"IT'S SUPER FUN TO DANCE TO," says Laura Emerson in the lobby of the John Van Duzer Theatre. She's there with fellow Anthropology student Uri Grunder, and the pair will be working up a sweat when the Humboldt State Calypso Band takes the stage.

The two are part of a growing crowd out front on the night of the fall semester percussion concert. For the Calypso Band, tonight means gearing up for the big 25th anniversary show, "Masters of the Steel Drum," set for April 30. But right now, eager audience members are waiting out the next 15 minutes until percussion students take the stage and guide listeners through an evening of classical and contemporary percussion works. The audience will get an auditory tour from South America, to Cuba to India, with a stopover in Africa, all before landing in Trinidad and Tobago, the birthplace of the calypso sound.

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Nick Duckworth

Nick Duckworth feels the groove as he hammers out the bass line.

Chrome Pan

Modern instruments typically bear a chrome finish like these instruments, but it's not unusual to see pans still wearing their original paint.

Original Band

Professor Eugene Novotney, lower right, plays the band's first, and at the time, only, steelpan. Accompanying him are Mike LaBolle on vibraphone, David Peñalosa on congas, Demetreous Bogdonos on drumset and Gary Davidson on electric bass. The group now has more than 30 pans and only uses acoustic instruments.

Tonight's show is just one venue for catching the Humboldt State Calypso Band. The group regularly plays shows throughout the county and is a fixture of the biannual percussion concerts. Even their rehearsals attract attention when musical notes drift from the Van Duzer Theatre out into the art quad.

Calypso and its use of steelpans create a distinctive, complex and widely appealing sound. It has its roots in the blending of African, indigenous Caribbean, Spanish, French and British cultures. The sound created by the early Calypsonians was as musically revolutionary as it was socially—its origins can be traced back to the emancipation of Caribbean slaves and their struggle to integrate with white society.

Today, calypso has risen to become the national symbol of the Trinidadian and Tobagonian people. That calypso should find a place at Humboldt State is due to the effort of a dedicated group of student musicians led by a passionate professor, Eugene Novotney.

The journey began for Novotney while he was in graduate school. He had spent years studying music and percussion in the European tradition, and while he found the traditional definition of percussion fulfilling, it was also limiting. "In so many cases, the percussionist is one guy by himself at the back of the band, moving from triangle to wood block to cymbals," he says.

When he was growing up, Novotney had a couple encounters with the sound of steelpans in popular culture (thanks to a record album purchased by friends while on a Caribbean cruise, and the always-illuminating "Sesame Street"). When he began his graduate studies in Percussion, Composition and Ethnomusicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he was able to experience the real deal—a growing movement of university-based steel bands whose sound matched as closely as possible that of the indigenous melodies and rhythms of the original Caribbean players. This wasn't Disney's Little Mermaid stuff, this was real steelpan music happening at the university level—in the Midwest of all places.

"It was totally exotic in my mind and I thought, man, that sound only exists in the Caribbean, but there I was in a cornfield in Champaign, and there's a full steelband," Novotney says.

Novotney's commitment to the art form would be solidified when he was introduced to Clifford Alexis, a Trinidadian who had toured the United States with the National Steel Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago. At the time Alexis was establishing the steel pan scene in the Minneapolis and Chicago areas and came to campus to tune the University's drums.

Novotney recalls, "We had this room where all the steel pans were set up. I took Cliff down there and opened the door. Instantly he's touching the drums, inspecting them, this that and the other." At this point, all of Novotney's attempts at conversation had been met with gruff yesses and noes.

"My last attempt at small talk with him was this: ‘Cliff, which instrument are you gonna tune first?' He turned around and looked at me like I was the dumbest person he ever met. He just pointed to them all, and said ‘dis one, man.'"

In other words, to Alexis, that whole room full of instruments was one thing. He didn't think of it as going from instrument to instrument, he was there to tune the whole band.

"That moment right there was one of the defining moments of my life. Right then and there I knew I had to make this a large part of my life," Novotney says. "I had access, not only to these instruments, but to this guy who was the real thing. I still keep in really close contact with Cliff; he's become a mentor figure in my life."

Fast forward to 1985 and Novotney is a part-time music instructor at Humboldt State.

After some wheeling and dealing (literally—it included selling a Chevy Nova), Novotney and a group of seven players had pieced together the forerunner of the Humboldt State Calypso Band, complete with a single steelpan. The rest of the ensemble was made up of instruments the university already owned: marimba, vibraphone, electric bass, congas and drum set. But there was something in the air, and the HSU community was eager to hear more of this steelpan sound. Soon crowds were sitting in on rehearsals and, despite the fact that Novotney was unsure if the group was ready for a public performance, the group was on the program for that year's big end-of-the-year percussion concert.

"After the first set we took an intermission and came back with this band. And it was an unbelievable response. I'll never forget the feeling we had when we cranked into the music at that first concert. The room exploded with energy."

The Calypso Band quickly became a fixture at HSU and eventually Novotney was hired as a full-time faculty member. The group, made up mostly of students with a major or minor in Music at HSU, has since participated in every campus percussion ensemble performance in addition to touring extensively throughout the West Coast.

Novotney's passion for music and teaching was recognized in 2006 with a prestigious Wang Family Excellence Award by the California State University Board of Trustees. He used the $20,000 prize money to continue building up HSU's store of exotic instruments, buying a 12-piece Balinese Gamelan (Gamelan is an Indonesian word that signifies an ensemble of gongs and metallophones). And Novotney's commitment to Calypso continued, stronger than ever, through a dozen trips to Trinidad and Tobago, including stints performing in Trinidad's National Panorama Competition and judging for Pan Trinbago, Trinidad and Tobago's national steelband organization.

Now, 25 years after the group's founding, the mood backstage at the Van Duzer is one of relaxed anticipation. Long rows of steelpans catch stage lights as everything falls into place behind the curtain. Tucked into dressing rooms and quiet corners, performers work on the final touches of the group's five-song set.

Many of the Calypso Band's players are also appearing with the night's first two groups, the HSU Percussion Ensemble, also led by Novotney, and the HSU World Percussion Group, directed by Music instructor Howard Kaufman. The musicians have been rehearsing since 9:30 that morning.

"I practice my butt off, pretty much. Generally these little forearm muscles get really, really sore," says Hannah Franzen, a three-semester Calypso Band member. She says the workout is well worth it.

"It's the whole experience: playing with the people, Eugene directing it—because he's an amazing instructor," says Franzen, who plays Double Seconds, two drums with 15 notes in each. "I've never been a part of anything like this before. It's phenomenal being a part of this sound."

Tricia Baxter, one of the group's four bass players ("bass" meaning its steelpan equivalent, see sidebar), offers her take on the group's appeal. "I particularly like playing with this group because we're representing the traditional sound, whereas a lot of other people take it in another direction."

The crowd has come prepared. At the intermission, stagehands lower the orchestra pit to make room for dancers at the foot of the stage. Eager audience members fling aside fleece jackets and change into strappy sandals or just go barefoot.

Soon, the 39 members of the band are in place and Novotney counts off. Drumset player John Thomas kicks off the rhythm on the high hat and in just a few measures—boom!—the room explodes in a wall of sound and a massive cheer lets up from the dancing audience. The Calypso Band had begun, and anyone within a hundred yards of the Van Duzer Theatre knows it.

Show your support for Calypso at HSU

THE FIRST 250 INDIVIDUALS who contribute $50 or more will receive a copy of the Calypso Band's 20th Anniversary CD recorded live in concert at HSU in 2006. (For tax purposes, the CD's value of $10 will be deducted from your gift).

"The pans are tuned with a hammer and they're played with mallets. Every time they're struck, they get a little more out of tune," says Eugene Novotney, Humboldt State Calypso Band director. Add to that the damp coastal climate of the North Coast and you've got a recipe for quickly deteriorating pans. That's why the Calypso Band is busy raising funds to refurbish the entire collection, which includes more than 30 hand-crafted instruments.

You can help ensure the sounds of calypso continue to resonate across the hills and stairs of HSU.

If you would like to support the Calypso Band and help repair their instruments, please send your donation to the Gift Processing Center, Humboldt State University, 1 Harpst St, Arcata, CA 95521 or go online to humboldt.edu/giving. Be sure to mention the Calypso Band in the memo line.