- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

The tinny, tinkly sound of calypso rhythms beaten on oil drums rolls out from a basement stage in a police club in Northeast Washington. Twelve of the 16 members of the East of the River Police Boys and Girls Steelband are hard at work at a Saturday-afternoon practice under the eye of their musical director, Roger Greenidge.

A row of family members mothers, grandmothers, sisters and brothers and other supporters watch from the sidelines, calling out encouragement and admonishment in equal measure.

The children, ages 11 to 17, are members of a group that founder Gladys W. Bray, a retired D.C. public-schools teacher, calls a "community-based, risk-focused, substance-abuse-prevention program." All of the children are residents of the District's wards east of the Anacostia River. All have been welcomed to play steelpan music to learn, to be motivated, to be inspired.

Steelpan music was chosen to anchor the children because of its link to black and Afro-Caribbean cultures. The steel band is rooted in the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, where 19th-century African and Indian slaves created instruments from available resources such as pots, pans, oil drums and garbage cans.

Pan bands today may blend the sounds of tenor pans, which have the highest note range, and double second and cello pans, which function like rhythm guitars. The bass tenor pans are uncut oil drums that keep a steady melodic pattern, and other instruments, such as cowbells or bongo drums, serve as the rhythm section.

This East of the River group of boys and girls is the second incarnation of the band, funded principally by government and corporate grants. Members of the original band, formed in 1992 by Mrs. Bray, all have stayed out of trouble, she says, each one attending college or trade school or volunteering for military service.

"We didn't lose not one to the streets," Mrs. Bray says proudly.

These are streets with the lowest per-capita income and the highest dropout rates in the District, according to the D.C. Office of Planning and D.C. Public Schools.

The band "teaches something other than violence," says Willie Dandridge, 6th District commander in charge of the Metropolitan Boys and Girls Club, which sponsors the group.

"Some of the kids used to have a few problems," he says. "From the law-enforcement perspective to know that somebody cares, to give them a cultural as well as academic background it makes them more well-rounded and prepares them better for real life."

Take Christopher Jackson, for example. The 12-year-old, who plays the guitar pan, has "blossomed since he's interacted with the police officers and the band," Mr. Dandridge says. "He's a totally different kid. His studies, his behavior have improved his whole outlook is better."

Mary D. Jackson, the band's parent coordinator, agrees. She and her husband of 43 years, John, are raising grandchildren Christopher and his two younger brothers.

"The commander saw the rebellious side of Christopher," Mrs. Jackson says. "But [Christophers] uncle is a police officer, too, so Christopher knew what lines he couldn't cross. Still, there's something about this music. It's in his blood. I thought this band would be the best thing."

Maybe it is.

"I'm trying to be responsible for my actions and be responsible to go places by myself," Christopher says during a break. "And it keeps me off the streets."

"This is what keeps kids out of trouble," adds his grandmother. "Christopher is a well-rounded child who needs to be kept busy so he doesn't get into anything negative."

Monique Peters, 14, who plays the double seconds, joined the band as a tribute to her heritage.

"My mother's from Trinidad and that's where the pan originated. I heard the word and I came on down here," she says. "My father insists I make straight A's. Usually I do. But if I wasn't here, I'd be going outside every day, and the neighborhood isn't so good."

Instead, she and the other members of East of the River attend practice twice weekly while juggling an impressive touring calendar. In February alone, the children performed at venues ranging from the National Crime Prevention Council's Reception in Arlington to the Black Heritage Festival in Savannah, Ga.

Every other year, the steel band returns to its roots, traveling to Trinidad and Tobago to honor a cultural-exchange agreement with police youth clubs in the islands.

"Children need culture," Mrs. Jackson says. "We really fight for the issues of our children over here, because these children have gotten the worst of everything social services, recreation and education. This music is going to open Christopher's eyes to what's outside of the box. As he grows up, he's really going to understand."


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