Afropan’s aces make it look easy



Carlos Osorio/Torstar News Service


Earl La Pierre Sr., above, and his five kids are all part of steel band Afropan, which will perform at the Afropan Blocko in Toronto this Sunday.


There’s no consensus on who invented the steel drum, but in Toronto, there’s a consensus on who the best players are: Earl La Pierre and his five kids.

Their steel band, known as Afropan, will be competing at this year’s Caribana, and they're probably going to win.

Sounds like a bold claim, but it’s not. The La Pierres have won the competition 26 times in the last 33 years.

Hard to be modest about that.

“I’m the winningest steel band arranger in the world,” Earl Sr. says, grinning. “Somebody’s checking this out for me because I want the Guinness record.”

At their street party Sunday night, it sounded like Afropan is in sharp form to claim another victory. So they can play, but can they teach?

After all, steel drumming looks easy. And watching Afropan play, it looks even easier. For one thing, a lot of the people in the band don't look a day over 12. And the others, as they play, do it with such stage presence.

A teenager on the bass pan, for instance, dances in full swing to the music as his hands fly around the nine drums that make up his instrument. Every so often, he’ll do a 360 degree spin as he’s playing.

Meanwhile, La Pierre makes his way through the rows of drums making sure everyone’s in time, pausing here and there to instruct his players.

“Steel pan is in our blood,” says Earl Jr., La Pierre’s 35 year-old son, of his siblings, all of whom are involved with Afropan in some way.

Though he was born in Toronto, Earl Jr. lives and breathes Trinidadian culture. “I was practically born into a steel band,” he says. “My mom calls me a Tricky-dadian, because I wasn’t born in Trinidad but I’m more Trini than her, she says.”

As Afropan finishes their first set, Earl Jr. shares lesson one: the steel drum isn’t just one instrument. There are soprano drums, guitar pans, alto drums and bass drums. La Pierre says you can tell which are which by looking at the length of the “skirt,” which is the term for the barrel beneath the playing surface.

“We usually can get people playing a simple song in eight weeks,” says La Pierre, who teaches drumming classes for kids and adults. In fact, most of the Afropan players are former students of his.

“It’s amazing to think that some of them were so small when they started,” he says.

La Pierre’s third and final lesson is a technique called rolling, and it’s what produces the distinctive trills associated with steel drumming.

“If you hold it straight, it kills the sound,” he explains, gripping the stick between his thumb and forefinger.

“Hold it loose, like this,” he continues, the stick practically falling out of his hands.