Cold outside, Caribbean vibe inside at the Civic

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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Zach Edgington, a 7th grader member of the Summit Academy Steel Spartans, plays the bass drums at a Beach Party in the Akron Civic Theater lobby before the University of Akron Steel Drum Band performance on Sunday in Akron, Ohio. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)

While skaters circled the ice at Lock 3, the Civic Theatre was suggesting warmer times and climes on Sunday afternoon.

Even before the University of Akron Steel Drum Band gave a 2:30 p.m. concert, the lobby of the theater was aiming for a beach-party atmosphere. You could get snow cones or have your face painted. Beach balls rested on the steps to the closed balcony.

Music with a Caribbean flavor added to the scene. About 35 members of Summit Academy’s steel drum groups — the Steel Dragons for middle schoolers and the Steel Spartans of high school age — performed for about an hour before the concert.

Their selections included Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman and ABBA’s Dancing Queen, songs that seemed to fit with the dancing figure moving around the lobby: Tan-Tan, a towering, Trinidadian carnival puppet. Trinidad is one of the birthplaces of steel drum music.

Steve Lawrie of Akron spent about three weeks making the puppet. With a smile, he maneuvered the 40 pounds of puppet and harness on his shoulders at the Civic. He had Tan-Tan twirl and even offer a few curtsies as the Summit troupe played.

The festivities underscored the interconnections of aficionados of steel drums (also known as steel pans), including those in the Akron community. Steve is the husband of Angel Lawrie, who founded and oversees the Summit groups, performs on steel drums herself (including in a duo with Steve called Steelin’ Hearts) and played in the UA steel band while a student at the university. She counts UA band founder Larry Snyder among her heroes.

Steve Lawrie, meanwhile, came to the music in his native South Africa after his father joined a steel band there. Steve brought his love of the form to Northeast Ohio when he moved here about 13 years ago. He was head tuner for Akron-based Panyard Inc. for four years and now has his own company, PanTuner.

The Lawries are also carrying the music to another generation through the groups at Summit Academy, which works with students with ADHD, autism spectrum disorders and related conditions.

“I wanted to see how this would work with kids with special needs,” Angel Lawrie said. “They ended up changing me.”

The Steel Dragons and Steel Spartans are now veteran performers, and last November they headlined a local festival that also featured music legend Harry Belafonte. Not only was the music lively in the Civic lobby, the performers’ enthusiasm was evident. And that did make the day seem a little warmer.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.


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