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OFF THE PLATE: AUGUST 2009

Steel drummer Keli Ross-Ma'u comes full circle as an artist, student and teacher

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Photos captured from the documentary "In the Panyard," a documentary by Keli Ross-Ma'u, filmed by Eliza Clark and co-edited with Garrett Phelps.

The first time I saw Keli Ross-Ma'u perform on steel drums, I was dining at Calypso restaurant in Encinitas, Calif. Enchanted by the restaurant's Caribbean fare and festive surroundings, I was especially pumped the post-dinner performance by FulaBula—a San Diego band who enlivens its audiences with cheerful island sounds. FulaBula features Ross-Ma'u's father as the frontman, and by observing the dynamics between the two, there is no mistaking who Keli's No. 1 musical influence is.

Above: Ross-Ma'u during a solo performance in "Bula it Up," March 2007 at Sully's Pub.

In 2004, to further what he'd learned by performing with his father, Ross-Ma'u jumped on the chance to learn more about the steel drum while a student at Trinity College in Connecticut. An exchange program started by three of the college's professors enabled Keli to study in the West Indies island of Trinidad—the birthplace of the pan instrument. In his junior year, the San Diego native spent the first half of the program learning new techniques in Pamberi, under the direction of Nestor Sullivan—a leader in the instrument. While immersing himself in the Trinidadian culture, Ross-Ma'u participated in a village-wide steel drum performance during the vastly celebrated Carnival.

In the program's second half, Keli would make his own contributions to the pan instrument. His studies in Pamberi and performance during Carnival not only heightened his experience as a performer, but they also helped him grow as a composer. The FuluBulu percussionist wrote music specifically for the steel drum— atypical for the genre considering much of the music performed by the pan has been previously composed for other instruments or vocals. Equally as ambitious was Ross-Ma'u teaching a group of Pamberi musicians his newly written work and, in turn, having them perform it in front of a local audience. That was Keli's second-semester project. And his classmates and locals loved it.

Despite one obstacle after the next, which included a power outage that made it nearly impossible for the musicians to see their pans and, therefore, learn the proper notes for the songs, Ross-Ma'u and the musicians made the performance happen. What started out as a learning experience exclusively for the Trinity College junior, evolved into a period of enlightenment for unsuspecting, passionate musicians native to island. The "Trinity-in-Trinidad" program requires all students to do a special project, and some students opt to teach. But this was the first time a student chose to write his own music and teach it to the locals.

Working out of a University of West Indies dorm room, Ross-Ma'u used his Casio keyboard and bass to experiment with sounds he would eventually translate into two songs for the steel drum: "Pamberi's Playground" and "Dancing Ashes." The first features a festive, upbeat rhythm while the second—dedicated to a family friend who'd passed away when Keli wrote the song—has an intro reminiscent of a memorial hymn, which cresendos into a powerful, dramatic celebration. Ross-Ma'u describes the imagery as ashes rising from the ground and dancing.

In the Panyard

In Trinidad, playing the steel drum, also known as the pan instrument, is a national pasttime. Developed in the 1930s, the steel pan is the only manmade acoustic instrument from the 1900s. In Pamberi, the locals perform on steel drums year-round, making it an ideal location for students of the instrument. The outdoor areas where steel drummers rehearse are called panyards.

A fitting name for his first film, "In the Panyard" chronicles Ross-Ma'u's experience in Trinidad. After returning to the States with 40 hours of footage, thanks to his classmate Eliza Clark who videotaped Ross-Ma'u's performances and rehearsals while studying in Trinidad, Keli and his friend Garrett Phelps eventually worked on two computers to create a 45-minute documentary.

The film captures Ross-Ma'u's journey of first arriving as a student of the culture, breaking ground as a composer and finally, embarking on a steep learning curve to conduct a group of musicians, which he'd never done before. As the film started to take shape, Ross-Ma'u decided to turn it into an educational piece for universities and music programs. The result is a fascinating audio-visual journal, which—amid the festive coverage of Ross-Ma'u's performances, rehearsals and leisure time with the locals—includes graphics and instruction on how to play the pan.

Since completing the film in 2008, Ross-Ma'u's work has been recognized in 10 film festivals around the world—from Riverside, Calif. to Patras City, Greece to Honolulu. Ross-Ma'u is currently working on a formal distrubution deal with a company that provides learning material to universities.

"Trinidad," Ross-Ma'u says, "is a performance culture. The way everyone talks, walks—there is a performance to everything. And it's not a fake, it's real." His passion and the influence of living in Trinidad has led Ross-Ma'u, who is of Tongan descent, to continue celebrating the pan culture in the U.S. He recently hosted a camp in his home of San Diego County, where he taught several students how to play the instrument. Ross-Ma'u's love for music is contagious. While he plans to enjoy a Trinidadian Carnival at least one more time in his life, it's not hard to see from the videos featured in this piece, the celebration of freedom and art exists whereever he is.

Above: Keli's students from his recent steel-drum camp perform Billie Jean on a San Diego County sidewalk.

To preview and purchase Ross-Ma'u's at CD Baby, click here. To become Keli's Facebook friend, click here.

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