•the frozen chill of an Indiana winter, the sounds of the islands reverberate.
Andrew Moore wielded his soft mallet with a deft touch, tapping out a rhythm on the concave surface of steel pan drum. Each time he touched the surface, a tinny, metallic yet warm tone burst forth.
The sound of the steel drum are as closely related with the tropics as the lap of the waves and the wind in the palm trees. But Moore has brought the versatility of the instrument to central Indiana by founding Circle City Steel.
Specializing in calypso, bossa nova, samba and other forms of Afro-Caribbean music, he also wants to stretch the capabilities and change perception of what the steel pan can be.
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“It’s kind of thrown into the same bin as tiki torches, and that’s where it stops. But for us pan players, it’s as legitimate an instrument as a piano,” Moore said. “Once I can play for people, it changes the perception of it. But initially, it’s hard to get gigs that aren’t island gigs.”
The steel pan is an acoustic instrument that originated in the Caribbean islands. Its roots go back to Trinidad in the late 19th century, when the British colonial government banned drums.
In rebellion, residents used lengths of bamboo, along with bottles, spoons and other objects to create music. Eventually, that gave way to playing paint cans, barrels and dustbins.
The first steel pans emerged on Trinidad in the 1930s.
“It’s the only entirely new instrument to be invented in the 20th century,” said Eric Mannweiler, co-director of the Indiana Steel Pan Association. “There was no precursor, there was nothing to precede it. It was a entirely new invention.”
The instrument has inspired virtuoso performances from specialists from Anthony Williams to Rudolph Charles. But enthusiasts often have to push back against preconceived biases about the steel pan.
“In America, people mostly get exposed to the instrument through cruises, but it gives a very limited view of the instrument,” Mannweiler said. “These instruments are fantastically beautiful instruments that can play anything you can put your mind to play.”
Moore came to the steel pan through work in other percussion instruments.
After graduating from Whiteland Community High School in 2006, he studied music performance and composition at Indiana State University.
It was while at Indiana State that he discovered the steel pan. The school had a steel ensemble, and though he played drums for it, he finally took over the lead pan his junior year.
But it wasn’t the stereotypical island sounds that the instrument produced that attracted him.
“The first time I played jazz on it, I was hooked,” he said. “It really clicked for me once, a flip was switched, and I really dedicated myself to it.”
Surprisingly, Moore started to understand musical theory better after playing the steel pan than he did in all of his years in college.
The tones are arranged in ways that force performers to know the “order of fifths,” a circular representation of the 12-pitch musical scale.
“What is unique like the instrument itself, like the drum it’s a membranophone,” Mannweiler said. “The sound comes from the vibrations of the head. When you hit one part of the drum head, you get sound vibrating from the rest of the instrument.”
In order to play the steel pan competently, you have to be skilled in it, and that helps with overall composition.
“Being immersed in it every day, I’ve learned more about it than I ever could have learned in my classes,” he said.
Moore graduated in 2010 and formed Circle City Steel the same year. He had been in a bar band in college and started adding more steel pan aspects to it.
Knowing he wanted to pursue music for a career, Moore formed a pan-centric legion of musicians to perform around central Indiana.
Since then, the spring and summer has become high season for Circle City Steel. The group performs at weddings, corporate retreats, outdoor festivals and other events.
But increasingly, as people understand more of what his music is about, Moore’s bookings have increased year-round.
This past November, he released a Christmas album of jazzy holiday hits, from “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to the fitting island ode “Mele Kalikimaka.” It helped generate gigs throughout the holiday season, for people looking beyond just the island sounds.
During the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Winter Solstice event, he played songs from it and other compositions outdoors.
He’s currently working on “Indianapolis,” an avant-garde rock album. Created as a concept album based on Moore’s life growing up in central Indiana, it fuses progressive instrumental rock with steel pan, electronic instrumentation and traditional guitar, bass and drums.
Moore compares it to Rush’s grandiose “2112” album.
“There’s nothing island about it. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
“Indianapolis” is expected to be finished in mid-January and will available on iTunes. Once it comes out, Moore will focus on booking for the upcoming busy season.
“My schedule fills up five or six days each week all summer long,” he said.
Occupation: Musician and founder of Circle City Steel
Education: Graduated from Whiteland Community High School in 2006; received bachelor’s degrees in music performance and music composition from Indiana State University in 2010