Often I am asked . . .
“How long have you been playing the Steel Drum?”
“Where did you learn to play this instrument?”
“How is it made?”
“How do you make sense of all these different sized notes?” . . .
I am Albion Sewer Sr., the St. John Steelpanist, and nearly 7 decades ago I was born on the small Caribbean island of St. John, located in the Virgin Islands. My childhood was rich and interesting, with music being an interictal part of my culture and upbringing.
My mother sang a beautiful alto and was one of the organists at our Moravian Church. At home she had an old pedal pump organ which she used to give music lessons to my sister and her friends on Saturdays.
When no one was around, I think I was 10, I would try to play the songs I heard my mother play. In fact I would try to play ANY instrument I could get my hands on … including the guitar, the bass and even my own handmade instruments like a papaya stem flute, sardine can ukulele, calabash squash, maracas, anything that made music.
As a teenager in the church choir, I sat next to Mr. Reginald Callwood. He was the best tenor on the island, called me Sporty and took me under his musical wing. I would imitate him and soon learned to carry a fairly decent tune myself. Singing inspired a greater love for music and in 1966 I was proud to be a member of the Hampton Institute Choir in Hampton, Virginia. (Based on my experience I believe everyone can sing or has the ability to do so just by imitating a good singer.)
My fascination with the steelpan came as a young teenager, after hearing “garbage cans” with so many different tones, tuned to a scale with their infectious, earthly sound. Several talented guys from Nevis, St. Kitts and Tortola were pumping out all sorts of two and three chord songs … calypso, merengue, soul … anything they wanted to play. Every chance I got I would go to hear and watch them play. During the break I would try my hand and became skilled as did several of my friends in our village.
St. Johnians attended high school in St. Thomas which meant a daily ferry boat commute for 4 years. At Charlotte Amalie HS I played the piano for performances and talent shows and became a member of several singing groups, small bands and combos. Much to my good fortune, CAHS was in the process of starting a steelband! Yes!! So after class I helped in the building process … banging on the pans (called sinking the drum) until it was time to catch the last bus to Red Hook and ferry boat back to St. John.
I never lost the interest and became dedicated to learning to play my chosen instrument, the steel pan. My dad, Roy Sewer was an elementary school teacher before becoming the school principal and eventually the Administrator of St. John. He was not musically inclined but always my biggest supporter. He bought me my first tenor pan, made by Melborne Thomas, a talented musician from Tortola. At 18 I took the pan with me to NYC. My cousin and I started a band in the basement of Aunt Ruth’s house in the Bronx, where I stayed while attending school. The steelpan, with its earthly sound, soon became my passion, and the challenge to make one was my next mission.
Over the years I have had the wonderful pleasure of organizing steel bands, making and tuning pans as well as teaching a couple hundred children and adults to play the tenor pan (1 pan), double second (2 pans), chello (3 pans), quartz (4 pans) or bass (6 pans) in the Virgin Islands and Southern Florida. Within weeks, after the first tryouts, my students stood tall and played for their parents, teachers and student body.
The Palm Cove Elementary Steel Band