WASHINGTON – Considering the steel pan drum originated in Trinidad and Tobago, few people associate the state of West Virginia with steel drum bands. However, the West Virginia University steel drum ensemble has received standing ovations following daily performances at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C., over the past week and a half.
Led by Dr. Michael Vercelli, director of the World Music Performance Center at West Virginia University (WVU), the band has played a wide variety of songs, from traditional Trinidadian tunes to “The Star-Spangled Banner” to even a cover of “On the Floor” by Jennifer Lopez.
“[The West Virginians are] representing a musical style and culture that isn’t their own, but it’s something that they’ve embraced,” says Cristina Diaz-Carrera, program coordinator of the Campus and Community section at this year’s Smithsonian festival. “I think this is what the festival is all about—exploring cultural boundaries.”
For the estimated one million people visiting the Folklife Festival, which began June 27 and ends July 8, the West Virginia University steel drum ensemble has played an instrumental role in the festival’s celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act. The Folklife Festival is an annual exposition celebrating domestic and international cultural heritage, including exhibits, performances, lectures and demonstrations.
Along with the WVU steel band, there were exhibits and performances presented by more than 25 land-grant universities, including hula dances by the University of Hawai‘i’s Hula Halau UNUKUPUKUPU troupe.
Land-grant schools, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, trace their origins to the Morrill Land-Grant Acts. The first Morrill Act, passed in July 1862, granted each state 30,000 acres of federal land per representative it sent to Congress, for establishing educational institutions that emphasized agriculture and mechanical arts. The land-grant schools specialized in agriculture and mechanical arts to spur U.S. economic development and to provide an alternative to the traditional classical and religious orientation that characterized much of American higher education in the 18th and 19th centuries.
With the Morrill Act of 1890, even more funds flowed to land-grant colleges, but they came with a twist. To receive money, a land-grant institution in a particular state could not discriminate by race in admissions, unless a separate land-grant college in that state had been established for people of color. At the time, Blacks were being targeted largely in the South by Jim Crow laws that restricted access to public facilities and institutions. As a result of the 1890 act, a number of historically Black colleges and universities were established to enable states to maintain segregated institutions.
Much later, Native American tribal colleges became land-grant institutions through an expansion of the Morrill Act in 1994.
According to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), land-grant colleges were responsible for expanding access to higher education from the elite to all segments of society. Not surprisingly, higher education attainment in the U.S. has increased ever since. Now, there are a total of 107 land-grant institutions, including at least one in every U.S. state and territory.
Dr. Peter McPherson, the APLU president, explained that the Morrill Acts were “based on the idea of the expansion of democracy and opportunity.”
Preserving Cultural Heritage
Inclusion of the WVU steel drum ensemble in the Morrill celebration stirred observers to consider how land-grant institutions evolved into schools as devoted to cultural heritage preservation as any college or university that was founded as a liberal arts institution.
In the WVU example, the steel band was brought to the school by Ellie Mannette, a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow. Born 1926 in Trinidad, Mannette, also known as “the father of the modern steel pan,” began playing on metal trash cans as a child and it quickly became his obsession to create a “formal trash can orchestra.”
Mannette received a scholarship to study music in London, but dropped out to return home and work on his steel drums. Upon his return, Mannette’s family disowned him, and he was thrown out of the house for his “reckless behavior with a trash can.”
Once he began to find success with his instruments, Mannette began traveling and has spent the last 45 years working with colleges to set up steel drum programs. However, in a visit to West Virginia, he said that no other college showed as much interest and respect for the steel drum as WVU.
“Seeing people show such interest made it all worthwhile for the effort I put in,” Mannette said.
The university asked Mannette to stay for a semester in 1991 to build the steel drum band. He agreed and has been at WVU ever since.
“I have received credit from the White House, the Congress, Hall of Fame; I don’t care. All I care right now is to pass my skill on to young people and keep the steel drum from fading away,” he said.
WVU’s Vercelli explained that the 40-member band is very visible on campus and that the members typically “recruit their own” and are enthusiastic about having an opportunity for such a unique artistic outlet.
Cristina Diaz-Carrera, the Campus and Community program coordinator, spoke highly of the steel band. She explained that, although the Festival typically depicts specific traditions like music, dance and crafts, the greater theme is “all about communities and people-to-people interaction.”
She went on to emphasize the impact of watching the students “play music from a different culture, understanding that it comes from outside their culture, but, at the same time, still being a part of it and making it a part of their own story.”