April 21, 2002 – In a soundproof classroom with cinder block walls, a bespectacled man wearing a weight-lifting belt spends hours wielding a rubber mallet with a big head and a short stock.
Ping-ping-ping-bang! Ping-ping-bang-bang! He does this over and over on every note and every instrument in the 75-piece steelband of Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School. Any offending note he finds gets the mallet. When pan tuner Ronald Matthews is done, the band is ready for the Sunday night's Carnival Steelband Jamboree, formerly known as Pan-O-Rama.
Besides him sits an electronic meter which he says allows him to tune each pan to concert pitch. "It makes the steelpan a universal instrument, just like any other," he explains.
Matthews is part of an invisible army of artisans and organizers working behind the scenes to make sure hundreds of young musicians get off on the right note at Steelband Jamboree. He says he'll repeat his ritual on "every single drum, every single note," before moving on to the next job, a 40-piece band at a local elementary school.
Finding that universal pitch also is the goal of Hillary Rezende. Better known as "Baga," Rezende says he depends on his ear to find the "voice" in the pans he tunes. Each pan has one — tenor, alto, baritone and bass.
"A lot of men make steelpans, and they use different techniques," Rezende notes. To tune a particular pan, you have to know which technique was used to create it, he says, and then "work with it. If you go otherwise, it's war."
Rezende says he's been trusting his ears since he first played a pan at the age of 12. It was at the end of World War II, on VJ Day, when everyone turned out in the streets and picked up the nearest thing that could make a noise to bang on. Soon, he was hammering out rough versions of steelpans on one-gallon paint cans.
Now, more than 50 years later, he makes a living tuning pans, making pans and constructing steel trolleys for pan bands such as those used in Carnival parades.
On the Saturday before the big event Rezende is scurrying onto a ferry boat to leave St. John, having finished a job for the Love City Pan Dragons. Waiting for him at the end of the ride is a 100-pan tuning job at Eudora Kean High School, then he's on to Antilles School, all in time for the big show.
Matthews and Rezende's work is just part of the job of showcasing the talents of local steelpan players. From early Sunday morning, trucks move into position at schools, churches and housing communities on St. Thomas and St. John to load the instruments and begin moving them toward Lionel Roberts Stadium. Tuners say proper handling is important, for dropping or just jostling pans can undo the delicate tuning work they have just done.
Ensuring that loading and unloading crews make their moves with tender loving care is the task of the Pan-O-Rama Committee chairman, Lueben Davis. With a staff of volunteers he directs the traffic of trucks loading and unloading pans, setting up the stage and deciding which bands are to appear in what order. Davis says this year's juggling act is made more difficult by last-minute notice that some of the bands scheduled to perform will not be doing so.
"We started out with 20; we're down to 16 now. Some bands ran into problems, they had to drop out," Davis said Saturday night.
Still, 16 is plenty of pan bands for a solid Pan-O-Rama show — five hours' worth, perhaps. This year's event is starting at 5 p.m., a couple of hours earlier than it had originally been scheduled. The start was pushed up at the request of Education Department officials to allow the young pannists to get home and get a good night's sleep before heading off to school Monday morning.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.