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Steel pan band looks to heat up Carnival

Yawu Miller | 8/20/2008, 5:05 a.m.

Smith, who was born in Trinidad and lives in Mattapan, has himself been playing the steel pan since he was 11. He says the band teaches children valuable life lessons.

“This teaches you discipline,” Smith says. “You have a lot of kids who come in here undisciplined. The older kids teach them. Anything you want to attain in life takes discipline.”

Dorchester resident Sheena Harry, 24, agrees.

“Overall, I learned patience and determination,” says Harry, who plays tenor/bass in the band. “When I started, everybody knew more than me. But over time, I learned. Now I’m walking in the shoes the older kids were in. I’m a teacher now.”

Harry, who works as a supervisor in a girl’s unit at a state Department of Youth Services facility, says Smith provided other valuable guidance, checking the students’ report cards and encouraging them to attend college.

“This band has always been very family-oriented,” she says.

Steel pan music originated in Trinidad in the 1930s. Today, the top Trinidadian orchestras include between 100 and 120 members.

Each band consists of multiple sections. The tenors carry the melody, the tenor/bass section carries melody and harmonizes, while sopranos and altos round out the sound. Percussion comes from a drum set — the only non-steel section in the orchestra — and the engine room, a section of heavier steel pieces, including tuned brake drums.

Branches uses three arrangers, including Gabriel. The senior arranger is Harry Skair, who grew up next door to a master pan tuner in Laventille, Trinidad. Skair learned classic steel pan arrangements playing in bands there.

Arranger Justin Petty, born in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, brings a degree from Berklee College of Music to the band, as well as a slew of complex arrangements of jazz classics.

“I like to challenge the kids,” says Petty, a professor of broadcast media technology at Roxbury Community College. “They can handle it. If they don’t get it at first, you drill it until they get it. If you keep playing simple stuff, you’ll never progress.”

The 40-plus people who participate in Branches do so on a volunteer basis. Carl Smith works as a master plumber for the Boston Housing Authority and describes the band he’s led since 1977 as a “hobby.”

The band’s costs are covered by paid gigs at New England-area colleges, festivals and other events. A highlight of last year’s schedule came when Branches was called on to play at Gov. Deval Patrick’s inaugural ball.

But Gabriel, the 17-year-old arranger, finds the most satisfaction not in where he gets to play, but what he gets to play. And if it’s music of his own creation, so much the better.

“I like finishing projects,” he said. “I like to hear my songs when they’re done.”