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Nashville’s Mat Britain teaching football players, playing pan on country hits

Published: 
Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Nashville, Tennessee, like much of America’s heartland, is ruled by college football and country music. With little Caribbean diaspora to show, the region may seem somewhat foreboding for steelpan fanatics.

Yet Mat Britain has carved out a career in Nashville as a steelband educator and leading pannist for the commercial music recording industry by embracing both football and country music.

Britain’s varied career finds him working across a diverse spectrum of music and on any given day you can find him on radio playing steelpan solos on number one country hits by artistes the likes of Kenny Chesney to leading the First & Ten Steelband at Vanderbilt University’s famed Blair School of music.

Mat Britain’s journey to a career in steelpan is, in many ways, somewhat typical for pannists in America. He first heard steelpan later in life, as a college percussion major at Wichita State University.

It was there, in Wichita, that Britain became mesmerised by the steelpan, taken with pan and dedicated to carving a career as a pannist. Britain started playing in the university steelband at Wichita State University and he was also a core member of a small gigging world music band that included Dan Moore—a fellow percussion student who was into playing mallet percussion instruments (marimba, vibes, etc).

The experience was transformative and set Britain on a path towards a career as a freelance musician. “Andy Narell used to come to Wichita State a few times a year and was instrumental in getting our steelband programme, and me personally, off to a good start” says Britain.

Nashville Pied Piper of pan After college, Britain moved from Wichita to Cincinnati, Ohio where he formed, and for several years directed, the Lockland Schools Steelband programme, one of the first programmes in the area, an important local high school steelband. In addition to his teaching, Britain supported himself playing pan and he was a regular gigging pannist performing in a variety of settings throughout the Cincinnati area.

While in Cincinnati he studied informally with Othello Molineaux who played at a local jazz venue a few times every year.

By the early 1990s, Britain’s work in Cincinnati had grown stale and wanderlust was taking over. He wanted to expand his musical horizons and decided to move to Nashville, Tennessee, which, in addition to being the mecca of Country music industry, is an important commercial music hub in the United States that draws musicians from across the world.

Despite its musical importance, however, there was almost no steelpan players in Nashville in 1993. Soon after his relocation to the area, other young pannists followed Britain to Nashville for one reason or another and many of these pannists decided to work together to form the Deep Grooves Steel Drum Band.

The band’s reputation spread fast and the Deep Grooves Steel Drum Band became the primary professional steelband in Nashville for many years.

Britain has always been a dedicated pan educator and upon his relocation to Nashville he set about forming steelbands at Vanderbilt University.

Unlike Ohio which boasts a vibrant school pan scene, the school steelband scene in Nashville has been slow to develop, especially compared to other places such as the abovementioned Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, or Florida.

At the time of his arrival to Nashville, there was only one middle school steelband programme.

The region was also not privy to the wealth of primary, high school, or after school programmes in other parts of the country, and currently, besides Vanderbilt University, the only other local tertiary institutions with steelbands are Belmont University and Middle Tennessee State University.

Pan in sports

Britain leads six bands at Vanderbilt University and this includes four student bands ranging from beginning to advanced levels, and two others comprised of adults over the age of 50 as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

Needless to say, his student population is diverse. Without question, however, the most unique steelband at Vanderbilt University is the First and Ten Steelband which is comprised entirely of Vanderbilt University football players.

The First & Ten Steelband was started in 2006 in the most unexpected way.

The year before Britain had one football student who joined to get an arts credit. They met on Sundays, which is typically a day of rest for college football players who play games on Saturdays.

The student had so much fun that the word spread throughout the football team that steelband class was fun and by the next year there were so many they formed their own.

According to Britain, the athletes are surprisingly good at learning and playing steelpan.

Perhaps, he speculates it is a result of their drive to achieve. Regardless, Vanderbilt boasts the only steelband composed entirely of scholarship athletes and the university created a short video to showcase the players on the field and playing pan.

What began as a spark is now a flame and the First & Ten Steelband has become an established tradition for the Vanderbilt University football programme.

Said Britain: “One of the best things about teaching these student athletes is giving them the opportunity to experience making music, often for the very first time. Some of them have been playing football since they were eight or nine-years-old and never had the chance to learn an instrument or play in a band.

“At the end of each semester the First & Ten band plays on our steelband concert. Some of them are very nervous because they have never played an instrument, especially in front of 300-400 people. It is always a thrill when they finish their performance to enthusiastic applause and see the sense of pride and accomplishment literally beaming from these guys.

“I feel lucky that I can help facilitate that. It’s also a great deal of fun to watch them play college football and sometimes make it to the NFL (National Football League).”

Besides his teaching, Matt Britain is an accomplished gigging and session musician and plays for various projects of all sorts in Nashville.

Perhaps none of his years of previous work has given him the cache as the steelpan solo and groove that Britain recorded for country music star Kenny Chesney’s number one hit, When the Sun Goes Down (2004).

The connection between Britain and Chesney came serendipitously after Britain had played a pool party for Chesney and months later got a call to get to the recording studio to record the tracks.

Since then Britain has recorded steelpan tracks for several other Kenny Chesney albums, which has led to work with other country music artists from legend Lee Greenwood to Clay Walker.

Britain said: “Most of the time there is no sheet music for a Nashville session other than possibly a chord chart. It’s essential to be able to improvise and be able to quickly learn melodies by ear. Often the producer or artist will sing a part and ask you to play it or harmonise the part. It’s much like learning a Panorama piece; hear it and quickly be able to repeat it back perfectly.

The instability of a career as a freelance musician aside, one stable in Britain’s career has been his partnership with Dan Moore, an accomplished mallet percussionist who is Director of percussion studies at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. Britain and Moore are old friends who first began performing together in the early 1980s. The Britain/Moore Duo is primarily a steelpan-marimba duo and was created after the pair were inspired by a Caribbean Music Project steelpan/marimba duo played by Andy Narell and Dave Samuels in 1983.

Since their inception, the Britain/Moore steelpan/marimba duo has performed throughout the United States and since 1986 the pair has performed short tours and recorded three CDs together.

Britain and Moore create their own unique repertoire for their performances and recordings. The pair is committed to expanding the boundaries and possibilities of steelpan music in this setting the Britain/Moore repertoire features a wide variety of world rhythms and styles.

“Playing music with Dan Moore for so many years has really been a blessing. We are the best of friends both on and off the stage and I think our music reflects that connection,” said Britain.

Drinking from the fountain of pan

Like other American pannists, Britain has traveled to the Mecca of pan to experience playing in Trinidad’s annual Panorama competition. He played tenor pan with the Renegades in 1992 (Bee’s Melody) under Jit Samaroo and again in 2013 (Shock Attack) with Duvonne Stewart.

He said: “Living with a family right by Renegades yard for nearly a month in 1992 and going through the Panorama process was truly life-changing. I came out a better pannist and a better person.”

Recent changes in the Nashville music industry have led to most gigging work in the area coming in the form of single or duets with backing tracks and there is less studio session/recording work post-recession.
Yet, though his diverse array of steelband activities Britain presses on. Through gigging, record sessions, teaching, and touring—Mat Britain has a unique and full life devoted to steelpan.

n RAY FUNK is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. DR ANDREW MARTIN is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.

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