by Jeannine Remy
Clifford Alexis has come to represent quality and innovation for steelpan builders, tuners, educators, performers, and aficionados. He is known the world over as a steelpan builder/tuner of the highest echelon, a skilled performer, a creative composer and arranger, and one with a natural ability to teach and inspire students from all walks of life.
Born on January 15, 1937 in Trinidad, Alexis was tragically orphaned at a young age and raised by relatives. While attending Catholic school, Alexis was magnetically attracted to the steelbands in his east Port of Spain neighborhood. By age eight Alexis was a regular in the panyards and hid the fact from his family that he was sneaking into Hill 60’s panyard. Trinidadian steelbands of this time period were ensconced in pseudo gang warfare, and it was considered “risky business” to even be associated with anyone from the art form. Nonetheless, these panmen were innovating daily, and in order to learn, Alexis recalls, “I had to hang out with some pretty shady characters, but they had skills.”
As a teenager, Alexis moved to the west side of Port of Spain and joined the Hit Paraders steelband located a stone’s throw from Invaders’ legendary panyard. Alexis remembers being chased out of Invaders panyard by Ellie Mannette saying, “All you Hit Paraders doh come here no more…all you does do is take the tune and carry it down Ana Street.”
From Hit Paraders, Alexis moved to the Tripoli steelband and then to what he refers to as his “real education” with Invaders steelband and its many pioneering panmen. According to Alexis, “In Invaders I was standing next to people like Errol Zephyrine and Emmanuel ‘Cobo Jack’ Riley, who was the first real improviser on pan.”
Despite never having a single formal music lesson of any kind, by the early1950s the youthful, self-taught Alexis started earning a reputation as a great player and arranger. He began arranging for various steelbands the likes of Stereophonics and Joyland Synco who, like Tripoli steelband, recruited him after hearing him play with Invaders. “Everyone wanted to emulate what Invaders were doing,” Alexis explains, “so scouts would come to Invaders panyard looking for arrangers.”
The 1960s saw Alexis’s professional career blossom in Trinidad and abroad. In 1964 he was selected to join the National Steelband Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago, which gave Alexis his first taste of foreign travel to the United States, South America, Europe, Africa, and greater Caribbean. Alexis was enthralled with the United States and, like many Trinidadians during this time, decided to move there and try to make a living as a professional musician. In 1965 he moved to New York City and began playing and arranging for the BWIA Sunjets steelband. In 1967 Alexis joined the Tripoli steelband in Montreal for the Expo ’67 World’s Fair and performed with the flamboyant pianist Liberace. Alexis had impressed Liberace’s agent during Expo ’67, and shortly thereafter he formed the Cliff Alexis Trinidad Troubadours. The agent booked tours throughout the western United States which lasted until 1972.
Prior to 1972 Alexis had yet to build a steelpan, tune a steelpan, or teach a student. In 1972 Alexis moved to Minneapolis in order to join his family and settle down after five years of constant touring. An opportunity presented itself when someone asked Alexis if he could teach steelpan to inner city kids at St. Paul Central High School. Despite his lack of any formal music education, the faculty auditioned Alexis by observing him work with the students. A natural teacher, Alexis charmed everyone with his ability to relate to even the toughest of disadvantaged students. He understood their background, their talent, and never doubted their ability to create music. During his tenure at St. Paul, Alexis built a thriving steelband program and received many awards including the prestigious Minnesota Outstanding Black Musician award in 1983 and 1984. Several of these St. Paul graduates (such as the pop group Mint Condition) went on to become professional musicians as a direct result of Alexis’s caring nature.
Alexis faced a major equipment hurdle, however, and this unique situation was a blessing. At the time he was hired the school had no steelpans, so Alexis called upon Patrick Arnold—his longtime musician friend and tuner—to assist. “Patrick came to Minnesota while I was there,” Alexis recalls. “Basically he and I worked together. This is where I got my first building and tuning experiences.”
The realities of the situation were clear, and Arnold convinced Alexis that if he wanted drums, he should learn to make them himself. Taking his friend’s advice, Alexis did just that and learned the labor of love with every perfectionist stroke that has made him one of the leading pan makers of the world today.
“One does not become a pan maker overnight,” Alexis recalls. “I threw away a lot of instruments that others might consider to be playable. If you think you can learn this art form quickly, you will surely go crazy. You learn from each drum you make, and just when you think you have it down to a science and get cocky about it, a piece of metal will put you in your place.”
This healthy attitude is what makes Alexis’s drums so special. As a player first, he knew exactly what sound he wanted to get from a steelpan, and his abilities and dedication as a craftsman helped him realize the desired sound.
Others were listening, too. Around 1973, Chief Cal Stewart of the U.S. Navy Steel Band heard the quality of Alexis’s steelpans, hired him to tune for the band, and purchased an entire set of instruments. As fate would have it, another important figure in the steelband world, G. Allan O’Connor from Northern Illinois University (NIU) happened to hear the U.S. Navy Steel Band and approached the members inquiring who had tuned their instruments. Their reply: “Clifford Alexis from St. Paul, Minnesota.” By this time, Alexis’s reputation as a steelpan builder and tuner was widely known across the United States and the Caribbean, and when O’Connor finally tracked down Alexis several years later, the two men formed an instant friendship. For the next few years the pair drove steelpans back and forth, or met halfway between St. Paul and Chicago.
In 1985, the robust steelband program at NIU was at a crossroads, and O’Connor decided to put an offer on the table for Alexis: Take a one-year leave of absence from St. Paul and see if you like teaching steelpan at NIU. Alexis accepted, and the rest is history.
Al O’Connor is a visionary entrepreneur in world music, and through his leadership Northern Illinois University was the first in the world to offer steelband as a course for credit in 1973. By the early 1980s, O’Connor had created a steelband course separate from the traditional percussion ensemble—all this at a time when many percussion programs thought steelband had no place in the college music curriculum. O’Connor also had the ear of the university and a vision for the importance of having a fulltime steelpan builder/tuner (Alexis) employed at NIU. He worked with the university hierarchy in creating a position for Alexis and made the dream a reality. During fall semester 1985, Cliff Alexis became the first permanently employed steelband technician in the United States with the title Instrument Repair Technician I.
Once at NIU, Alexis—in addition to building and tuning instruments—taught the NIU Steel Band authentic Trinidadian-style arrangements, worked rehearsals, composed new tunes for the band, and mentored countless steelpan students.
Alexis’s presence at NIU transcended the music department and caught the attention of people across the entire campus, including physics professor Dr. Thomas Rossing. Alexis’s ability to understand and explain the nuances of the steelpan acoustics greatly impressed Rossing, who was fascinated by the physics of acoustical sound generated by steelpans. With the help of Alexis’s keen ear and inquisitive mind, Rossing had an expert tour guide, and the pair conducted groundbreaking research into the science of steelpans, authoring many papers and presenting many lectures on the metallurgy and acoustical quality of steel pans.
Alexis was also a driving force in fostering a relationship with Lester Trilla, arguably the most important patron of steelband in the United States. Trilla is the former owner of a major steel drum manufacturer in Chicago and was charmed by the gregarious Alexis. At the invitation of Alexis, Trilla attended an NIU Steel Band concert in the late 1990s and became totally amazed at the transformation of the barrels into musical instruments. Together, Alexis and Trilla developed new steel drum technology whereby both ends of the drum could be used instead of just the bottom of the barrel. More importantly, Trilla became a lifelong supporter of steelband at NIU and endowed a scholarship fund that has paid in excess of $600,000 for students (mostly from the Caribbean) to study steelpan. Recipients of the Lester Trilla scholarship include Liam Teague (currently Associate Professor of Steelpan at NIU) and many others.
Alexis is no stranger to PAS, and he arranged the tunes as well as played a key role in coordinating (along with Robert Chappell) the first mass steelband concert at PASIC ’87 in St. Louis. Alexis also appeared as a soloist and arranger at PASIC ’94 in Atlanta for a concert in honor of the accomplishments of himself and Ellie Mannette toward the advancement of steelpan in the United States.
A brief highlight of Alexis’s contribution to the field of steelpan and percussion begins with the ever-increasing list of colleges and universities around the world for which he has built or tuned instruments. For the past 40 years, Alexis has been featured as a guest artist at numerous universities in the United States and abroad (Singapore Festival of the Arts and the National Institute of the Arts in Taiwan, for example). From 1989 through 1995, Alexis was an Artist-in-Residence for the California State University Summer Arts Festival in Arcata, California where, in addition to presenting workshops on steelpan building, tuning, and acoustics, he was also featured as a composer, arranger and performance artist. He has served as a guest clinician and an adjudicator at the annual PANorama Caribbean Festival held in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and for the past ten years he has been a regular guest speaker at the University of the West Indies Department for Creative and Festival Arts. Alexis has also served as an instructor at many summer steelpan building and tuning workshops at the University of Akron, University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, California State University-Humboldt, Birch Creek Music Performance Center, Inc., and Northern Illinois University.
Some of Alexis’s notable achievements include the Trinidad and Tobago Folk Arts Institute Award in 2001 for his contribution to steelpan development and education in the United States. In 2002 Alexis was inducted into the Sunshine Hall of Fame (New York) for lifetime achievements in steelpan. At the World Steelband Music Festival of 2005 held in Madison Square Garden, Alexis was given an award for his outstanding contribution to the development of the steelpan in the United States. In 2006 Alexis was bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cultural Academy for Excellence (Hyattsville, Maryland) for his dedication to the development of collegiate level steelbands throughout the United States. In 2006 Alexis was award the Panguard Award by the Trinidad and Tobago Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs in partnership with Pan Trinbago. In 2009 he earned an Outstanding Service Award at NIU, and in 2012 Alexis was nominated for two Emmy Awards (Special Event Coverage and Best Music Composition) for his work in the film Hammer and Steel, which celebrates the University of Akron Steel Band’s 30th anniversary.
Throughout his career, Alexis has been an invaluable resource for those in the media seeking insight into steelpan, and he has been interviewed by numerous newspapers and magazines, and he has been featured in educational books on the history of the steelpan in Trinidad and abroad. The scope of Alexis’s achievements are too vast to thoroughly list here; however, they will be documented in great detail in the forthcoming book Celebration in Steel: 40 years of the Northern Illinois University Steel Band by Andrew Martin, Ray Funk, and Jeannine Remy (Spring 2014).
Cliff Alexis’s lifelong dedication to the art form of steelpan qualifies him as a significant leader in the field, and his contributions have established a priceless legacy.
YouTube clip of the NIU Steel Band under the direction of Cliff Alexis performing “Step Up.”
Dr. Jeannine Remy is a Senior Lecturer of music at the Department for Creative and Festival Arts at the University of the West Indies (UWI) in Trinidad. She teaches courses in percussion, steelpan (arranging, history, literature), world music, and musics of the Caribbean. She has received numerous faculty research grants, including a Fulbright in 2000–2001, to research and archive Trinidadian steelpan music.