Local steel drum bands unite

BLUE HILL — A sprawling network of steel drum performers, collaborations and bands on the Blue Hill Peninsula brings live music to nearly all corners of Hancock County and beyond each summer. The style originated in Trinidad and is loud, joyous and participatory.

Flash! in the Pans and guest performers start the night’s performance in Blue Hill on Aug. 31. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTOS BY ANNE BERLEANT

Local steel drum bands Flash! in the Pans, Atlantic Clarion, Planet Pan and Rhythm Rockets all flow from the same creative well: Carl Chase, who first founded Atlantic Clarion in Brooksville in 1974, and his son Nigel. Atlantic Clarion would perform in front of the post office at Buck’s Harbor while schooners sailed in from Camden to listen.

“There would be a street dance, literally,” said Nigel Chase, who now leads Atlantic Clarion himself. “It was a great scene until the ‘bad boys’ wanted to join in.”

Those bad boys came all the way from Brooklin and Blue Hill in their pickup trucks. “They’d hang out and smoke cigarettes behind the church. Me and my [siblings] were pretty small, and we’d throw rotten apples at them. Then, they’d squeal their tires when they left.”

The noise upset the neighbors, the neighbors complained, and the impromptu street dances were shut down.

Jim Fisher catches the beat while performing in Blue Hill Aug. 31.

Flash! began as a community steel drum workshop behind Buck’s Market in the mid-’90s, Chase continued. “A lot of the [Atlantic Clarion] players were also in Flash!, teaching and helping.”

While Flash! is a community band and Atlantic Clarion transformed into a professional one, that crossover continues almost 30 years later. And this summer, it was practically official.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we were really hesitant about playing at all,” Chase said. Flash! had canceled its 2020 season, and some members did not return. “To guarantee a band that could commit, we said, let’s put Atlantic Clarion together with Flash! We thought as a professional band, we can definitely play those gigs.” They also invited Planet Pan, a group of younger, often school-age players, to join in.

Now, Atlantic Clarion performs a short set before several members join Flash! for their longer show staged Monday nights around Hancock County.

The 2021 string of outdoor shows was confirmed after a winter of discussion, Chase noted. Not only was COVID-19 a concern, but Carl Chase, and his wife Susan, both died in 2019, as well.

Trinidad and Tobago steel drummer Roland Harrigan (left) first came to Maine 30 years ago and taught Atlantic Clarion founder Carl Chase how to make and tune “pans.” Harrigan was in the U.S. last week and checked out the pans in Blue Hill on Aug. 31 with Nigel Chase (center) and John Kollman.

“I think COVID really took a huge toll on members and the board,” newly appointed Board President Sandy Phoenix said. “We weren’t even sure if we’d have a season [in 2021].”

Phoenix took on the Peninsula Pan leadership role, thinking “if I can get us over this hump, that’d be great,” she said.

For starters, longtime director John Coleman had stepped down. But Flash! player Tim Seppi stepped up to take Coleman’s place and started arranging Zoom practices.

“It was hard, but it was great,” Phoenix said. “It helped to motivate many of us to pull out our pans and start practicing.”

Co-captain Kate Morse agreed.

“It got us on the same page, got us clear on what music we would revive,” she said.

During the long pandemic months, Flash! was “kind of on hold, wondering what would happen,” Morse continued. “I’ve been in the band for 27 years and [2020] is the first time I can remember we’ve been canceled.”

And losing a season of performances also hurt the organizations financially.

“When we lost our season last summer, we lost virtually all of our income for the entire year,” Peninsula Pan Inc. Treasurer Matt Freedman said. “At the time we didn’t know whether or when we would even play again.”

A first-ever limited appeal for donations helped, he said, and big crowds this summer has left the organization in a healthy financial state.

Peninsula Pan Inc. President Sandy Phoenix (right) performs with Flash! in Blue Hill.

Then there were the local nonprofits that benefit from Flash! performances. In normal years, Peninsula Pan accepts applications between October and December for the following year’s performances, where Flash! then splits the gate proceeds with the nonprofit chosen for that night’s performance.

With the decision on the 2021 season on hold until April, they took the 2020 schedule that had never actually occurred.

“That was our starting place,” Morse said.

One thing Chase suggested during discussions was to reorganize the nonprofit behind Flash! — Peninsula Pan —so all the related bands and programs officially live under one umbrella.

And there are many.

Chase runs the Pan Institute, offering steel band drumming and calypso classes for all ages and as an elective at George Stevens Academy. He also leads afterschool band Planet Pan, and the Rhythm Rockets for the 8 to 12 age group. He founded the Pan Coalition USA, an internationally performing steel band orchestra, leads Atlantic Clarion, and helps organize Last Night! each New Year’s Eve in Blue Hill, bringing over 100 artists to venues for free evening performances.

Freedman said combining the different bands under one nonprofit umbrella is “definitely a discussion worth having … It would take some creative thinking and patient listening, but it’s certainly possible. I would want to make sure we didn’t create financial obligations we can’t meet, but there’s always a way.”

“We just will see what happens moving forward,” Chase said. “Everyone’s having a great time.”

During pandemic restrictions, Atlantic Clarion found an outdoor practice space in Brooksville. NIGEL CHASE PHOTO

To learn more about Flash! In the Pans Steel Drum Band, visit www.flashinthepans.org and the group’s Facebook page.

Anne Berleant

Anne Berleant

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Anne Berleant covers news and features in Ellsworth, Mariaville, Otis, Amherst, Aurora, Great Pond and Osborn. When not reporting, find her hiking local trails, reading or watching professional tennis. Email her at [email protected]
Anne Berleant

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