Pan in a major way

 -  Isaac Lee
- Isaac Lee


My name is Liam Teague and the steelpan made me whatever I am today.

I’m originally from San Fernando. I grew up in an extremely humble background in a very problematic area, Navet Road, near Pleasantville.

Only as a teenager did I realise my family was “different’ from many others.

Though we didn’t have very much, financially, we were very close-knit. My late parents, Russell and Pearl, did their very best to make sure my sister, Audra-Marie, and I were happy.

I have an older sister, Angela, but we have different mothers.

I met my wife, Lorena, in Panama, when I was a guest steelpan soloist and she was the principal violist with the Panama National Symphony years ago.

No doubt, I was enamoured with the beautiful flow of her… viola technique! Honestly, after one concert, female orchestra members gave me “well done” kisses on my cheek. But Lorena had this not-so-subtle look in her eyes: her congratulatory kiss was not obligatory.

I tell people she was unable to resist the Liam Teague effect. And she tells me, “Callate la boca!” Our Panama-born son, Jaden, is 12 and our USA-born daughter, Jeida, is seven. We’ve been together for 15 years.

I live in DeKalb, Illinois, about 60 miles west of Chicago.

I went to Northern Illinois University at age 19 to pursue a degree in music, with emphasis on the steelpan.

My masters is also from NIU, where I am a professor of music and head of steelpan studies.

My father had a Cub Scout troop. At one meeting, another scout, Darren Sheppard (now arranger for Fonclaire), played a pan and I was transfixed! I told my father immediately I wanted to learn.

Liam Teague believes steelpan made him whatever he is today. - Isaac Lee

I joined the T&TEC Motown Steel Orchestra, then Hillside Symphony.

Prior to NIU, the only reasons I looked forward to school was to see girls and play in the steelband.

The only thing I can remember about the Common Entrance exam was being in constant fear, which stemmed, psychologically, from fear of a particular teacher. I actually started walking awkwardly, although doctors could find nothing physically wrong with me.

So I try to make my students feel comfortable, engaged, and excited about learning. (Never) intimidation.

At home, my wife, Lorena, speaks Spanish. And I do a fantastic job of butchering it.

Living our first four years of marriage apart was difficult, but I had summers off, plus spring, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

Until he was five, Jaden probably thought I was his personal clown who would show up from time to time to entertain him. I’d visit Panama, Lorena would come to the US, or we’d meet in Trinidad. It is quite the story, and we love telling it to our children.

Thank goodness for frequent-flyer mileage!

My father, Russell, is responsible for me falling in love with both classical and steelband music. He wanted me to emulate Rudy “Two Left” Smith, a steelpan virtuoso based in Europe, who grew up in the part of Trinidad my father was from.

My mother, Pearl, had a special place in her heart for Jit Samaroo and the Renegades Steel Orchestra.

Once my family is with me, life is golden.

Most of my reading is confined to online news articles but I have enjoyed Earl Lovelace, VS Naipaul and Derek Walcott in the past.

Recently, I couldn’t put down Quincy Troupe’s biography of Miles Davis.

Additionally, and this is truly not me trying to pander, I am always transfixed by BC Pires’ writing. He has a way of making messages easily understood (reminiscent of) the great philosopher/comedian George Carlin.

Dave Chappelle is cut from the same genius mould.

In freshman year at NIU, I performed A Visit to Hell, which I had written as a teenager. Dr Jan Bach, then a professor of composition at NIU, hearing me, was moved to write the Concerto for Steelpan and Orchestra – to my knowledge, the very first concerto for steelpan ever written.

Liam Teague with his wife Lorena, son Jaden and daughter Jeida. -

I premiered the concerto with the Chicago Sinfonietta Orchestra in the 1990s and have performed it all over the USA, with the Czech National Symphony, and the Taiwan National Symphony Orchestra.

I was reluctant to do a concert with the Czech National Symphony in Prague. However, it went so well, I ran out of my prepared encores.

I improvised over a famous melody from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Dvorak was from the Czech Republic. The audience loved it.

The world is full of surprises. Stay open and positive.

Looking back at some old performances can be a bit uncomfortable, since my approach to music and understanding of life has changed (greatly). There was so much I wasn’t aware existed at the time, so my statements could only have been informed by my experiences.

As a performer, I have gotten better at differentiating between excitement and fear – and I have had to deal with both simultaneously.

If I’m improvising, trying to be as spontaneous as possible, but still trying to make cohesive and meaningful statements, it can be quite daunting.

In premiering new compositions, the technical and musical demands can be quite formidable.

I have had to develop a mindset, prior to stepping on stage, in which I morph into a character that has the utmost confidence.

There have been a few occasions where this was off-putting to some people – a lady once said that she didn’t like me because I looked so full of myself.

In my humble view, the primary difference between a Panorama arrangement and a Beethoven symphony is that one usually would not dance to a symphony.

I believe that most (if not all) arrangers of Panorama music hope to simultaneously appeal to the heart, intellect and soul of listeners.

Unfortunately for most Panorama attendees, they only hear these eight-minute works of art one time, and it is virtually impossible for anyone (musician or not) to grasp the totality of these pieces in one listening.

The works of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Mozart, et al, continue to be studied and appreciated long after they have left this earth.

Our local masters should be granted the same level of reverence.

This is a huge part of my teaching at NIU.

If you need to blow out someone else’s flame for your light to shine, you need to ask yourself some serious questions.

I do feel sad that, outside of Panorama and the occasional concert, I am very rarely asked to do anything in Trinidad and Tobago, as I really love interacting with my people.

But I will never stop being the best representative that I can for this beautiful country of ours.

It’s very difficult for me say what a Trini is. Because certain things cannot be described in words, only felt. And I don’t see each Trini as being the same.

But we are some of the most intelligent, gifted and talented people in the world.

Though I have lived out of Trinidad and Tobago for most of my life, it means so much to me that I have always maintained strong ties and tried to give back.

I feel proud that I have been directly involved, no matter how small, in helping guide brilliant Trinbagonian NIU graduates who have returned to make significant contributions to education and music.

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