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Steel drum players open portal to musical legacy

| Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011

The ad in the paper said "Steelpan lessons," and Neil Price, 12, needed little convincing to give it a try.

While on vacation in Ocean City, N.J., a year earlier, he heard a street performer punching out a bouncy calypso tune on a set of steel drums, a staple of Caribbean music.

He was hooked in the first few notes.

"As soon as I heard it, it just sounded happy and tropical," says Neil, a seventh-grader who lives in Peters.

Now, as part of the U.S. Steelpan Academy, Neil is learning the basics of sound and pitch, while stringing together distinctive toe-moving notes that conjure up memories of conch shells and soft Atlantic waves crashing onto white-sand beaches.

But that's not all the academy's 15 students are doing. They're also helping draw new attention to the aging National Opera House and a sliver of black history that many in Pittsburgh thought had long vanished.

"We want to enrich people's lives, particularly those of young people," says Jonnet Solomon-Nowlin, who owns the opera house and runs the academy. "We want to show them there's more they can do with their lives through music."

The Queen Anne-style opera house, located on Apple Street in Homewood, was built in 1894 and, for decades, was owned by William A. "Woogie" Harris, brother of Charles "Teenie" Harris, the renowned, late local photographer. The opera house gained fame in the pre-civil rights era for housing celebrities from Lena Horne and Cab Calloway to Roberto Clemente, who, because they were black, were barred from staying in Downtown hotels.

In 1941, the opera house became the base for the National Negro Opera, the country's first black opera company. Its founder, Mary Cardwell Dawson, also lived there at times. In its heyday, the company toured Chicago, Washington, D.C., and additional classical music hot spots, performing "Aida," "Carmen" and other heart-pulsing operas with all-black choirs.

Solomon-Nowlin, the building's owner since 2001, hopes to revive the opera company's legend by training a new generation of percussionists.

Linda Garber, 64, fell in love with the sound of steel drums years ago during a Caribbean cruise, and began playing them at the academy in 2007 after meeting Solomon-Nowlin and her father, Phil, during the Three Rivers Arts Festival.

A determined look wiped across her face during practice on Tuesday as she banged out a rapid-fire bridge. She and several other academy students have, in recent weeks, been brushing up on a steel drum version of Andy Williams' "Music to Watch Girls By." They'll perform next month at a church in Dormont.

"I'm not musically inclined, but I can still play it," says Garber of Bridgeville. "You just have to stick with it. You can pick it up pretty easy."

Before Dawson died in 1962, she turned over to the Library of Congress dozens of boxes with more than 5,000 items from the opera company, including photographs of its choirs, script fragments, playbills, musical scores and financial documents.

Many are on display at the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, although not one recording of the Negro Opera has been discovered.

Not yet, anyway.

"Back in those days, you mainly recorded if your intention was to get your name out for marketing purposes," says Samuel Black, curator of the history center's African American Collection. "That may not have been their intention at the time."

Solomon-Nowlin says she has hired a historian to search for a recording of the group. Until a sound snippet turns up, the academy is the Negro Opera's best advertising tool.

Phil Solomon has been making and playing steel drums by hand in since he was a child growing up in his native Guyana.

There, he says, music was important: Steel pan bands played lilting island favorites on side streets, while schoolchildren sang "God Save the Queen" to pay homage to the South American nation's British ties.

Solomon moved to Pittsburgh in 1984, and often visits grade schools, universities and civic groups, trying to get the word out about steel drums and the opera house.

He crafts drums from old 55-gallon oil barrels in a tedious process that involves lots of cutting, carving and to-the-milimeter measurements with a compass. A single drum set can take hours, sometimes days, to finish.

"Music is something that we need to pass down to youth," Solomon says. "Learning music puts you in a position where you can learn anything."

For more information on the National Opera House, visit www.nationaloperahouse.org, or call 412-370-5629.

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