Driven to achieve
Story from the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian
By Andrew Martin and Ray Funk
It’s official. The interim label has been removed and Akua Leith is now director of the National Steel Symphony Orchestra (NSSO). Leith succeeds UWI Professor Jessel Murray, who had previously led the NSSO with distinction from its inception in 2007 until stepping down last year. Leith is an accomplished musician and has been a member of the NSSO for eight years. He has served as the NSSO’s acting artistic director for almost a year but now he has officially been named to the lead position.
A cultural jewel, the National Steel Symphony Orchestra is an ensemble comprised of some of the best steelpan players in T&T and around the world. Orchestra members are employees of the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and The Arts and serve as an extension of the ministry’s efforts to promote culture and showcase T&T’s national instrument in a wide variety of situations and locations both domestically and internationally. The NSSO has toured the world promoting T&T and has recently been to China, Costa Rica, Guyana, Suriname, Martinique and Barbados.
The NSSO performs public concerts, appears at diplomatic events, offers open rehearsals for anyone interested (the Contact Series), holds a wide variety of workshops, hosts school tours, and participates in a wide array of collaborative neighbourhood events (NSSO’s Neighborhood Connections series). The NSSO has a strong educational component and has hosted foreign steelpan students from universities in Tennessee and Minnesota already this year. Daily rehearsals notwithstanding, the NSSO averages over 20 events so far this fiscal year. For example, the NSSO recently performed a concert in early May called “From Tamboo Bamboo to Steel Symphony Orchestra” at the St James Youth Centre with St James Tripolians. They also gave a series of well attended afternoon concerts in front of the steps of Napa, “Carnival at Napa: Our culture, our space” during Carnival season 2017.
In any concert, performance, or event, director Akua Leith sees the mission of the NSSO as part of a steady drive “to show steelpan performances at the highest level… Our future plans are basically to get out to the world, showing what best practices we have developed in technique, performance, pedagogy, and research and development here in T&T.”
The NSSO is constantly updating, researching, and reimagining their repertoire in order to present the full historical and contemporary range of what steelpan can do, from calypsos, soca, popular, classical, Indian, and jazz. The NSSO has been constantly working to create new arrangements, often drawing on the incredible stability of talented arrangers within its ranks, including Amrit Samaroo, Kareem Brown and many other members.
Leith notes the orchestra is constantly challenging itself. “At the NSSO, we don’t really have a limit in terms of style or genre. Once it’s possible on the instruments, and it falls within the remit of the orchestra, we make it happen.”
Born in Port-of-Spain, the multi-talented Akua Leith attended South East Port-of-Spain Secondary School. He began playing steelpan at an early age and his first non-school steelband was Carib Tokyo. However, as he searched for steelpan knowledge to absorb, Leith then moved to Neal and Massy Trinidad All Stars and soon became a bit of a musical vagabond. “Then I moved around… I’ve been to Valley Harps, Silver Stars, Merrytones, Courts Laventille Sound Specialists, Potential Symphony, Renegades, Buccaneers, Scrunter’s Pan Group, Melodians, Pandemonium, Harmonites, Solo Pan Knights, Desperadoes, Harvard Harps, Sforzata and Invaders.”
Why so many different steelbands?
“I wanted to experience multiple arrangers so I started devoting myself towards different steelbands for the season.”
Leith had a mission and a vision of what he wanted to achieve and most importantly, the drive to achieve it.
After secondary school, he joined Sadiki Sticks on Steel where he traveled for approximately five years, visiting China, USA, Puerto Rico, and France. He later went to Trinity All Generation School of the Arts (TAGS) where he became music director of the Prodigies and then vice principal of performance. At the same time, he was pursuing his university education, which earned him a Certificate in Music (Honours) and a Bachelor’s degree at UWI. He was also teaching at the Holistic Music School in Cascade, other music camps, and conducting private steelpan lessons.
Fullbright helped advance his career
Two years after earning his university degree, Leith went to Northern Illinois University (NIU) after winning a prestigious Fulbright scholarship. He pursued a two-year master’s degree in music and graduated in 2016. The US State Department awarded him a Fulbright to further his studies and Leith admits the Fulbright was instrumental in allowing him to continue his educational career.
Needless to say, Leith is very grateful that such programmes exist for international students and scholars. Initially, he planned to get his master’s degree in steelpan performance but, after considering his ambitions to be a bandleader, switched to a focus on conducting. He continued to work closely with Liam Teague, Cliff Alexis and NIU’s steelband programme while studying conducting under the direction of Dr Ronnie Wooten in an effort to have a diverse and interdisciplinary graduate education.