From all outward appearances, Dr. John Wooton sounds like he’s keeping his University of Southern Mississippi steel pan band to himself. The 40-member group meets at night in the basement of the Mannoni Performing Arts Center, plinking on bent pieces of various round metal objects.
Oh, the band has numerous YouTube videos showing them playing on their steel pans. People who know steel pans know that Wooton’s band is outstanding.
What people? Well, Ellie Mannette and Jeff Narell. Mannette, who is now 95 and still tuning steel pans, introduced the first steel pan made out of a 55-gallon oil drum. A picture of Mannette at age 17 hangs in Wooton’s office.
Narell has been playing steel pan since he was 11 when the instrument was introduced to him in New York City and he was mentored by Mannette. Narell and the USM Steel Pan Band will perform Narell’s homage to his teacher, “Ellie Man,” in an upcoming Southern Miss concert.
Wooton said the USM Steel Pan Band doesn’t get the exposure of other groups.
“A lot of people don’t know about it,” he said. “It’s funny because sometimes you’re not a prophet in your own land. More people know about this steel band outside of Hattiesburg than in Hattiesburg. That’s a shame.”
Compared to other instruments, the steel pan is a tiny baby.
“It’s the only acoustic chromatic instrument to be invented in the 20th century that we use,” Wooton said. “Right now, people affiliate it with the islands, but 100 years from now, people are not going to affiliate it with the islands. It’s going to be a regular instrument. It’s being used in orchestras and it’s going to be so saturated in the U.S. culture and other cultures. It’s just going to be another instrument.
“No one knows where the saxophone came from or the trumpet. They have an origin too, but we just don’t think about that. The guy who invented the steel pan is still alive.”
The misconceptions associated with steel pans also causes stereotypes.
“Trinidad is the mecca,” Wooton said. “Right now, Carnival is going, Panorama. I have played at Panorama a few times. These bands are 120 members in each band. They compete and it’s unbelievable. People tell me, ‘Your band is so large,’ and we’ve got 40 people. This is a small band in Trinidad.”
As far as steel pans coming from Jamaica and playing “Caribbean music,” Trinidad is really the only place of steel pans.
“I have traveled to Central American and there are no steel pans there,” Wooton said. “People tell me to play on those Jamaica drums. Well, one, they are not from Jamaica, and two, they are not drums. There are actually more steel pans in that room across the hall than I saw in the country of Jamaica.”
The songs that might be associated with “island music” don’t involve the steel pan, Wooton said.
“So, people think you have to play ‘Margaritaville’ and ‘Brown-Eyed Girl,’ which aren’t even steel pan tunes,” he said. “But I do that stuff because that’s what people want to hear. You’ve got to know your audience. So, I do a lot of reggae, even though there’s no steel pan in reggae. Have you ever heard any steel pan in any Bob Marley tune? No, there isn’t one ever. It’s not from Jamaica, but we island music to accommodate our audience.”
Other islands have started playing steel pan.
“There are some steel bands in the other islands, like St. Lucia and St. Thomas, but not so much in Puerto Rico, where you would think, Wooton said. “There are only two steel bands in Puerto Rico and I’ve played with both of them. They are professional groups; they are not students. I go to Puerto Rico often and I bring my pans. I do gigs and people ask, ‘What are these?’ It’s fascinating.”
However, Wooton said popularity of steel pan is growing in the United States.
“Mostly in schools, but also professionally and in community groups,” he said. “Right now, the pan makers cannot make them fast enough. It’s taken off in certain parts of the world too, believe it or not: Sweden. It’s a hotspot for steel pan right now.”
Wooton said he didn’t start the steel pan band at USM until 1994. He met Ellie Mannette during work on his master’s degree at North Texas State.
“I met Ellie Mannette, watched him tune the pans and became fascinated with it,” he said. “I didn’t start playing in that time. I went to the University of Iowa, learned about jazz vibes from Tom Davis and then when I came here, I asked (former President) Aubrey Lucas for a little seed money and we started a steel band. Then it was a little six-piece band and now it’s a 40-piece band.”
Wooton, who prefers to play jazz on the steel pan, said the sounds from the instrument are almost hypnotic.
“There is a lot of dancing around and movement,” he said. “It’s very visual and it’s contagious. It’s a party going on.”
Although steel pan is one of his loves, Wooton’s specialty is rudimental drumming – small patterns of playing that form the foundation for more extended and complex drum patterns. For the past 20 years, he has consulted for various drum corps.
Wooton has performed clinics and concerts in Italy, Austria, England, China, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Peru, Mexico, Canada and the Percussive Arts Society International Convention. He has written two books and numerous rudimental snare drum solos and marching percussion ensemble pieces.
In addition to the drumming performances, he plays his steel pan and drums in his salsa band, Salseros del Sur, at The Thirsty Hippo in downtown Hattiesburg.