Honoring New York steelband pioneers

Some veterans of the New York steel band scene who, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, laid the foundation for the steel band movement that now exists in the city, will be honored at a gala tribute at Brooklyn’s Tropical Paradise Ballroom organized by the Trinidad & Tobago Folk Arts Institute on Sunday evening, May 20.

In addition to seven individuals, each having a decades-long association with steel band activity in the city, who were selected for this special recognition, the institute will pay posthumous tribute to two well-known names in the evolution of New York’s steel band culture, Rudy King and Conrad Mauge.

The seven men who were key, hands-on participants in the gestational period as steel band music sought to make its mark in New York and across the U.S., will be lauded for their standout contributions, often made at great sacrifice in the early years.

The historic appearance of three steel pan players in the 1954 Broadway musical production, House of Flowers will be recalled, with the inclusion in the upcoming tribute of Michael Alexander, lead player of that landmark threesome, the members of which were recruited from Trinidad by House of Flowers cast member Geoffrey Holder.

The other honorees are: Caldera Caraballo, whose early exploits, prior to leading his own band, includes touring with Harry Belafonte; Milton Gabriel, who led one of the more popular bands in the early ‘60s; Edward George, a veteran of the Harlem All Stars band, a unit whose Harlem roots are a reminder of the community where New York’s steel band culture first took hold; Lennox Leverock, who remained a central figure ever since he headed a band in the mid-’50s, his group forming the nucleus of the ground-breaking BWIA Sunjets orchestra a decade later; Roy Sangster, active as a player since the movement’s Harlem origins and very involved in the epicenter’s shift to Brooklyn; and Kimloy Wong, whose abilities as a builder of steel pans fascinated folk music icon Pete Seeger and led to Wong’s introduction of steel band music as recreational activity in many of the city’s neighborhood youth programs..

Les Slater, chairman of the Folk Arts Institute, said the May 20 tribute was inspired by a forum arranged by the institute at Medgar Evers College, which focused on the origins and growth of the New York steel band movement.

“Hearing persons who were directly involved in the narrative recount their experiences, made it clear to us that there should be some substantive show of appreciation for those who remained dedicated to seeing the movement survive,” Slater said.

Posthumously-cited Rudy King is believed to have organized the first New York steelband, gfollowing his arrival from Trinidad in 1949. He remained engaged with the art form throughout his life as a band leader and instrument builder and tuner.

Conrad Mauge, the other figure to be posthumously honored, first played in King’s band before forming his own group in 1958, which for decades entertained primarily on the social circuit in the Tri-State area and beyond.

The upcoming tribute will commence at 6:00 p.m. Further details concerning the event will be announced.

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