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USM Steel Pan Orchestra to Celebrate 30th Anniversary

Fri, 05/24/2024 - 12:41pm | By: Ivonne Kawas


For 30 years, The University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) Steel Pan Orchestra (SoMiSPO), under the baton of Dr. John Wooton, professor of percussion in the School of Music, has been delighting Hattiesburg with the rich and vibrant culture of steel pan music from Trinidad and Tobago — the southernmost island country in the Caribbean.


Founded in the Spring of 1994 by Dr. Wooton, the group started off as a six-piece ensemble thanks to the support provided by former University President, Dr. Aubrey K. Lucas. Fast-forward to today, the ensemble has grown to 40 members representing different voices in the steel band instrumentation family and various percussion instruments known as the “Engine Room.”

Dr. Colin McKenzie, director of the School of Music, commemorates its trajectory, stating: “SoMiSPO is one of the truly outstanding and unique offerings within our School of Music. The group is known internationally as a leader in the realm of steel pan performance. The roster of guest artists who have performed with this group is incredibly impressive, affording students throughout the decades the opportunity to perform with some of the biggest names in music from around the globe.” 

The Beginnings of SoMiSPO: From a Dream to Reality

Dr. Wooton was first exposed to steel pans while attending graduate school at the University of North Texas (UNT) in 1985-88, where he served as a graduate assistant for the drum line. He recalls how a specific moment would later inspire the founding of the group when he started to work at USM.

“I first learned about steel pans at UNT, while serving as the GA for the drum line,” said Dr. Wooton. “One day, Dr. Ellie Mannette came to the University to tune the steel band, which takes a couple of days. I had heard of the legend, and I wanted to meet him.” 

Dr. Mannette, known as the “Father of the Steel Pan,” is the first person to have built a steel pan out of a 55-gallon oil barrel at the age of 17 in Port of Spain in Trinidad. Dr. Wooton says he got to meet the legend, and in that moment, he fell in love with the instrument and its history.

“I watched Dr. Mannette tune pans and tell stories for hours,” said Dr. Wooton. “As I started my role at USM in 1992, I spent the first year recruiting and getting the Percussion Studio organized. A year later, once I completed my dissertation, I took steps to initiate SoMiSPO, whose instruments were created and tuned by the legend himself.

“I went straight to the top to pitch this dream of mine to Dr. Lucas,” shared Dr. Wooton. “Thanks to his support, I was able to make it a reality through the purchase of four steel pan voices and a drum set to start the six-piece ensemble.”

The SoMiSPO Experience: Captivating Audiences Across the Nation

In its early days, the band became known for its repertoire rich with hits from Jimmy Buffett, Bob Marley, and Harry Belafonte. Today, its vibrant and dynamic repertoire spans to traditional calypso and soca tunes, Cuban and jazz music, and even the most challenging Panorama tunes originating from Trinidad.

SoMiSPO has performed with prestigious guest artists, who often praise the ensemble as “one of the very best steel pan orchestras in the Nation.”

Among the roster of artists: Dr. Mannette, Father of the Steel Drum; Andy Narell, world-renowned recording artist; Robert Greenidge, member of Jimmy Buffett’s Coral Reefer Band; Liam Teague, director of steelpan studies at the University of Northern Illinois; and Ray Holman, another legend from Trinidad.

“We were very fortunate to have Dr. Mannette on campus several times, playing a pivotal role in our growth,” said Dr. Wooton. “Another artist who made a lasting impact was Narell, gracing us with his presence seven times. SoMiSPO not only frequently plays his music but also had the opportunity to record a CD with him.”

The epic Narell CD includes several of his compositions, the Southern Miss Fight Song on steel pans, and a two-movement piece commissioned by SoMiSPO and composed by Brazilian composer Ney Rosauro, entitled “Two Brazilian Steel Dances.”

“All our performances with guest artists have been special to us,” added Dr. Wooton. “Those are the moments and interactions that our students and alumni cherish the most.”

Steel Pan Orchestra (SoMiSPO)


Samuel Martinez, from Kenner, La. majoring in business administration, first heard about SoMiSPO when he was in high school and says, “he was instantly captivated by the vibrant rhythms.” He later became a member and shares his experience.

“Starting off playing in the Percussion Studio's Engine Room as a freshman was an experience beyond my comfort zone,” said Martinez. “Progressing to double seconds the following year coincided with Narell's visit, enriching my experience.

“Being a member of SoMiSPO means engaging with one of the Nation's most unique ensembles, offering a refreshing shift from my regular drumming routine,” added Martinez. “A specific moment that had a lasting impact on me was my first concert at the Thirsty Hippo, where I truly connected with the music. Post-graduation, I aspire to pursue music at a higher level in Austin, Texas.”

Steel Pan Orchestra (SoMiSPO)

Nathaniel Sanders, from Hurley, Miss. pursuing a DMA (Percussion Performance), first experienced SoMiSPO through its Community Steel Band, led by alumna Josanne Francis.

“When I was a junior in high school, I joined the Community Steel band, an auxiliary group within the steel band program made up of members of the community and some university students,” said Sanders. “I had plans of attending Southern Miss, so I took the opportunity to get an early start. After graduating high school, I joined as a college freshman and played lead pan. Since then, the group has become very near and dear to me.”

In 2020, Sanders returned to Southern Miss for graduate school, now playing drum set for SoMiSPO, while also directing the second steel band, Pianissimo, a beginner band that acts as a stepping-stone to SoMiSPO.

“I’ve met many of my closest friends here, and many of our fondest memories revolve around this ensemble,” said Sander. “It has also provided us with professional connections that have contributed heavily to our careers. Today, I’m composing new music, which I hope to publish soon.”

Steel Pan Orchestra (SoMiSPO)


For distinguished alumna of the SoMiSPO, Josanne Francis, the ensemble also influenced her life and career trajectory. Hailing from the twin-island Republic of Trinidad & Tobago, she obtained her Bachelor's in Music Education at USM in 2012, a Master’s in Steelpan Performance at Northern Illinois Univ. in 2014, and a PhD in Music Education at University of Maryland in 2024.

She is an internationally known steelpan performer and music educator. Francis’ music is praised for catapulting listeners into a unique and exceptional place. Her talents have taken her to perform at venues such as the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and Strathmore Music Center. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Cultural Academy for Excellence, Inc. and runs her very own educational steelpan program Steel on Wheels, which aims to eliminate barriers to the creation and development of steel bands and varied percussion ensembles.

Francis fondly recalls her time as a member of SoMiSPO, saying, “This marked my debut leading a Community Steel Band, fueled by my deep passion for Latin American and Caribbean music.

“Arriving in Hattiesburg as an international student, I faced temporary housing uncertainty until Dr. Wooton solicited the generous support of the Bishops (Don and Sharon Bishop),” she added. “Their hospitality extended beyond a temporary stay; they embraced me as family, earning the endearing titles of Aunty Sharon and Uncle Don. Over a decade later, they remain pivotal figures and unwavering supporters in my life.”

For any incoming students who desire to join the ensemble, Francis encourages, “You have a unique opportunity to be a part of and share a culture that is rich and colorful. Just have fun and appreciate the life-changing experience of being a part of something special—an ensemble that captivates audiences across the Nation.”

SoMiSPO Today: Celebrating Its 30th Anniversary

The ensemble has established itself as a premier steel band program, renowned for its dynamic performances. This recognition has led to invitations to esteemed festivals nationwide, including a recent appearance at Festival International in Lafayette, La.

At Southern Miss, many students arrive without prior experience with steel pans, making it a distinctive educational opportunity for those interested in exploring the instrument and its ties to Latin American and Caribbean musical traditions.

To celebrate its 30th Anniversary, SoMiSPO is organizing a steel pan festival slated for April 2-5, 2025, extending invitations to all alumni and guest artists who've been a part of its musical family.

"For this commemorative event, we're extending invitations to all alumni and guest artists who've graced the stage with SoMiSPO over the past three decades," said Dr. Wooton. "We're also welcoming several high school bands, acknowledging their potential as the future of SoMiSPO."

Dr. McKenzie adds: “SoMiSPO is a huge part of the global identity of our terrific School of Music, and I am so proud that we have the opportunity to celebrate their thirty-year anniversary on our campus!”

For more information contact Dr.%20John%20Wooton or visit the Percussion Studio’s website.