It seems Othello Molineaux’s career path was set by the time he was 11 years old.
He surprised his next-door neighbors with a drum they needed for their band and almost wound up in jail. This was no ordinary drum.
It was a discarded five-gallon paint pan and when he took it from another neighbor’s yard she called the police. Molineaux explained he needed the pan to make a steel drum so the men could make melodic music.
Fiddling with the drum that morning, Molineaux began a musical journey that would see him take the humble steel pan to the most prestigious concert halls on the planet. He has done this many times over.
South Floridians will, once again, get a chance to relive with Molineaux the journey from the streets of his native Trinidad and Tobago to playing alongside one of the world’s most revered bassist at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Caleb Center in Liberty City.
“His music is beautiful,” said Silvano Monasterios, who accompany Molineaux on the piano. “His voice was the steel drum and he found his voice on the steel drum. His instrument has limitations that he overcomes with his artistry and you wouldn’t know that.”
Growing up in a middle class home of educators in Trinidad, the last thing anyone expected of Molineaux was that he would pick up a street art form. But artist he had to be. He was taught the piano and played well. But when he heard the sounds that could come from a steel pan, he started on a quest to get the steel pan used as a conventional musical instrument, that it could be a melodic instrument as well as give the sounds of percussions or drumming.
“People always thought of the steel drum as a touristy type of instrument and I needed them to see its potential,” Molineaux, 71 said from his South Miami home. “I wanted to get universal recognition for the instrument, as opposed to something tourists rave about.”
The roots of steel pan music sprouted in Trinidad, where men would hit the streets with different lengths, weight and widths of bamboo, a drumming tradition stemming from Africa called Tamboo Bamboo. The art form evolved and bamboo was used to hit a pan. Soon drummers realized that when they hit the pan in different places different sounds came out.
Steel drums started as beaten and reshaped used oil drums. Today they are made of chrome and can be customized.
Molineaux gives a history lesson: “By the Second World War, they banned the guys from coming on the street and beating. By the time the war was over, the men had been inside for four years and they used the time to do research.
The research Molineaux is talking about is also known as tuning the pan or drum. It is at tuning drums and coaxing melody out of them that makes Molineaux unique among steel pan players. He tuned drums for his band, which he founded at age 17. Most importantly, he can direct tuners to make his drums sing.
“Back then, the tuner was never challenged to do certain things and when I started to play, I challenged my tuner to give me better sound,” Molineaux said.
To get recognition for the steel pan, Molineaux took his music on the road, starting with educators. He went to ministry of Education in the U.S. Virgin Islands, got steel pan music added to the curriculum and encouraged teachers to obtain the proper music education. Then he went into the wider world.
In South Florida, Molineaux introduced steel pan music to educational institutions — from public schools to colleges. He has taught master classes at the University of Miami and is a regular visitor to the music classes of Fred Wickstrom, founder of UM’s percussion program. He also teaches a course called “Miami’s Multicultural Musical Heritage.”
Wickstrom has one word to describe Molineaux: genius.
“He is Miami’s hidden treasure. When I invite him to my classes, I have a hard time deciding whether he comes when we talk about Trinidad or when we talk about jazz. Usually it is when we talk about jazz,” Wickstrom said.
Molineaux has played several venues in South Florida, from South Beach to Art in the Park, but he seems to keep a low profile here. He was inducted in the South Florida Jazz Hall of Fame in 2009—a tribute he says belong more to the instrument than to the player.
His voice rises clearly above background meditation music when he talks about his successes in getting steel drum music accepted and revered in places like Switzerland, Germany and Japan.
“They are interested in the drums and the songs,” Molineaux said. “There are lots and lots of steel bands just about everywhere now.”
Molineaux’s talent on the steel drum caught the attention of bassist Jaco Pastorius. He has also performed with Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, Dizzy Gillespie and the band Chicago. Pastorius, who lived in South Florida before his death in 1987, added Molineaux to his renown band.
Randy Brecker, a trumper in Pastorius’ band, believes Molineaux is responsible for the popularity of jazz pan music. He wasn’t surprised when Patorius asked him to tour with them.
“It was pretty original thing. Jaco came up with a lot of original ideas,” Brecker said. “We had original color. And he could play any foil for us. We would bounce everything off Othello. He was like the center of the stage.”
Carolyn Guniss may be reached at Gunisscarolyn@msn.com.
Photo: Othello Molineaux