By: Saraana Jamraj
The Melo Groove Steel Orchestra resumed their Steelband Academy after a summer hiatus, continuing instruction for mastering the steelpan — also known as the steel drum.
Formed last January to spread the culture and pass on the heritage of steelpan, they are comprised of approximately 30 members who perform across South Florida. Not just limited to children, retirees have been fulfilling their lifelong dreams of learning to play this instrument.
Musical Director Gerard Boucaud has a long history and love for steelpan. He fell in love with the social nature of steelpan as a young child, as it is often played in groups. He practiced throughout secondary schools and eventually received his degree in music.
“I was the first person in my family to go to college, and primarily, it was because of music and this instrumental. It took me to places like the Netherlands and Germany. Because of the people who invested in teaching me, I want to give back and do the same,” he said.
He completed his master’s degree in business and moved to the corporate world, but has returned to music and the nonprofit. Boucaud emphasized the rewarding nature of teaching people how to play steelpan and also underlined the cultural importance of doing so.
“It’s a way to help first and second-generation kids to connect with their culture,” he said.
The steelpan’s creation is primarily intertwined with Caribbean history. Trinidad was occupied by the French, Spanish, and British at various points in history. With the context of indentured servitude and slavery, the island’s culture and people are diverse and have a rich but tumultuous history leading to independence and emancipation.
Carnival, one of the largest Trinidadian celebrations, started under French occupation. The French would celebrate before the end of Lent with musical festivals, and the locals, including formerly enslaved African people and descendants of slaves, also wanted to celebrate. However, their African drums were banned. So, they adapted and built drums out of bamboo, known as Tamboo Bamboo. Those would eventually break, so they further improvised when they realized the empty oil barrels made beautiful melodies and tones, leading to the creation of steelpan, now Trinidad’s national instrument.
While the instrument was created in Trinidad, and focused in the Caribbean, it has spread throughout the world. Most recently, Taylor Swift used steelpan in her newest album, “Lover,” on the track “It’s Nice to Have a Friend.”
Now, the Melo Groove Steel Orchestra share their music with the South Florida community. They’ve been invited to perform at events like the Food & Wine Festival, Miami Carnival, and The South Florida Caribbean Conference. They also host their events, including Mother’s Day shows, December holidays, and a back-to-school drive. Students who transition to the orchestra have the opportunity to perform as well, further connecting them to the culture.
Jeanna Garcia, a woman of Trinidadian descent, has been bringing her eight-year-old son, Landon, to the classes.
“I am passionate about where I come from. My entire family is musically inclined, and all of them play the steelpan. And I didn’t want my kids to miss out on that,” she said.
Classes take place on Saturdays, at 50-minute intervals between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m in the Lakeside Plaza at 5401 N State Road 7 Tamarac, FL 33319. Cost is $90 monthly or $30 per lesson. To register, call 954-453-7066.
Boucaud said, “For me, it’s a personal thing. The exposure to the instrument has given me so many opportunities. The rewards I get from teaching the students are that hopefully, it will provide them some of those same opportunities.”
- Saraana Selene Jamraj is a writer, activist, and a student pursuing her master's degree in mass communications at Florida International University.
She's currently the communications manager at The Salt Box in Parkland and has lived in Coral Springs since 2004.