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For Andy Narell, "Music is a powerful tool, and it’s revolutionary"

Andy Narell
c/o the artist
Andy Narell

Music is not only a form of expression, it’s also a way of traveling. It’s astounding how many people’s lives have been completely transformed by their relationship with music—and sometimes the simplest experiences we have as kids can profoundly alter the course of everything that follows.

A few seemingly unrelated events during Andy Narell’s early childhood in New York helped to lay out a path for him to follow, and he’s still following it today. They included Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare,” a rise in gang violence in Harlem in the ‘60s, and the innovations of a musical instrument maker from Trinidad named Ellie Mannette.

Andy Narell is known as one of the most celebrated—if not the most celebrated steel drummers in the world. Throughout a five plus decade career, he has contributed to both the development of steel drum music, and to the development of the drums themselves.

Andy has appeared on hundreds of records and film scores, he’s been the subject of two documentary films himself, made nearly 20 records as a leader or co-leader. He’s an educator, an advocate, and an ambassador for the music, culture and traditions of Trinidad where steel drums—or pans as they’re called—were born. If you’ve ever heard the sound of steel drums on a record or a movie, chances are you’ve heard Andy Narell.

His eventual partnership and friendship with Ellie Mannette, the so-called “father of the steel drum,” lasted until Mannette’s death in 2018.

Andy’s contribution to steel drums is immeasurable, his love of the music of Trinidad is deep, and his friendship with Ellie Mannette seems to have been one of the most important relationships of his life. But beyond all that, beyond all the technical, musical, or even historical details, Andy is an example of someone whose devotion and love for a thing took him around the world and the steel drum was his mode of transportation.

Here Andy shares his own personal story and also the story of the steel pan itself, the trajectory of calypso music from Trinidad to the UK and the US and then back to Trinidad. And he explains why he believes that “music is a powerful tool, and it’s revolutionary.”

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Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.