David Gettes:
man of steel

When his father volunteered to staff a medical clinic in the Caribbean, David Gettes found his life's work.

Gettes was a young boy when his dad, an orthopedic surgeon, took a series of clinic postings in the island paradise. And, although it was unpaid work, it did come with a house -- so the Gettes family got a tropical vacation while he worked.

It was there Gettes discovered the steel drum, or pan. "I would hear the music at night," he says, a hint of wistfulness creeping into his voice. "The sound was just magical. There is something very haunting about it."

By age 20, Gettes owned his first set of steel drums.

"But I couldn't keep them in tune," he recalls. "So I was led to a man named Ellie Mannette ... who is one of the inventors of the art form."

Mannette is widely regarded as the father of the modern steel pan instrument for putting a discarded 55-gallon oil barrel to use -- other steel drummers in the 1930s were using soap boxes and biscuit tins -- and devising the concave top that gave the instrument its unique acoustic properties.

A Trinidad native living in West Virginia, Mannette took Gettes on as an apprentice. "I took a leave of absence from medical school ... and started an apprenticeship with Ellie that lasted about eight years," Gettes says.

By the time his journeyman days were over, Gettes was "a panman," making and playing steel drums full time and building steel orchestras for schools across the country.

Now living in Media, he and his son, Jeremy, also perform as the Trinidad North Steel Band.

The steel drum lends itself to a variety of sounds, Gettes says -- from solo performers and small ensembles to large groups. "In Trinidad, which is the birthplace of the instrument, steel bands can be as large as 120 musicians," he says.

At gigs, Gettes plays double seconds, or alto drums, while his son plays a drum kit and other percussion. Their set list hails primarily from the soca, calypso, reggae, rock, popular and jazz traditions.

Percussion came very naturally to Jeremy, his proud father says. "The music was in the house when he was born," he says. "There were piles of steel drums in different stages of construction. And we had a lot of musicians passing through the house -- some really good musicians. So he was exposed to the music a lot."

He was demonstrating percussive talent even as an infant, Gettes says. "He learned to play a drum set before he was 4 years old. He did his first gig with me when he was 7.

"We love playing together," he adds. "We're very close, personally, and musically, we've just always been connected. It's very intuitive. We really anticipate each other."

Basic steel drum isn't hard to learn, Gettes says. "You can get to a novice level very quickly. ... But there's a long curve in going from the intermediate level to being truly proficient. There's a lot of technique involved."

That's the perspective from his side of the stage. From the audience's point of view, things should just be lively and fun.

"People think of it as happy music, and it is," he says. "I mean, we have played somber music, at funerals and memorials ... but probably 95 percent of the things we play are upbeat.

"The music is absolutely infectious. As soon as you hear us start playing, you're going to want to tap your feet. You're going to sway -- the rhythms we play are so grabbing, you can't sit still.

"People will feel better when they leave than they did when they came."

interview by
Tom Knapp

11 August 2012

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