Percussion and steel ensemble

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By Sebastian Moronta Blanco, Staff Writer

On Tuesday, April 18, 2017, the Percussion and Steel Ensemble assembled to perform a selection of titles showcasing their wide variety of percussion instruments.

The group had plenty of instruments to sustain the dozen or two UMass students who swapped in and out as the show progressed, including but not limited to two drum sets, a vibraphone, a set of mounted castanets, various Latin instruments as well as a large set of steel drums among others.

The crowd was excited to hear all of the different flavors of music. Students, parents, alumni and passersby packed the short stadium seats along the long wall of CVPA 104. Typically, the seats are all organized in one of the short halves of the studio, but because this show made great use of a huge selection of instruments, they were sprawled across the entire room.

One group of students were looking forward to the concert all day. “We know a few of the performers, and we go to a lot of the concerts in CVPA, there’s always something going on. This one was kind of exciting because steel drums don’t get played a lot around here obviously, so it’s nice to hear something different.”

The show was conducted by UMass percussion instructor Jamie Eckert, who owns the majority of the drums used during the show, and instructs the ensembles each week. The set list for the concert was diverse, and the first half of the show included more traditional percussion ensemble pieces, such as “Bound For Marrakech” by Chris Brooks, “Bien Sabroso” by the late Poncho Sanchez, and “Firedance,” a song from the popular theatrical production Riverdance.

Following the initial few selections, nearly the entire group shuffled out to be replaced by the steel drum ensemble, as they moved the large equipment out in front of the crowd. The steel drum is an acoustic percussion instrument that originates from Trinidad and Tobago, and is the only acoustic instrument to be invented in the last 100 years, according to Eckert. The group of a dozen or so players delivered several impressive performances of steel drum music, some of which, the audience came to find out, weren’t even percussionists.

“Have you ever played steel drums before?” Eckert asked after one selection, turning to a student manning one of the larger drums behind him, who quickly replied that he hadn’t. “He isn’t even a music major, we have engineers, business majors, we accept everyone.”

The steel drum ensemble met on Fridays this semester, and has been meeting and performing on campus for a decade. Several alumni still meet with the group to practice, and one of them even provided one of the steel drums for the concert. Eckert has played the steel drums for over 30 years.

The percussion ensemble meets on Tuesdays, and they perform with a broader focus on percussion. The ensemble plays only percussion instruments, often using vibraphones and marimbas to play the complex pieces with melodies that can’t be performed on a drum set. This allows them to play a broader range of music, like “Firedance,” which typically requires a guitar but whose guitar part was played on a vibraphone.

Both ensembles are one-credit courses at the university, and both have no prerequisite requirements, meaning anyone enrolled has the opportunity to join the group through COIN. While some percussion experience is recommended, it’s not necessary to enjoy the atmosphere and learn from Eckert as well as other students with more practice. “It doesn’t count for an elective or anything like that,” Eckert said, “It’s just a ton of fun.”

Photo Courtesy: Sebastian Moronta Blanco

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