RAY FUNK and ANDREW MARTIN
Pan pioneer the late Dr Clifford Alexis might be the topic of a special tribute on the Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC) in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The tribute will feature a special memorial concert in honour of the influential tuner, pannist, composer, arranger and educator. It should showcase a steelband comprising former students, bandmates, and friends and might be held on November 12.
Pannists from across the globe, including Antigua and Barbuda, Canada, Jamaica, Japan, Trinidad and Tobago and the US, are scheduled to play within the memorial steelband. A lot of them were former students of Alexis at Northern Illinois University (NIU) where Alexis co-led the steelband programme from 1985-2016.
The tribute is being organised by Yuko Asada of NIU and Dr Elizabeth DeLamater, an NIU graduate who has taught at UWI and other institutions, including the University of Wisconsin, – Oshkosh. Asada took over the master tuner’s role as instrument technician for the NIU steelband programme on Alexis’a retirement in 2016. Asada also leads the NIU community steelband and was recently featured within the Women in Pan film series created and produced by Mark Loquan and Maria Nunes.
Several notable TT NIU graduates might be travelling to PASIC to perform within the tribune concert for his or her former teacher, including Dr Mia Gormandy-Benjamin, Akua Leith, Seion Gomez and Barry Mannette.
Gormandy-Benjamin says the academic focus of the Percussive Arts Society is the right backdrop.
“PASIC is a major space to honour the nice Dr Clifford Alexis,” she said. “Given the historical significance of his work and his legacy that has continued to live to tell the tale, I’m honoured to be a part of the celebration of his life and contributions to steelpan.
“The stage might be a representation of what was, what’s, and what might be on this planet of steelpan, all within the name of Dr Cliff Alexis.”
Along with those travelling from TT, several TT nationals now teaching within the US may even participate, including Josanne Francis, Kenneth Joseph, Jason Woodley, Joshua Bedeau and Daron Roberts.
Besides his work at NIU, Alexis also worked closely for a long time with seminal American-based pan programmes like Dr Eugene Novotney’s at Humboldt State University in California and Dr Larry Snider’s on the University of Akron, Ohio. Each might be attending the tribute to their late friend and colleague.
Novotney noted: “Truthfully, the Humboldt Calypso Band owes its entire existence to Clifford Alexis. Cliff was the inspiration for the band, made the entire original instruments for the group, and was our first ever guest artist, way back in 1987.
“Cliff made the trip as much as Humboldt not less than 20 times throughout the years, and each time he got here, he inspired a new generation of scholars, each through his words and thru his actions. The scholars loved him and so did the Humboldt community. Cliff made everyone feel like they mattered.”
Since 1987 Alexis was an everyday clinician, performer and attendee at PASIC, mostly via his role as co-director of the NIU Steelband. He co-ordinated the primary mass steelband at PASIC in 1987 and was honoured together with fellow pan pioneer Ellie Mannette in 1994 for his or her contributions to the art form.
Throughout his storied profession, Alexis was no stranger to awards and accolades. He was recognised with the 1983 and 1984 Minnesota Black Musician of the Yr award. In 1997, he was given an Award of Excellence by Pan Trinbago. In 2001, he received the Pan Legend Award from the TT Folk Arts Institute in New York. In 2002, he was inducted into the Sunshine Hall of Fame Award. In 2006, Alexis and the opposite members of the 1964 TT National Steel Orchestra were honoured by the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs for his or her groundbreaking work. In 2012, he received two Emmy nominations for his work on Hammer on Steel, a documentary produced on the University of Akron.
As a part of an amazing honour that recognised his entire profession in pan, Alexis was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2013. The society said, “Clifford Alexis has come to represent quality and innovation for steelpan builders, tuners, educators, performers and aficionados.”
Throughout his impressive profession, Alexis all the time carried a bit of Trinidad with him and was quick to inform a story, give advice, or offer a glimmer of insight into his homeland, which gave to him what he shared with the world for nearly 60 years.
For Novotney, PASIC was a favorite place. “Cliff loved the whole lot about PASIC! He saw it as a possibility to see old friends and make new ones. He was a trailblazer and steelpan pioneer, but above all, he loved interacting with people and talking about pan – and that was what he did non-stop at PASIC.”
The story of Cliff Alexis’s life is one in all extraordinary achievement and extraordinary consequence.
The PASIC tribute concert will feature new works, including a new composition dedicated to him by long-time friend Robert Greenidge.
A second composition is a medley of 4 separate Alexis arrangements spanning three a long time of popular music, starting from doo-wop to 90s R&B, edited into one piece by Delamater.
This might be followed by two by of Alexis’s best-known compositions, Confusion Reggae, one in all his earliest published compositions, which is a favorite of many pannists and steelbands within the US, and Pan 2000, composed by Alexis for the 2000 World Steelband Festival in Trinidad. The NIU Steelband famously won second place performing it on the competition.
The programme concludes with Liam Teague’s recent piece Dream, a concerto for pan, with soloists given a probability to improvise, which is devoted to Alexis and references three of his compositions – Summer Song, Song to the Chiricahua, and Confusion Reggae. It was commissioned by Michael Mizma and the San Jacinto College Steelband, and is a novel calypso-based concerto with improvised solos.
Historic audio and video recordings of Alexis may even be played as a part of the tribute concert between musical selections.