It’s been two years since the Hamilton Hill Steel Drum Band nearly made it to the top — but lost the final competition standing between them and national television.
Although devastating at the time, the Schenectady teens’ story has now been turned into a children’s book about creating music, reaching for glory and, in the end, coping with defeat.
Author Trish Marx of New York City and photographer Ellen Senisi of Schenectady — whose photos are on every page — will sign copies of “Steel Drumming at the Apollo” from 1 to 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Open Door Bookstore on Jay Street.
Senisi, a professional author and photographer, was on hand to photograph the band’s rise to fame because her son Steven is one of the band members.
She’s used to looking for stories in her professional life, but she didn’t realize that her son’s musical adventure would make a good book until they were already on their way to the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem.
That’s why there’s only one picture in the book of the band’s winning performance at Proctors, which made the drummers eligible for a show at the Apollo.
Senisi went to Proctors to cheer for her son, but she didn’t expect it to be a big deal.
“When they won, I was stunned. There were mostly adults competing in that competition,” she said.
She hadn’t even brought her camera — a terrible realization for a professional photographer who was watching her son’s greatest success. She had to borrow another parent’s video of the event to capture her own still shots.
ALMOST TOP DOG
The band went on to win second place at three Apollo competitions, earning them the right to play in the Super Top Dog contest. If they won, they would have been able to perform on television. They lost.
At the time, band members said they couldn’t believe they had even made it to the Super Top Dog. Now, as the steel pan drum players critique the skills they had back then, they make it sound like they still can’t understand how they got there.
“Now I’ve learned how to actually play a pan,” said Ahmel Williams. “Before I used to pound on a pan. Now I know the harder you play on a pan, the more damaged it gets.”
Younger brother Aaron, who was 15 and the youngest member of the band when they went to Apollo, said he barely knew enough notes to play their only competition song. He definitely didn’t know enough to get wild with the music the way steel drumming should be, he added.
“There’s a lot of improv involved, and to do improv you have to know scales, a lot of scales. I didn’t know too many,” he said.
The brothers said they’d probably do much better if they tried the Apollo competition again.
But now, they said, they don’t need to win at the famed Harlem venue.
“At first I wanted to. Now I’m involved in so many other things,” Aaron said, rattling off the gigs he has scheduled. “We’ve been doing a lot of shows. I do feel bad that we lost, but we got so much out of it, in terms of shows.”
His older brother Ahmel added that the competition didn’t just give them great publicity. It taught them how to perform.
As the book chronicles, the band never planned to have drummers abandon their instruments to leap, flip and dance across the stage. That just occurred to them in the middle of their Apollo performances. The audience loved it and soon their act included gymnastics. The book features a picture of one band member completely upside-down, in midair, during the final show.
Even though they’ve spent two years polishing their performance, Ahmel said he has no interest in going back.
“It was a good experience, but I don’t think I’d do that again,” he said.
He wants to win fame the old-fashioned way — by winning over new fans, not by packing the crowd. The trick at Apollo is to bring busloads of fans, because the band with the loudest cheers wins.
“It doesn’t depend on how good your talent is. It depends on how many people you bring,” he said.
In his bid for fans, he’s majoring in music and writing rap songs that he hopes will rebuild the genre’s reputation.
“Nowadays the whole hiphop/rap era is, well, really terrible,” he said. “I want to bring it back to where you can listen to it in front of your family, not listen and go kill someone.”
Aaron, who is a senior at Schenectady High School, is now teaching youngsters who wander into the Hamilton Hill Arts Center like he did, seven years ago, and ask to play the unusual drums.
“The person who taught us couldn’t make it out here so often because he lives so far away,” Aaron said. “It’s kind of giving my appreciation back to the arts center. After all, I learned the same way.”
He teaches a group of girls who have set up their own steel drum band. They’ve been dubbed the “Second Generation.”
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