Andy Narell

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Here’s a piece written by Keith Smith in the Trinidad Express. Keith is a writer whom I have great respect for. He writes a daily column in the Express, and speaks eloquently on just about anything and everything. If you want to read more of him, go to www.Trinidadexpress.com

Playing our pan in Soweto

"WELL, I'm over here and it's pretty amazing again. Thousands of people come to my gigs, they dance, they sing along with some of the songs. You know something else amazing — I am playing about 15 gigs all over the country. They tell me that no foreign artist has gone to all these places and toured, not jazz, pop, anything. I'm totally into how we're taking the music out there to the people — some of the gigs even in the townships. We're looking into doing some extra gigs, like a club in Soweto, etc... 

There are enough clues in this extract from a letter I got yesterday for the aware reader to tell where the letter came from. "Townships", "Soweto", where else but South Africa? But guess what instrument the gigging musician is playing? Give up? Well, it's a steelpan. And, to cut a long story short let me cut to another extract, this time from South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian:

In 1999, Narell (yes, it's our Andy) visited South Africa (so his present is his second visit) to perform at the Arts Alive festival. His arrival at the airport once again surprised him. Instead of encountering a competitive spirit, as he did when travelling to Trinidad, he was welcomed with fans bearing banners (fans bearing banners!). During his first performance here, for an audience of more than 60,000 at Jazz on the Lake, he was astonished by the response:

"I've had people recognise my tunes before, but I've never been in a place where people sing my tunes at gigs," he said. 

South Africa is a country with a strong vocal tradition — but this response is remarkable for an instrumentalist. Internationally, jazz has a limited following and to discover a place where he has reached the hearts and minds of thousands without compromising commercially, is a dream come true. Even a listening club in Soweto bears the name: The Andy Narell Jazz Club. In turn, he's dedicated his latest album, "Fire in the Engine Room", to these devotees.

I laughed a little bit to myself when I came across that phrase "without compromising" because I don't know if you have noticed but it is one thing he never does with the Panorama tunes he does for Skiffle Bunch. What you get is Narell's interpretation of his steelband experience so don't listen here for the conventional trills and runs so expected by the Trinidad audience and you can say, you out there, that you like your trills and runs but you have to respect not only the man's honesty but the fact that what he brings to the game is a different way of listening and rendering even as he evokes the Trinidadian lineage, the Daily Mail and Guardian explaining to its fascinated readers that the "rhythm section of a steelband is referred to as the 'engine room', with percussion as the driving force of a soulful centre..." 

Life or, at least, coincidences always throw me: Saturday evening over dinner at their pleasant Cascade home (bold-faced birds and scampering squirrels) I was talking with Peter O'Connor, his wife, Judy (of the Hezekiah sisters) and amazing, 87-year-old mother, Thora (and hers is another story completely, this young beautiful girl coming down from the Andes in Argentina to live her life in this Trinidad that she has grown to love) about what I believe to be the God-given 20th century duty to build bridges between countries and peoples and cultures (how else, I ask you, are we going to make a go of these increasingly plural societies?). 

And, Sunday morning, there I was wondering what the hell was this long letter pushed underneath my office door only to have it turn out to be a letter from this white American musician currently winning friends and influencing people with a Trinidad steelpan in South Africa and having a black club in Soweto named after him, the club's charter mandating its members to promote jazz as a means to break down race and class barriers and there are those, I know, who will continue to insist that they, like me, are dreamers but when those fellas were pounding out those first steelpans in John John, Woodbrook, Talparo or wherever (history not being quite definitive on the subject) I guess there are those who also called them dreamers and look the thing they made is making music now being heralded in the continent from which their ancestors came, the sons of slaves spilling their own creative juices in what good men everywhere must hope is the widening sea of human freedom." 

— Keith Smith


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