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Caribbean Sound on San Pablo – New Steel Drum Center

The melodious sounds that can be evoked from the pounded-in bottom of a steel drum have become synonymous with the Caribbean. Now they can be heard in classes offered at a steel drum music center in El Cerrito.

El Cerrito's music scene was already diverse, and now it's more so.

Since August, the dulcet sound of Caribbean steel drums can be heard in a building near City Hall on San Pablo Avenue.

Harry Best, a native of the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia and a UC Berkeley grad, has been teaching steel drums for the past decade at various Bay Area community centers and wanted a place of his own to hold classes.

So he opened the PanWest Caribbean Steelpan Music Center at 10855 San Pablo Ave. It's housed in a building formerly occupied by Liberty Tax Service next door to Nibs diner.

"That has always been my hope, but I couldn't directly afford it when I started," said Best, who lives in El Sobrante and has made the East Bay his home for many years.

Even though Best grew up in the Caribbean, which has become almost synonymous with steel drum music, he didn't become involved with the music until 1973, the year he graduated from Cal, where he was on the varsity soccer team.

When he was a youth, steel drum music "came out of the ghettos, the rough parts of town," and his family didn't want him connected with it, he said.

"My grandmother wouldn't tolerate it," he said. So his exposure at that time consisted of surreptitious visits to the home of a neighbor, when the neighbor wasn't home, to play a steel drum kept there under a coconut tree.

The year he graduated from Berkeley, he and a couple of guys from Trinidad and Tobago in the Bay Area decided they'd take up steel drums.

"None of us actually had any experience," Best recalled. "We'd decided that was something we wanted to do."

Something else they didn't have was equipment – no instruments. The steel drum isn't expensive. It's the bottom of a barrel cut off and pounded in to create a concave playing surface that is struck with mallets.

Best and his associates knew that the Chevron refinery in Richmond had a lot of steel drums. So they went to Chevron.

"The manager of Chevron back in the '70s ... was very supportive," Best said. He gave them drums, and the aspiring musicians persuaded a skilled drum builder from Canada to come down and make the instruments.

They started off in a big way – their first gig was with Arthur Fiedler and the San Francisco Pops, Best recalled.

"We started at the top," he said.

The Chevron manager came to hear them play. "He was very amazed that we were making music out of his steel barrels," Best said.

Their band name – preserved on a poster from an Aug. 4, 1973 performance in San Francisco – paid tribute to Chevron's contribution: "Chevron Caribbean Revellers Steelband." (See attached photo.)

Best isn't sure what happened to the original drums. Their group broke up and Best went back to Saint Lucia for a couple of years before returning to the U.S. for good.

He now has another group that he performs and records with called Shabang. He also performs in other ensembles, sometimes with his brother Peter.

His music center also has a back room where his sons produce steel drum mallets sold commercially. The mallet handles are made from wood dowels or aluminum rods, while the heads are made from latex rings or rubber balls, depending on the type of drum to be played.

"We actually ship these all over the world," he said.

The out-going package visible on a Patch visit was addressed to Japan.

"It's very popular in Japan," Best said. He receives a lot of orders also from England and other parts of Europe, as well as Canada, he said.

The chief focus of the PanWest Caribbean Steelpan Music Center, however, remains the music of the steel drum.

"It's a beautiful sounding instrument," Best said. "Its history came out of a lot of history and blood."

See the attached video for an impromptu, holiday-season performance of "Silver Bells" by Best during a Patch visit to the center.

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Dorothy Coakley December 07, 2012 at 08:12 PM
OMG, I am in love. Everything about this store, the music and Harry Best *screams* Christmas (or substitute your favorite holiday) in El Cerrito. Thank you so much for being a part of our town. Now for a holiday concert at CIty Hall???
Toni Mayer December 08, 2012 at 12:25 AM
I'm w/ Dorothy! I love steel drums!

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