When you think of the steel drum, you might picture yourself relaxing on a tropical vacation. But did you know that the steel drum was born out of poverty and a local ban on drums? The steel drum originated in the late 1930s on the island of Trinidad and was played as part of a steel band, a percussion ensemble contrived by lower-class rebellious teens.
Cylex: Where did you learn the craft of steel drums?
Well the short answer is . . . I learned to play steel drums in Wichita, Kansas.
I learned to play the steel pan of Trinidad while studying music at Wichita State University with Dr. J.C. Combs as percussion major in 1985. People often ask me this question with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, imagining that I grew up in Jamaica or Tobago. In reality, I’ve never been to Trinidad. It came to me…
Dr. Combs was the instigator and always a strong supporter of a steel drum program in his teaching at WSU. As head of the percussion department, he raised funds for the purchase of a complete set of steelpans, and tirelessly promoted the entire program – inviting the instrument’s creator and inventor Dr. Ellie Mannette to the campus for seminars, and tunings, as well as Andy Narell, one of the foremost steelpan educators and steelpan artist.
Dr. JC Combs
Dr. Ellie Mannette
I initially studied with Gary Gibson briefly as a college freshman. He was a graduate student at the time, and on his way out into the world. Gibson now continues prominently on the steel drum scene with his Two Trees Music publishing company and Seanote Productions. He is a recognized steel pan clinician, artist, and composer, and runs his own steel drum program in Washington State called Steel Magic Northwest.
But it was Dr. Rick Garcia who was a major influence in my early association of steelpan at WSU. His ethnomusicology course taught me so much about rhythm and harmonies from all over the world with emphasis on Latin and Afro Cuban music. He was a graduate student at the time, a great friend and mentor. “Stainless Steel” steel drum band was born out of his class and the beginning of my touring days with steel drums as we took the band on tour to Texas during spring break. It really was the best of times! We did a lot of experimentation with steel drums in those days; he introduced me to Salsa and Cumbia – adding a horn section to the band, and teaching me to play congas, bongo, and timbales.
As my interest in steel drums grew, I decided to focus even more and attended a summer course in Haystack Oregon in 1987. It was a steel pan master class hosted by Dr. Ellie Mannette, Andy and Jeff Narell, and Tom Miller. It has since evolved and grown into “Ellie Mannette Festival of Steel” and moved to Morgan Town, West Virginia where Dr. Mannette resides as an artist in residence. It was a wealth of information and great time with focused study on the actual building of steelpans and group performance study with the very masters of steelpan.
From there I continued on with managing and performing with “Stainless Steel” and incorporating musicians outside our course curriculum. We wrote original music, performed large concert shows, made television appearances, music videos and enjoyed impressive overall regional success throughout the Midwest from 1986 -1991.
Stainless Steel showcased at SXSW music and media festival in Austin, TX in 1990 – 91,’and toured throughout the states of Minnesota, Kentucky, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, and Kansas … opening concerts and sharing stages with such notable performers as legendary guitarist Carlos Santana, steel drum virtuoso Andy Narell, jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, comedian Sinbad, power jazz group Tower of Power, singer guitarist Bonnie Raitt, classic rock and roll band Head East, blues guitarist Jeff Healey, and reggae great Steel Pulse.
Cylex: Do you play alone or do you have other instruments that play along?
Well both actually, let me see if I can explain…
I remember when I was in Jr High School my band director Karl Ivers had this poster in his office that always intrigued me. It was a band group picture of sorts, but every member of the band depicted was him playing a different instrument; drums, trumpet, trombone, etc. That image made an impression on me and then later I recall, towards the end of High School, the Korg synthesizer came out, and the beginning of MIDI was developing. Musical Instrument Digital Interface would allow synths to be interconnected, controlled and played together, and I thought, wow someday I’ll be able to be the whole band.
So fast forward to 1995, I migrated to Los Angeles and worked for a time at a company called Mobile Planet, which was on the cutting edge of mobile computing technology. I was gigging as a soloist and sideman through the local musicians union and playing in various groups. I started to grasp that the technology was finally developing that would allow me to realize my vision of being the whole band. I started experimenting, recording my own backing tracks into sequencing software onto a laptop and playing out with them.
I would create each of the instruments needed for a song by either recording them live with a microphone, or played in with midi via a digital keyboard. Once that was all working I started adding vocals, and recording my own backing vocals into the tracks and it has just grown from there. By combining the live and midi instruments along with the vocals the effect is that of a full band as a soloist. I have a mixing board on my stand well within reach, so I can control the volume of each recorded instrument, or mute them if needed – all live, in the moment. So yeah, I sing and play solo steel drums live with the custom backing tracks of other instruments combined as a band of one.
Cylex: What performance requirements do you have?
Generally I have only a few requirements and they are mostly common sense things. A flat, dry space is ideal, and a shaded area to perform if outdoors. The chrome surface on the inside of the pans really get hot fast and tends to make the instrument sound out of tune in the direct sunlight as they heat up.
I need just one standard electrical outlet for power. A 10’x10’ space is ideal for a performance area; however, I can usually find a way to work with smaller spaces too; one of the advantages of being a soloist, I can work in tighter areas!
Cylex: How is the price for an event determined? Have you been part of any
charity events? If yes, could you give us some examples?
Over the years I have established a competitive rate schedule that is based in part from the musician union scale and professional musicians’ standards locally. It includes the performance fee and travel in the local Los Angeles area, about a 100 mile radius. I have the rates listed on my website as a general rate fee schedule listed there as follows:
- $250.00 – One hour minimum
- $350.00 – 1.5 to 2 hours
- $525.00 – 3 hours
- $700.00 – 4 hours
However, I do take into account budget considerations, location, and nature of the event, and any barter arrangements that are mutually beneficial. Since the nature of my performances vary greatly I have to take each one on a case by case scenario.
Yes, I have been a part of many charity events. Some examples over the years are:
Museum of the American West, Alzheimer’s Association Event
Elan International School Fund Raiser Concert, Los Angeles, CA
Villa Park High School Fund Raiser
Kiwanis Club of La Canada, La Canada, CA
San Dimas Senior Center, San Dimas, CA
The Tarzana Community & Culture Center, Tarzana, CA
Sisters of Sojourn, Pacific Palisades, CA
Corona Rotary Club, Corona, CA
Golden State Care Center, Baldwin Park, CA
In September, 2013 I provided all the music entertainment and sound for a Casino-themed charity event “Rolling for Wishes VI” at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, Costa Mesa, CA. I am happy to report it was a successful event. We raised over $60k for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Costa Mesa, CA.
I have lost count of the many Riverside Community Hospital Cancer Survivor dinners I have performed over the years, which is a great thing. So glad their numbers increase every year!
Last year was my first performance for the Susan Cohan Colon Cancer Foundation Inc., for their health fair event at the Santa Anita Mall raising awareness for colon cancer screening. I am so happy to announce that I will be back to perform for them again this year in October 2017.
I have performed for my hometown of McPherson, KS for the “Concerts For The Cause” series in 2015 and 2016. And I will be following up again this year on August 3, 2017 raising money for the local Girl Scouts.
And I’m so proud to be a registered luminary with the IfOnly organization. IfOnly provides access to a curated selection of extraordinary experiences that benefit worthy causes around the world.
Click image below to learn more:
My performances through IfOnly benefit the Musicians On Call charity which was founded in 1999 with the mission of bringing live and recorded music to the bedsides of patients in healthcare facilities. To date, its volunteers have played for half a million people nationwide. Musicians On Call continues its mission through bedside hospital performances by both local musicians and national celebrities as well as the Music Pharmacy and Project Playback Programs.
Cylex: What type of music do you play?
This is always a tough question for me. For those in the know, the music most commonly associated with the steel pan is Calypso music, from its Trinidadian island birthplace in the West Indies. Everyone else assumes that steel pan comes from Jamaica and Bob Marley – that would be technically Reggae. I explain the difference when apropos, but honestly, when people hire me it is generally for the sound of the steel drum. And most anything played on a steel pan brings out the island flavor.
There are some who are known to play exclusively jazz, or classical music on the steel pan, but even then it all comes down to the sound of the steel pan and its joyous island tone. Perhaps it has become its own genre “Steel drum music”. If you listen to Pandora you can find a station called Laid Back Beach Party. I find that about 85% of the music played there is on my playlist.
I play for the people. I am primarily a special events performer and as such I tend to play music that is recognizable and island sounding in nature. I’m not really about showcasing original music, rap, or hip hop. I’m somewhere between Tommy Bahama and Jimmy Buffett.
My music is an eclectic island mix of Reggae, Calypso, Jimmy Buffett, Carlos Santana, Bob Marley, UB40, Motown, Beach Boys and island favorites. The sound is a lively, laid back beach party vibe perfect for entertaining – not too loud but still engaging enough for dancing if you feel the urge.
Cylex: How long do you need to set up your steel drums/ steel drum
band? Do you take breaks?
If pressed for time I can set up in about 15 – 20 minutes, but ideally I like to arrive an hour early to address any unknown surprises and/or traffic conditions. And then I’ll put some background music on to set the sound levels and l set the tone of the event by playing a light melody such as Yellow Bird. This all depends upon the event and environment of course.
I love to perform and breaks don’t usually fit into that for me. One of the advantages of performing solo I guess!
I rarely take breaks, it’s true! I just hate to break the spell that the music creates. I’ve often thought, “I come to perform, and no one is going to remember my break. I want people to remember my sound and how they felt when they heard it”.
Cylex: Is there a special way you dress when performing?
If a theme for an event is given to me in advance I usually attempt to accommodate it in my choice of color, style etc.
I can perform in a tuxedo, or as casual as you care for me to be. Once I even performed costumed as a pirate Jack Sparrow for a Halloween party, it’s all fun. However, if left to my own devices you will find me in tropical themed attire befitting of the music I play.
Cylex: Do you travel all around the world to entertain? What is it that you like
about this type of music?
Yes, I do travel around the world to perform. As a soloist it is easier for me to consider opportunities requiring travel and I have enjoyed it. I’ve played from coast to coast, on cruise ships and small boats, and even travelled by helicopter to play for events. Now I have a trailer outfitted with a solar powered inverter that can provide my own power for hours of entertaining in remote locations. So perhaps I can find all the points in between to perform. My retirement plan is a 40ft RV and shows all across the country.
I’m happiest when I’m performing and the sound of steel drum heals me in a way nothing else does. I have no grand illusions of being the best steel drummer in the world, and fame and fortune is the younger man’s game. I love playing for the people and celebrating life. Mine is a simpler goal, ambassador of genuine joy and good times!
Thank you so much for the interview. It’s been a pleasure.
Came across an old video cameo I made back in 2004 on the beach of Malibu, California with Persian guitarist Davoud Behboodi-Hekayat.
I never knew much about him at the time and still don’t today, but it was a fun video shoot and one to add to the memoirs. One of the best advantages of being a musician is the many adventures you find yourself a part of.
Summer 2017 Here We Come!
Today we’d like to introduce you to Chris Arpad.
Chris, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Thank you so much, my story: Well … I’m a gigging musician based in Los Angeles, primarily as a solo steel drummer. Over the years I’ve crafted a unique performance of singing and playing steel drums live over my own custom-computerized music tracks, with reggae and island music like Bob Marley, Jimmy Buffett, Santana, Beach Boys, UB40, etc. I am a One Man band, but I tend to avoid that moniker because people have such varying ideas of what that is. So I generally prefer the term Solo Steel Drummer.
Most people know what steel drums are these days; or at least they recognize it when they hear it. It has an exceptional sound that is distinctly island sounding by nature. For those that may not know, it’s a hand-crafted percussion instrument, or drum, created from 55-gallon oil barrels and originates from the island nation of Trinidad.
I was fortunate enough to meet and study with the instrument’s inventor, Ellie Mannette back in 1985 while attending college at Wichita State University in Kansas, and that’s where my lifelong passion was ignited. Along the way I discovered that I am a solar-powered musician; I need the sun and palm trees! So I left the wheat fields of Kansas and followed the sun to California to perform steel drums full-time, and thus far the journey has been a liberating, wild ride! Over all, I just feel so fortunate to be making a living playing music on my own terms.
Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Well, when your livelihood is paired with your passion, there are bound to be challenges like no other.
I think the trick is to find a balance between the two. You know . . . as much as you might like to perform for free, the necessity of life requires a discipline, a business acumen and sense of structure if you are going to make a living at it. I seem to have been blessed with a big picture view, and I have found a way to enjoy the business side of music, and using creativity on that level too – negotiating deals that are thinking outside of the box, finding unusual places to perform, creating win-win scenarios that benefit more than just myself, I find that is very rewarding too. I think that may be one of the secrets of my success, and overall longevity of my business. I’ve been at it now over 30 years.
From a strictly business perspective, I ‘d have to say that one of the biggest challenges over the last, say 20 years or so, has been from the online business referral/database type sites that do bookings. Most every service business out there these days has found it to be a necessary evil, from Plumbers, Travel Agents, Real Estate, you name it and there is a site on-line that purports to being the best site for finding you the best at the lowest price. It’s such an impersonal way of doing business. Perhaps that’s just me getting old.
I’ve had varying success with these booking sites over the years. However, mostly these days, it’s almost always a fruitless race to the bottom, cutting your rates to secure a booking, and then having to pester clients to send in a review to secure your ranking, etc. Not my style. What can I say? I do subscribe to a few free listing sites here and there, to have that web presence and I’ll occasionally connect with a new client that might not have found me any other way. But by and large my business connections are made personally, and nurtured. Word of mouth and repeat business has been the mainstay for me over the years. My client list almost reads like a family tree, and that’s great!
Chris Arpad – Solo Steel Drummer – what should we know? What do you guys do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
Well first off, I am mostly known for being a steel drum soloist. That is my specialty – my claim to fame, in fact if a client insists on a larger group these days, I generally refer them to other steel drum bands that I know. I have had large bands in the past and I prefer to focus on my solo performances. It’s what suits me best. That’s my lane so to speak, and I’m very happy with it.
I’m sure you have heard the phrase “under promise, and over deliver.” Those are words that I aspire to with my performances. I like to arrive early and be set up well in advance of every show. At private events I’ll usually start earlier than the contracted time, especially if guests are arriving. I enjoy first reactions of unsuspecting guests as they walk in and hear me from a distance. It’s as if they are coming upon an oasis, their faces light up and those positive vibrations wash over them . . . I guess that’s what I feel I’m creating, oasis events . . . the welcome feeling of relaxation, that laid back beach party, grab a cold drink and let the sound of steel drums take you away.
Yeah, I genuinely love what I do and it shows when I’m performing. In fact, I rarely take breaks, it’s true! I just hate to break the spell that the music creates. So that could be advantageous to anyone looking to get the most music for their money. I am often complimented on my singing and the eclectic mix of music – beyond the tried and true calypso fare routinely associated with steel drums.
I am not opposed to providing DJ music for events along with my live performances and that is often attractive to wedding events on a budget. I use Bose sound equipment for the best in sound, and I am the perfect live entertainment solution for space challenged venues! I can even provide my own shade and electricity for remote/outdoor events. Have trailer, will travel!
Cocktail hours and dining music is another area of specialty, in that I strive to adhere to any volume constraints and/or required energy level for every event. Basically, there are times when I am expected to be the spotlight and other times I am meant to be the wallpaper – in the background, almost felt more than being heard. There’s a time and place for both situations and often times that occurs several times in the same event.
People come out to hear me at shows and tell me that I remind them of their last cruise, or favorite vacation, and more than once I’ve been told that my shows are a mini vacation.
What moment in your career do you look back most fondly on?
That’s a most unfair question, my goodness! I am proud of so many shows and performances over the years, how can I name just one? I’ve played for so many charities, and events for various causes. I’ve met and performed for so many celebrities. But I’m prouder still for private parties for people that were seriously ill and dying, I mean what an honor you know? Every wedding and first birthday parties are so special. I have often wonder how many cameos I’ve made in photo albums around the world!
Last year I had the good fortune to return to my hometown of McPherson, KS and perform for “Concerts for the Cause” series and help raise money for a great cause, and also performed for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary celebration. That was a great thing and I am very proud of that. Celebrating life’s milestones is always something to be proud of.
What quality or characteristic do you feel is most important to your success?
Belief and trust in myself, and the fact that performing on steel drums makes me feel good.
It really seems to make others feel good too. So, I like the idea of doing this all my days and sharing that positive vibration as long as it will sustain me and others. I’m having fun and I know my audience is too. My success is measured by each continued day I get to keep doing that.
It’s that infectious tone of a steel drum – it rings out the celebration in all of us, and it’s just a natural thing, the perfect music for celebrating all of life’s special moments. So . . . when you’re in an island state of mind, or in the need to be . . . I’m the guy to call. I got you covered! Thanks so much. I appreciate this interview.
- Pricing for my performances is flexible per event, but generally start at $250 First One Hour minimum
- Website: www.chrisarpad.com
- Phone: 310-492-2627
- Email: email@example.com
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SteelSunsations/
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/chrisarpad
- Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/chris-arpad-solo-steel-drummer-beverly-hills
Image Credit: Jameson Wong and Jim Griggs Originally posted VoyageLA, March 27, 2017