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How learning steel pan helps Austin’s underserved youth

The steel pan’s history began thousands of miles away from Austin.

The instrument originated in Trinidad, where French plantation owners landed in the 18th century, bringing African slaves with them. The island became a British colony in 1797, and in 1881, British authorities tried to ban percussion among slaves, prompting the creation of alternate instruments like the Tamboo-Bamboo.

After that, too, was banned in 1934, the steel pan — an instrument made from metal containers — rose in popularity as part of Trinidadian street festival culture. Now, the Austin Community Steelband carries some of this history forward among its students.

The school provides free classes and transportation for low-income students in the Austin area, according to Paula Beaird, executive director/founder of Austin Community Steelband.

“We focus on areas and schools where the kids don’t have the opportunity for private music instruction,” she said. “It’s a way to give kids opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Roman Rhone, a student in the program, said the program was unique in the area. “When I tell people around I play steel drums, they say oh, that’s pretty cool, because not a lot of people hear about the steel drums,” he said.

Video produced by Eve Tarlo. This report originally appeared on PBS member station KLRU. Local Beat is an ongoing series on Art Beat that features arts and culture stories from PBS member stations around the nation.

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