Starting over, with a steely heart

Leader Staff,
Posted 4/17/18

Alone in a schoolroom with the drum set, freshman Angie Tabor felt like expressing herself.

She’d finished her music class assignment, so she played around a bit – until a door abruptly swung …

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Starting over, with a steely heart


Alone in a schoolroom with the drum set, freshman Angie Tabor felt like expressing herself.

She’d finished her music class assignment, so she played around a bit – until a door abruptly swung open. A man walked in and strode to Tabor’s side.

“Do that again,” said Joe Beneschan.

She did. Beneschan, La Sierra High School’s band director, then coached her a bit and, not long after, invited her to join the school’s jazz band.

“That day changed my life,” Tabor recalled.

She was 14 years old, growing up in Riverside, California.

These days, Tabor is building another brand-new life – largely with another kind of drums. They spill out the unmistakable sound of tropical sunlight: steelpans, the instruments originally made out of oil barrels on the Caribbean island of Trinidad.

Back when she was a college student at California State University–Long Beach, Tabor majored in percussion and was introduced to steelpans.

At first blasé about the instruments, she was hooked after one month. Tabor earned a bachelor’s and a master’s in music performance, and studied the likes of Lord Kitchener, the “grand master of calypso,” and the Mighty Sparrow, the “calypso king of the world.”

She spent a couple of decades teaching and playing – jazz, rock and classical, along with her beloved steelpan music – in Southern California.

But, as life there became more and more frantic, Tabor decided to take a leap. She took off for the Pacific Northwest – and found a place in Port Townsend.

She converted an old horse barn into her music studio and filled it with her steelpans, drum set, marimba and a painting of Jimi Hendrix.

None of this was easy. Bringing the laid-back sound of the Caribbean to the upper reaches of this country required Tabor, 43 at the time, to step far outside her personal and professional comfort zones.

Earning a living in music here, as Tabor found, takes prodigious amounts of passion, flexibility and marketing.

One pretty much needs a Type A personality, “which I am so not,” she said.

The welcome, fortunately, has been warm.

After arriving in Port Townsend in July 2016, Tabor posted her interest in forming a steel band on Craigslist. Soon she heard from John Sanders of Quilcene, a jazz bassist who, along with drummer Tor Brandes, was ready then and there to get the party started.

The Caribe Steel Band was born in fall 2016 and, after four months of rehearsal, debuted at Disco Bay Detour in January 2017. Since then, the band has taken its calypso, soca, samba, salsa, reggae and Beatles music all over the peninsula. The Wooden Boat Festival here in Port Townsend, the Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival in Port Angeles, the Sequim Lavender Weekend: All have heard the sounds of Cuba, Brazil, Jamaica and Trinidad. So have wineries, cafes and weddings – with Tabor performing “Here Comes the Bride,” aka Mendelssohn’s Wedding March, on her steelpans.

She is bandleader, player and singer – although she had never been a vocalist prior to moving to Port Townsend.

“Here, nobody knows I don’t do that,” she said she was thinking before stepping closer to the microphone. She went ahead and sang out, and kept doing so, all the while expanding Caribe’s repertoire from “Jump in the Line” and “Jammin’” to “Wimoweh” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Mongo Jerry’s “In the Summertime,” Sublime’s “Badfish” and Tabor’s Trinidadian-flavored arrangement of “Over the Rainbow” are new on the set list.

Like a pied pannist, Tabor teaches grade-schoolers, teenagers and adults to play the steel drums – in her home studio, at Swan School in Port Townsend and, last spring, in Centrum’s “Tales, Text & Theater” program for Blue Heron Middle School students.

Young Artist Project Program manager Martha Worthley had been searching for a steelpan instructor for years when Tabor stopped in.

She was the woman for the job, Worthley said.

Worthley seeks musical genres that students, from beginners on up, can dive into together; at the same time, she looks for local artists with whom the Blue Heron kids and their families can follow up after the Centrum program ends.

“Angie has the kids playing several different instruments. They learn songs and rhythm,” Worthley said, “and they learn to play in an ensemble – to listen to each other.

“It is a tall order for one week of classes,” but Tabor has met it with “an enthusiastic, fun style that belies the seriousness of her musical knowledge and what she is trying to accomplish,” Worthley added. Tabor is already scheduled to teach another Centrum session this June.

Meanwhile, in her community-based class at Swan School, Tabor has been teaching Heather Sanders, a woman who never thought she’d play music. Sanders’ husband, John, had been the musician in the family – until recently.

Now, Sanders and son Jediah, 10, stand beside her husband, their three steel pans before them. Together with fellow adult students Larry Costello and Ruth Asare, and with Sage Martine Brotherton, 9, their neighbor in Quilcene, they are playing songs such as “Jamaica Farewell,” “Come Back, Liza” and “Limbo Rock,” punctuating their runs with that sassy “cha-cha-cha.”

“You can ‘whoo,’” Tabor suggests in the middle of the tune. “Whoooo!” is the fluid response.

“It’s fun. It doesn’t ever feel serious,” said John Sanders, a longtime member of the Peninsula College Jazz Ensemble.

Of course, Tabor has to be serious about promotion. When she’s asked whether she’s making it as a musician, she answers that she’s “getting there.” But the puzzle of how best to spread the word about classes and the Caribe Steel Band – more fliers? Facebook? A better website? – is relentless. One has to be nimble, which is what Tabor is. She brings the Caribe band to venues such as Finnriver Cidery Garden in Chimacum and Wind Rose Cellars in Sequim. She offers introductory steelpan sessions, starts a new series of classes for adults and teens every eight weeks and teaches private lessons. And her drum set does not stay quiet for long: Tabor is a member of the Olympic Express Big Band, which rehearses every Saturday in Sequim, and has gigs around Jefferson and Clallam counties; she also plays in the Sequim City Band and Port Angeles Symphony.

“I’m tremendously excited to share steelpan music,” she said, adding that when she sees someone – in the classroom, on the dance floor – slide into the groove, she feels even more so. Live music connects souls, and that carries the musician through the slim times.

But just what is it about the steelpan sound? Tabor doesn’t hesitate.

“You can’t be in a bad mood,” she said.