Ray Funk and Andrew Martin
On November 9, Tracy Thornton will lead a collection of nearly a dozen steelbands in a concert featuring arrangements of classic hard-rock anthems. Billed as Pan Rocks, the concert is to be at the Akron Civic Center in Akron, Ohio, at 7 pm.
This unique concert is focused on the versatility and excitement pan can generate when playing rock, punk and heavy metal music.
Pan Rocks is the creation of Thornton who started his career as a drummer for various heavy metal bands before he was bitten by the pan jumbie, changed his life, and went to Trinidad to play Panorama.
With Pan Rocks, Thornton is attempting to duplicate the infectious energy of large Panorama steelbands by putting together a mass steelband playing rock classics by The Who, Led Zeppelin, Queen, Jane's Addiction, Nirvana, the Ramones, and a few of Thornton's original "rockin" compositions.
Pan Rocks will feature a variety of primary and secondary school level steelbands from the Akron area as well as the Indiana Wesleyan University steelband and steelbands from Cincinnati (Divine Steel), Binghamton, New York, and central Ohio (Heavenly Metal).
The Pan Rocks mass steelband will also be joined by noted pan players the likes of Dave Longfellow, Darren Dyke and Trinidad's own master musician Liam Teague. The bands have been practising Thornton's rock arrangements for the past few months and all will come together to perform this Saturday.
An animated Thornton has a hard time containing his excitement as the date of Pan Rocks draws near: "We have people flying in from as far away as Alberta, Canada, Hartford, Connecticut, Chicago and North Carolina to participate."
Tracy Thornton is unique in the United States as he is a full-time pan player who has been performing non-stop on pan since 1995. From the time he was a teenager, Thornton drummed in rock bands and his latest focus in pan allows him to merge two different loves.
Thornton started out in pan, oddly enough, after hearing the instrument in a rock group.
"I was turned on to pan by the alt/rock band Jane's Addiction. They had steel drums on their classic song, Jane Says. I thought that would be a cool instrument to have and tinker with, never knowing it would consume my life," he said.
"Then Mark Ford's steelband when he was at East Carolina University opened a show for (my band at the time) and I finally saw a (steel) band in person, I was sold."
His journey in pan continued when he attend the Ellie Mannette Festival of Steel summer camp in 1994.
Thornton fell under the spell of Ken "Professor" Philmore who was guest artiste that year and was impressed with Thornton's interest and invited him to play in his band Potential Symphony for Panorama. "After my first Panorama in 1995, the pan jumbies had completed their work and I was done!"
Thornton played with Professor in Potential Symphony for the next three years and his travels to Trinidad have continued ever since.
In the summers of 2011 and 2012 he took school steelbands down to Trinidad to see where pan originated and he considers it his second home. He is now married to a Trini and returns often to visit friends and his extended family.
For several years, Thornton has led a calypso/jazz group called Been Caught Steelin, toured the United States with the youth steelband Sons of Steel, and taught pan at every level. He runs his own record company Steel Pandemic Records and has issued more than a dozen albums.
More recently he was focused on the Pan Rocks concept and has issued tribute albums on pan to artists like the Ramones, Jane's Addiction, and Jack Johnson. His latest album Pan Rocks! came out in September and includes many of the songs that will be featured on the concert.
The idea of Pan Rocks came as a result of a meeting last year between Thornton and co-organiser Angel Lawrie. An accomplished pan player and steelband leader, Lawrie has played pan for more than 25 years and is an alumni of the steelband at the University of Akron. She is also the music instructor at a school for special needs children called the Summit Academy located in Akron.
Lawrie founded a steelband programme at the academy that has taken off in the last few years.
As she told Malcolm Abram of the Akron Beacon Journal: "When I first started I had 15, last year we had 30 and this year we have over 70 that are just meeting our criteria for being in the All-Star Band–good grades, good behaviour and just being an ambassador for the school."
For all her years in pan, nothing has excited Lawrie's passion like the work she is doing now on a daily basis with the special needs kids of Summit Academy.
The kids are responding so well to pan, and according to Lawrie: "They are so excited and are doing so well. I don't think we'll be able to get them off the stage!"
Lawrie's passion for pan has taken her all over the United States, Florence, Italy, and Trinidad where she lived and studied for six months. She still, to this day, considers Len "Boogsie" Sharpe her mentor.
Lawrie's connection to pan is deep and she is also married to leading pan builder/tuner Steve Lawrie who moved to the United States following years of building and tuning instruments in South Africa.
Pan Rocks is not the first large-scale pan event for Angel Lawrie as she was the primary organiser for pan conventions in Akron in 2006. More recently, she organised a concert in November 2012 for the Summit Academy that featured special guests Tracy Thornton and the legendary Harry Belafonte.
The day after last year's successful concert, Lawrie and Thornton met to discuss Thornton's idea of concert that features a mass band that plays classic rock in an effort to better get kids engaged in pan in the United States. Lawrie agreed and they set about planning. Given the vast number of different artistes and steelbands involved, Pan Rocks has been a major act of co-ordination.
Things are now coming together and the vision of Thornton and Lawrie is a reality.
Pan is an instrument that can do almost anything, but never has so many pan players worked to literally rock the house in quite this fashion. If all goes as planned, Thornton envisions taking his Pan Rocks concept on the road and performing similar programmes in Europe and elsewhere in the United States.
Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pan player and associate professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.