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Former Steelpan player KEB MO from Compton to multi-Grammy winner

La Jazz Scene

By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist

Keb Mo is the first to tell you he was never crazy about school or academics. It was music that came naturally to the young man. Music was his passion. He was intoxicated with the sound of percussion instruments and hypnotized by the rhythm of the drums. So much so, that Keb Mo started playing the steel drums with a local calypso group called, the Young Calitino Steel Drum band. He played steel drums in that band from eleven-years-old to age nineteen. Their group was popular around the South Los Angeles area and at that young age he began working hotel gigs with them and private parties.

“I started playing the steel drums because a guy in our Compton, California neighborhood built and played the steel drums. Coincidentally, he was probably the only American making steel drums who came from Trinidad and happened to live on my block. He’s not around anymore. He passed away a few years ago. But his name was Chuck Countee. I’m still really good friends with his son Carlos. I got so good that at the age of fourteen I was hired to play my first studio session on steel drums at the Gold Star Recording studios and I even got paid union scale. I was really green, but I was having a lot of fun.”

Although he was a competent drummer, Keb Mo wasn’t satisfied with just playing trumpet and drums. While attending Compton high school, his band director encouraged him to play the French horn, because they needed a French Horn player. Consequently, Keb Mo expanded his talents and learned the French Horn.

“I played French horn in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. I became first French horn in the Compton High School Band. That’s back in the sixties, when Compton had an orchestra and a youth orchestra. I was just starting out in music. Then, I took a year off and went to LATTC (L.A. Trade Tech) for architectural drafting, because after high school I didn’t really think I had what it took to seriously pursue music as a career. But my friends kept asking me to play gigs, so I jumped back in.

“I was good at a couple of little things; like I could play steel drums. But more than that, I knew how to play in a band. I worked well with others. For many years, I felt like I was just dragged along by the universe.

“I have played all the instruments in the steel drum band. I started off on the bass pan. Then I went to the double pan. I played that. Then I went to the lead pan. After that I went to trap drums and congas. I even did the Limbo. I explored every percussion instrument and I learned all the basic, traditional, Afro-Cuban beats on the congas. In high school my friend Larry had two sets of drums. He let me borrow one of his drum sets and I set it up in my garage. I taught myself how to play some basic grooves on the trap drums.”

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Congratulations, Keb Mo. I am proud of your achievements as a musician

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