From Trinidad to Rockaway Beach

by Amy Kingsley

When steel oil drums started washing up on Trinidadian shores during World War II, some Africa-descended residents started putting them to novel use. They hammered the base into a pan with a few octaves’ worth of chromatically tuned notes. The resulting steel drum is not only the single percussion/acoustic instrument to have been invented in the 20th century; it is also a canny adaptation of detritus from the dawn of the military-industrial complex.

Flash forward a few decades to a landscape strewn with the wreckage of mass media culture and a Queens-based quartet hell-bent on making raucous fun of it. Those four were punk rock founding fathers the Ramones, and tunes such as ‘“Teenage Lobotomy’” and ‘“I Wanna be Sedated’” created a template for the musical moment that followed.

In 2005, High Point resident Tracy Thornton married these misfits of modern culture for an album called Pan for Punks. It includes steel pan covers of 14 Ramones classics, with all the instrumentation done by Thornton.

‘“We were in the studio fooling around and getting sounds when, on a hunch, I did ‘Blitzkreig Bop,”” Thornton says. ‘“Once we did it, it sounded awesome. I thought someday I have to do a Ramones album.’”

That was in 1994, a few years after Thornton started playing the steel pan. Originally a drummer who’d started playing around age 3 and toured shortly after high school, Thornton discovered world percussion about 16 years ago. Although he still plays kit drums for Walrus and other rock bands, he’s been making a living with the steel pan for the last several years.

To that end, he’s played all over the country, in New York, Atlanta, Florida and California. But he makes it a point to go to Trinidad for a couple of months each year to hone his skills with the big bands down there.

‘“I consider that my school,’” he says.

Both the standard drum kit and steel pan require rhythm skills, but the pan also demands melodic competence. Thornton plays a lead/tenor pan, which is tuned in a circle of fifths and spans two-and-a-half octaves. As soon as he started playing the pan, he discovered a natural ability to grasp and recreate melodies.

‘“Of course being a drummer, I couldn’t read music,’” Thornton says. ‘“But I found out I had an ear. I could listen to a song on the radio and pretty quickly figure it out.’”

As he made recordings and played with the likes of Jimmy Buffet and Kenny Chesney, Thornton never forgot about the Ramones project. So in September of 2004, he embarked on the project as sort of a goof. After Pan for Punks 2005 release, he sent copies to Ramones publicist Ida Langsam ‘— another lark.

‘“All of a sudden I heard from their publicist saying she wants to represent me,’” Thornton says.

The brother of the late Joey Ramone also lists Pan for Punks as his favorite tribute album. Within a week of hearing from Langsam, Thornton had his first interview with Spin shortly thereafter and has since been reviewed by more than 30 publications.

MTV’s Kurt Loder and journalists from National Public Radio have contacted him, but the most exciting development will take place in the next month when Thornton travels to New York for the 5th annual Joey Ramone Birthday Bash. He’ll be sharing the stage with the Strokes, MC5, the Alarm and some of the Sex Pistols.

‘“It’s just been totally nuts,’” he says. ‘“This Ramones thing has been pretty cool because it’s given me some street cred. It’s let me reach out to an audience that might not otherwise ever listen to a steel pan album.’”

When the notoriety stemming from the Ramones tribute dies down, Thornton’s got a couple other albums that have yet to be released. He hopes some of the punk fans who have heard the album will give more traditional steel pan music a try.

Every Monday he’s in town, he teaches a group of 50 to 65-year-old women known as the Bahama Mamas. A couple of area kids also take lessons from him. Beyond that, he’s been gigging, producing bands and trying to pay his bills.

His radius for pan steel performances encompasses Atlanta, Hilton Head and Washington, DC. But you can still catch Thornton or one of his protégés playing the Triad every now and then. In between shows, he will be honing his chops to spread the love. The fraternity of steel pan players is still pretty small, but Thornton is helping it grow.

‘“I don’t know, I guess the steel pan is pretty difficult,’” he says. ‘“You do have to work hard at it. But it doesn’t feel like work because it is the most fun instrument.’”

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