When Cliff Alexis moved from Trinidad to America in 1965, he came with $5 in his pocket and the dream of playing the steel drum.
He formed a steelband and traveled around the United States, but somehow, he still felt unsatisfied. It was only when he began teaching steelpan that he says he fulfilled his dream and found his true passion and calling in life.
In 1985, Alexis joined the Northern Illinois University music staff. In September 2016, he retired from his role as co-director of the NIU Steelband. Although he has retired, he continues to perform with the band and compose and arrange its music.
On Friday, 80-year-old Alexis received an honorary doctoral degree during the NIU Graduate School commencement ceremony.
Yuko Asada, NIU Steelband’s new co-director, said that Alexis’ honorary doctorate is a way to recognize him for his years of work and dedication at NIU and in the steel drum world.
“The NIU Steelband would not be what it is today without Cliff,” Asada said. “Many colleges and universities have steelbands, but NIU was the first to offer a BA and MA in steelband performance. So many students have been able to come to perform, play and learn. He has educated students from all over the world, and has given them the opportunity to be the next leaders.”
MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton met with Alexis to discuss the steel drum, the NIU Steelband and why performing and teaching the steel drum is important.
Milton: Can you tell me more about the instrument that you play?
Alexis: I play the steel drum, also known as a steelpan. It’s a 55-gallon oil drum that is turned into a musical instrument. When many people see and hear me playing the steel drum for the first time, they think that I have a record player or hidden organ somewhere. Not so – it can be used to represent any instrument you can think of. It has 12 notes and a scale. You can play traditional music or anything possible.
Milton: When did you start playing the steel drum?
Alexis: I started playing the steel drum at age 14 in Trinidad. At that time, it was the thing to do, to play in a steelband. I started in a very poor neighborhood in Trinidad. When I started, it was all males playing at that time. My friends and I loved it. We would dance and sing and have a good time. We would perform mostly outdoors and Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations. I played in several bands.
Milton: How did you come to America?
Alexis: In 1962, the National Steelband of Trinidad and Tobago was formed. There were 44 players, and I was one. There was a tour to come to America with only 22 of the players. I was one of those 22. We went to perform at a moral rearmament conference and performed for two weeks in small cities along the coast of Michigan. Then we played all over: Trinidad, Colorado, Oklahoma City, Kentucky, West Virginia, St. Louis. We stayed in America for a few weeks. That was in 1964.
Milton: Did you stay in America after the tour?
Alexis: During the trip, I said to myself, “Any time I’m going back to Trinidad, I’m not staying.” I came back to America in April 1965, and I stayed. I came to America, to Brooklyn, New York, with $5 in my pocket. ... I just knew I didn’t want to go back to Trinidad. That’s when I met a lady, got married and stayed in Brooklyn.
Milton: Did you return to Trinidad?
Alexis: In 1967, I went back to Trinidad for Carnival. When I came back to Brooklyn, I wanted to start my own steelband. I wanted to continue to play. People wanted me to find a job and play part-time. I took a job at a pocketbook factory. I lasted half a day. At lunch time, I told them, “I’ll be right back.” I never went back, not even for the pay. I also worked at a scale company for two days. I didn’t come here to work a regular job. I came here to play music.
Milton: Is that when you started playing music with a band?
Alexis: I started playing around, here and there, and formed my own band. We played and traveled to every state and every major city. I lived for two months in Hollywood. We traveled the highways and byways. We saw Reno, Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. We traveled by car and van. We played at shopping centers, state fairs and events. It still wasn’t satisfying to me. I quit that and moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where my ex-wife moved.
Milton: What did you do in Minnesota?
Alexis: That was 1971 or 1972, when there were still segregation guidelines. The children had different learning centers to integrate. I went to a school’s performing arts center. True story: I took a pan and entered the school. I asked for the office and started playing. People were looking at me in awe. Many had never saw the instrument or heard a steelband before. I told them, “I was in Minneapolis earlier and they wanted to hire me.” Of course, that wasn’t true. They didn’t want me to leave, so they gave me a job.
Milton: What did you do at the performing arts center?
Alexis: They sent me to different schools, and students came to the learning center for steelband. I taught steelband for 14 years. I was tired of traveling and making a pittance for 15 minutes of an opening act.
Milton: How did you come to NIU?
Alexis: I was building and tuning the instruments as another way to move ahead. I made the steel drums for the US Navy Steelband. The head of percussion at NIU at the time, Al O’Connor, saw the instruments I made. He spent two years trying to track me down. In 1985, when he finally got ahold of me, he ordered some drums from me. He told me that any time he would get an important position at the university, he was going to hire me. He got that position in 1986, as an assistant chairman, I think, and he called me. I took a leave of absence from my job teaching in Minnesota and decided that if I didn’t like the job at NIU, I would return. But I liked it here and decided to stay.
Milton: What was the hiring process like?
Alexis: O’Connor told Human Resources, “This is the guy I want.” They said that it doesn’t work that way and that they would have to examine me. That spring, I had to take a test. It was a seven-hour test, and I completed it in four hours. Many of the questions were not applicable to the job or what I do. I did the test and got an 84 out of 100. I was hired first as a musical instrument technician and then as a musical instrument specialist.
Milton: Did you form the NIU Steelband?
Alexis: The NIU Steelband was already formed by O’Connor in 1973. I was building and tuning instruments and was the co-director of the band. I also composed and arranged music for the band. I was doing something I always wanted. I really, really wanted to be in education and to work in a school. It has been very rewarding. We went to Taiwan twice. In 2000, we came in second at the Trinidad Steelband Festival.
Milton: What does receiving the honorary degree mean to you?
Alexis: In Trinidad, I completed high school only. I will be receiving an honorary doctoral degree in Human Letters. It’s unbelievable, incredible to say the least. I can’t thank NIU enough. I want to also thank all of the steelband players in the world, especially those in Trinidad. The present head of steelband studies, Professor Liam Teague, is also from Trinidad. He’s my best friend, and I would also like to thank him.
Milton: What are your plans for the future?
Alexis: I lost my mom at 4 and my dad at 11. I was one of five kids, and it was very tough. I was independent and kept on trying to succeed. By working, performing and teaching steelband at NIU, I have been able to live my dream. I will still play with the band. As long as I live, NIU Steelband is my life. I will continue to do what I do. That’s what I love. As long as the NIU Steelband is here, I’ll be here.