at least three encores.

 

Of all your accolades, prizes and awards which do you rate as extremely special?
 I treasure all of them, but if I had to point out a couple, they would be the Humming Bird Award (Silver) for my contributions to culture, plus being recently recognised by the Ansa McAL Caribbean Awards for Excellence as one of its laureates.

 

If you had to perform for an audience who had never heard or seen you before and you had to perform one song, which would you? 
Probably my composition A Visit to Hell. I feel it demonstrates many facets of the steelpan’s versatility and profundity.

 

What goals/ambitions do you still have?
To become a better overall musician and human being. To do more to help the up-and-coming generation of Caribbean musicians and to do whatever I can to bring happiness to the world.

 

What is an interesting facet of your personality that most people do not know about you?  
I can be a bit of a clown. Most people would not know that about me as I generally appear to be very serious and/or shy. However, once I get comfortable around people, I tend to lighten up. Also, I’m a huge wrestling and ultimate fighter fan (please don’t judge me). I know it seems at odds with my non-violent personality, but I think that I’ve always had competition in my blood and the soap opera that is wrestling has been hard to let go.

 

What is the best compliment you have ever received? 
I am actually a very self critical person, and while I am always grateful for compliments, I tend not to always take them to heart as I am always striving to be better. However, I love to laugh and love people’s senses of humour, so one of the “compliments” that was giving to me, happened at a concert where a musician I was performing with said to the audience, “Of all the steelpan players that I have   worked with, Liam Teague is definitely…ONE of them.” Lol. I never forgot that as I really respected this musician and thought that he was going to pay me the ultimate compliment (though I know it would not have been deserved).

I am always most appreciative when people tell me just how much my music has impacted them emotionally and spiritually, though.
What are your plans for the rest of 2014?

 

The NIU Steelband has a number of performances for the rest of the semester, including its 40th anniversary concert on April 13. I have to premiere a new steelpan concerto with wind ensemble by Kevin Bobo in April, plus a new composition for steelpan and violin by Jan Bach. In addition, I have several other performances with steelbands in the USA. After that, I’ll be returning to Trinidad for the Ansa McAL Caribbean Awards for Excellence, and then teaching at the Birch Creek Music and Performance Center in Wisconsin. I’m looking forward to a bit of down time with my family during the summer, and then it’s back to living my life as a musical chameleon.

 

What advice would you give to the country's leaders to create a better society? 
Lead with honesty, compassion, sensitivity, dignity, and with a vision for the future.

 

What advice would you give to the young people of T&T?
First and foremost, remember to live life with respect and dignity and to honour the sanctity of life. I feel that one of the reasons why crime has been so rampant and devastating is that many in our society have no fear of God and, as a result, are unconcerned with repercussions. Finally, I would say that the young people of T&T should strive for happiness. I believe that at the end of the day, this is the one thing that we all want.

 

How can we find out more about you and keep up to date with your latest news?
liamteague.com; niu.edu/music; Facebook

 Describe yourself in two words; one beginning with L, the other with T, your initials.
Loving and Thankful.

• See Liam Teague in action: http://ow.ly/uAWlL