fmu-steel-pan-band_web.jpgMIAMI GARDENS — Steel pan music, renown for taking center stage during carnivals and other Caribbean music festivities, will get an extra boost of attention at Florida Memorial University, South Florida’s only historically black institution of higher learning.
The Knight Foundation recently awarded $80,000 to the school’s Steel Band program. The money will fund scholarships for students who are pursuing a music degree with a specialty in steel band playing.

The United Negro College Fund applied for the grant on the school’s behalf. UNCF is the nation’s oldest and most successful minority higher education assistance organization. Its mission is to increase minority degree attainment by reducing financial barriers to college.

At least 15 to 20 FMU students will receive scholarships. The money will also be used to fund trips nationally and internationally so the band can participate in major festivals and music competitions, said Dawn Batson, chair of the school’s Performing & Visual Arts Program.

“This grant will allow us to continue to explore the cultures of the world and give our students the ability to make use of their talents,’’  said Batson, who initiated the Steel Band program ten years ago and also serves as the band’s director.

The band, with over 40 members, has performed at major events, including alongside rapper Ludacris at the 2005 MTV Video Music Awards show at the AmericanAirlines Arena. A former member has performed with tap dancer Savion Glover.

The group has also won many awards, including first place at the World Steel Band Festival in Trinidad, the first time a band from outside of Trinidad has won the competition, Batson said.

The steel pan is defined as a pitched percussion instrument made from a 55-gallon drum. The musical form originated on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago, but is also one of the most diverse musical instruments, Batson said.

“We can play anything on pan – gospel, hip-hop, jazz, R&B,’’ Batson said.

The Knight Foundation awarded a total of $3.7 million to 20 winners of the 2009 Knight Arts Challenge. The winners were selected from 1,562 applications.

Winners of the challenge, a community-wide contest to find the best ideas for the arts in South Florida, were feted at an awards dinner on Nov. 30, 2009.

“The arts, like few other things, can connect people and provide the experiences that build great cities.” said Dennis Scholl, the Knight Foundation’s Miami program director.

Photo: Florida Memorial University’s Steel Pan band