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Petoskey Steel Drum Band returns to Mardi Gras

The Petoskey Steel Drum Band performs during the Cherry Royale Parade on Front Street in Traverse City on Saturday, July 9.
Mike Krebs/Traverse City Record-Eagle
The Petoskey Steel Drum Band performs during the Cherry Royale Parade on Front Street in Traverse City on Saturday, July 9.

The tropical sounds synonymous with steel drum music may elicit thoughts of a nice warm beach, sand between your toes or palm trees swaying in the breeze – probably not a bitter northern Michigan winter.

But that’s exactly where the Petoskey Steel Drum Band geared up for its biggest performance since before the pandemic.

The band traveled to New Orleans to perform in three Mardi Gras parades, each attracting thousands of tourists.

This group of high schoolers may not be the only steel drum band in the country, but Band Director Duane Wilson said it's certainly one of the busiest.

“If you look at our summer schedule, it's significantly more busy than anybody else,” Wilson said. “We're probably one of the bigger ones in the state of Michigan and there are steel bands throughout the country.”

Throughout northern Michigan though, the band members are like local celebrities. Their schedule is often packed with parades, county fairs and community events.

Started in 1997, the Petoskey Steel Drum Band blends the tropical sounds of Trinidad and Tobago. But, the roots of steel drum music stem back even further to West African cultures.

The silver pans are tuned using hammers and are played using sticks tipped with rubber. The bass drums are 55 gallon industrial barrels played with mallets.

They’re easily spotted by a signature bright-red, double-decker trailer, which members call “the bus.”

Senior band member and lead drummer Reagan Walsh said Michigan crowds go wild for the tropical sounds.

“You've never heard a Trinidad Steel Drum Band run by high school students from Northern Michigan. That's so completely rare,” Walsh said. “When we're performing, people have never seen a Steel Drum Band before. So it just lights up people's faces.”

Walsh has been a member of the Steel Drum Band her entire high school career. But, like many of her classmates, she didn’t have a “normal” high school experience. Many of the upperclassmen members had crucial early performances canceled by the pandemic.

“Kids were out for weeks on end with quarantine, but they still kept practicing and practicing,” Wilson said. “Imagine being a football team practicing and practicing and not having any games. That’s what it felt like for a while.”

To make up for that lost experience, Steel Drum Band became a two-hour block class when the virus was at its peak.

But students say it was still difficult because much of their skill is built by playing outside the classroom.

Now, after more than a year-and-a-half of being back to a normal routine – the band is gearing up for a wild and rowdy New Orleans Mardi Gras.

Preparing for the trip was no easy feat, Wilson said. It involves organizing transportation and lodging for around 40 kids, their parents and a double decker parade float. Not to mention over 165,000 beads to toss to the audience.

Wilson estimates the grand total came out to over $100,000. Much of that is paid for by the students and a large amount of fundraising.

The students say it's all worth it.

Lead pan player Eve Willoughby says she’s excited for the cultural experience of seeing performers from around the world.

“I'm excited for everything,” she said. “But I'm mostly excited for the Bacchus Parade because there's going to be a lot of different marching bands there with sounds and drum lines, unlike anything we have up here in the North.”

For lead singer Ariel Nguyen, it’s about spending time with some of her closest friends.

“This is our family,” she said. “After four years with them you meet so many people and collaborate with them. It’s just such a great opportunity to have.”

The students will also get to visit museums and historical sights like the famous French Quarter and see some New Orleans jazz live and in-person.

Wilson says it's just the kind of thing they need after a pretty dormant couple of years.

“They come in every day, wanting to do a better job,” Wilson said. “A lot of people would shut down after me saying no, that's not right, we gotta go back and do it again for the ten-millionth time. But these kids just keep trying to get better and better and it's really exciting to watch them grow.”

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.