A group of more than 50 members of the BYU–Hawaii community gathered outside the Cannon Activities Center, unmasked and under the evening sky to enjoy a musical set by the Shaka Steel Band. The band is a group of students, faculty and community members headed by Dr. Darren Duerden of the Faculty of Culture, Language & Performing Arts. Toes tapped and children danced as the group performed nine pieces on June 18, 2021, surprising listeners with several different genres of music.
Ryo Oshiro, a Laie community member and BYUH alumnus, said he enjoyed attending his first Shaka Steel concert since he moved to Hawaii 14 years ago. “It was great. I’ve been to several concerts on campus, but this was my first time sitting through the whole concert.
“There were a lot of genres. I didn’t expect to hear music from classical to contemporary. It was surprising but awesome.”
Lexi Naea, a senior from Utah studying business management who plays in Shaka Steel, said, “We have a lot of really fun pieces. One of my favorite ones is called ‘Jungle Rain.’ It has a really pretty jungle setting, and [Professor Duerden] asks the ensemble members to make jungle noises, like bird sounds and wind whooshing.” The band even added some choreography to add to the music. “It’s fun for the audience to watch,” she said.
Duerden asked listeners to add their own animal sounds to the song as well, encouraging them to “ignore Polynesia,” referring to the Polynesian Cultural Center just behind the fence and across the street from the CAC, and create and their own African safari. Audience members howled like monkeys and whistled like birds throughout the song, adding an exciting layer of sound to the piece.
Oshiro said he was impressed with the audience’s participation. “Everybody was so engaged, even the audience. I wish I had more energy to be with them in the moment. The performers seemed to have a fun time too.”
Naea said she has played in Shaka Steel for two semesters, She said she joined the band with no drumming experience but a will to learn. “It was a little disorienting at first, but it got easier. There were a lot of new people in the ensemble at the time, so we were all learning together and figuring things out.”
She described what class is like every day, saying, “You go in and get your drum, and Dr. D. is in the middle. He has this big drum set. We start drumming and go through the music. It’s a lot of fun. The steel pans have this really beautiful sound that’s really cool and really happy.
“You can’t be unhappy playing the steel pan,” Naea said.
Dr. Duerden said, “I started playing steel drums when I was a student at BYU in Provo in the late 1980s. Steel drumming has always been a part of my life from that point on. He said he studied percussion music and was introduced to steel drum. “I fell in love with it. I started liking it because it was a percussion instrument, but I loved the sound. The music always seemed to transport me into a different place.
“The steel band is kind of a magical ensemble, unlike really any ensemble, because the music is always happy, fun, light and it makes people smile and dance.”
Naea said the drum takes her to different places too. “It always puts me in a good mood. It’s a happy instrument. All the music we play is super upbeat and interesting and there’s a lot of really pretty stuff. It’s amazing the types of moods and settings you can make with a steel pan. It’s just a fun instrument,” Naea said.
When it comes to preparing for a concert like this one, Duerden said, “selection of music is huge.” He said he strives to pick out music that is fun for the players to play, interesting for him to teach and entertaining for the audience to listen to. He also looks for music with different themes and that fits the ability of the players. “Over the years, I’ve collected, purchased, arranged, begged and borrowed stolen steel band arrangements,” Duerden said with a laugh.
Shaka Steel played songs like "Cat Samba," "Field of Dreams" and, a crowd favorite, "Under the Sea" from "the Little Mermaid." “This is exactly what you think of when you picture 'The Little Mermaid,'” Oshiro said.
The band played quite a bit of classic steel band song pieces, Duerden said, including a few arranged by his wife, Jennifer Duerden, who is also in the band. The group mixed it up with a pop piece, show pieces and some soft pieces that showcase the drum’s unique sound.
“You’ll often hear the driving rhythm that is the kind of energy that makes it danceable where sometimes the beauty of the steel drum gets lost, so I like to add some soft pieces.” The band prepared nine different songs to play in the eight-week Spring Semester.
Duerden said he likes to teach his class about the history of the instrument from Trinidad, a small Caribbean island nation north of Venezuela. The instrument was created by poor Trinidadian teenagers in the 1930s, Duerden explained. Upper-class citizens would suppress the lower class by taking away their means of musical expression, from drums to bamboo sticks.
Finally, Duerden said, the lower class had only metal to express themselves during the French celebration Carnival, or Mardi Gras. “Through a series of accidents,” Duerden said, “they determined they could dent the metal and make it sound different pitches.”
From there, he said, they matched the pitches to the European scale of notes and created a family of instruments. “It’s the only acoustical family of instruments created in the whole 20th century, [and it was because of some] kids in the junkyards of Trinidad.”
Steel drumming made its way to America in the 1970s and exploded in the 1990s, Duerden explained.
Duerden said he likes the Shaka Steel ensemble because beginners and professionals can play together and both can still have fun. “The ensemble can involve percussionists and non-percussionists.... There are not many ensembles where you can do that.”
In class, Naea said, “There’s a good array of students. A good array of them are music majors or minors. Everyone can read music in the class.” She explained there are some community members in the class, including students from Kahuku High School and BYUH Professors Perry Christensen and Mark Wolfersberger, both in the Faculty of Education & Social Work.
Beginners are welcome in the Shaka Steel class, Duerden said. “Almost nobody comes to the steel band with experience playing the steel drums.” He said he likes teaching students with no experience playing the steel drum so he can mold musicians who can read music into steel drummers without worrying about their preconceived notions or bad learning habits from previous experience.
The steel band class hosts about 15 students every semester, and spots are open depending on how many people continue playing from the last semester. If students are interested in joining, Duerden said, they can reach out to him for more information.