Students from Trinidad to perform steelpan concert at Woodstock Opera House

Through late nights into early mornings, Matt Potts has shaped barrels into steelpans, molding and tuning until they create the sound he envisions.

With the help of Ronald Matthews, a master steelpan builder from Trinidad, he’s determined to have enough instruments ready for an expected group of about 30 young students from Trinidad. Many of them are making their first and likely only trip to the United States.

The students – taught to become pannists by Akinola Sennon at the Deltones Institute for Steel Drums and Music in Trinidad – range from age 6 to adults in their 30s. The Trinidadian U.S. Embassy offered promotional assistance for the band to travel.

“They’re all in the band together, and they’re friends,” Potts said. “For some of these kids, this is absolutely going to be their only opportunity to see some place other than Trinidad.”

The instruments Potts has created not only will be played by them, they’ll be used, along with dance, to tell a story – a story of the steelpan, its evolution and the passion surrounding it.

Potts, the man behind Potts & Pans Steelband and Woodstock’s nonprofit Culture, Arts and Music – where educational programs teach steelpan lessons, as well as dance and art – has organized “COUSOUMEH – The Journey of the Steelpan.”

Scheduled for 7 p.m. Aug. 31 – Trinidad’s Independence Day – at the Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., the concert will feature the students, as well as Potts & Pans Steelband. Tickets cost $5 at the door. They can be bought beforehand at or through the box office at 816-338-5300.

“It’s not just a concert. In addition to the music, they’re telling the story of Trinidad and the evolution of the steelpan,” Potts said.

It’s an evolution known well to those immersed in the world of steelpans, but perhaps not as well known to others. The steelpan, also known as a steel drum, originated in Trinidad and Tobago when French planters and their slaves emigrated to the countries during the French revolution. Slaves who could not take part in celebrations formed their own using an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids and oil drums.

A description of the upcoming concert reads: “From the depths of oppression, rebellion, struggle, power imbalances emerges a story of uprising, triumph, hope and empowerment. This instrument, singlehandedly, tells the tale of the community and the masses while giving a voice to the most peculiar orator, Akinola Sennon.”

Sennon and Potts met through Potts’ Great Lakes Steelpan Festival, originating in Crystal Lake in 2013. Area pannists and those from throughout the world have come together annually for the event, believed to be the only of its kind in the Chicago area.

Sennon told Potts at last April’s festival, “It’s really impressive how you’ve embraced our culture and are giving it life out here. I’d love for our kids to see what you’re doing here.”

Coordinating the trip and preparing for the concert hasn’t been easy, but at least 17 students were expected to arrive Friday, with the hope of more coming by the concert, Potts said.

Asked by Potts to help him prepare, Matthews – well-known in the steelpan community – came to Woodstock from Trinidad about two weeks ago, basically camping out in a room at the Culture, Arts and Music building and at Potts’ family motor home parked outside for the past couple of weeks.

The students are bringing some smaller steelpans, but transporting larger pans was too pricey. Using at least 40 barrels, Potts and Matthews had to create nine new instruments. Multiple pannists play single instruments.

Matthews has helped Potts, who first started learning how to build steelpans about 10 years ago, hone his skills and be able to build and tune his own steelpan – a process that can take 13 hours for one instrument.

“This guy is absolutely amazing,” Potts said of Matthews. “We start working at 7:30 or 8 in the morning and work until 1 in the morning.”

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