Alumni Profile: Shawn Thwaites '03

Brenda Pike
August 12, 2011
Shawn Thwaites '03 at Sound Lab Recording studios in Greensboro, North Carolina
Photo by Kim Barto

Like many Berklee alumni, steelpan player Shawn Thwaites '03 grew up in a musical family. But when he came to Berklee, he brought them along with him. The professional music major and his older brother Sherwin enrolled at the same time. Then their younger brother Sheldon moved up from Maryland to attend first the Boston Arts Academy and then Berklee. Today, the brothers are working together to record a steelpan version of the music of Miles Davis.

Thwaites travels all over the world with the Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen, but his roots are in Martinsville, Virginia, where his Pan United Youth Movement is based at a local Boys and Girls Club. The group now involves more than 20 children, on its way to becoming a full 50-person steel drum orchestra. At the age of 8, his daughter Kamari is the youngest member.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

What is the Pan United Youth Movement?

In the '70s and '80s a lot of steel bands used to come up on tour from Trinidad. My dad got that experience, so I've always wanted to create an orchestra here.

Pan United was my professional music final project. You have to show how you're going to sustain yourself as a musician. When I moved to Martinsville, Virginia, I thought this might be a great place to see if Pan United would work. The Piedmont Arts Society hooked me up with the Boys and Girls Club.

My dad gave me a bunch of steel drums, enough for 12 kids to use, and the church next door gave me space. Classes are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, 4 to 6. I have 12 students that I taught for 6 months, and now we perform all throughout the Henry County area. This summer I have 10 new students.

Find more Shawn Thwaites songs at Myspace Music

What was it like growing up in such a musical family?

The steel drums are like the piano for my family. My dad played with a lot of steel bands in the Washington DC area, so he brought home two drums for me and my brother Sherwin to play. But we never had any musical training, because most steel drum players, especially back in that time, were just playing by ear.

We went to Trinidad in 1986. We got to visit this group called Phase II Pan Groove, and the arranger, Len "Boogsie" Sharpe, is the greatest steel drum player. That was when we really fell in love with the instrument. When we came back to the states we ended up in a local steel drum band called Pan Masters. They were the working GB steel band of the area, so we played a lot of cool places. I remember missing school to play for Clinton's inauguration.

We reached the point where if we were going to do music, we had to do it seriously. We didn't need to learn how to play the instrument; we needed to learn how to read and write music, so we looked at schools like Berklee. We received scholarships, and we ended up being the first two steel drum players accepted to Berklee. [Now steelpan is an official principal instrument at the college.]

How did the faculty help you acclimate?

When I first came, I struggled, because we learned by rote and depended on our ears. I failed a lot of classes because I didn't know anything about harmony or ear training. Steve Rochinski was really helpful with harmony. He's actually from my hometown, Bladensburg, Maryland; he went to my high school. Suzanne Clark, she's a Harmony teacher. These are the people who uplifted me and helped me. I couldn't do it without them.

Do you continue to have a lot of Berklee connections?

I was able to record with Lauryn Hill. That happened through my brother Sheldon, who was at Berklee at the time and ran into her at Virgin Megastore. We recorded in Carlisle, Massachusetts with her for four days.

And before Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy—she was on her second album—she came to Maryland University, and we did a clinic with her. We got a bunch of steel drum players to back her up. I had three students at that time, and they all ended up at Berklee. One just graduated this year. Her name is Khandeya Sheppard, and she's the first steel drum female to graduate from Berklee. Tenika Prawl and Nia Metcalf-Thomas are still there. And I have one student who did the violin workshop this summer. He's 10 years old.

Are you an active performer?

I just came back from Canada, playing with a Muslim hip-hop group by the name of Native Deen. We basically tour the world spreading the positive message that all Muslims are not radicals. A lot of times when we go on tour, it's for the U.S. Embassy. We're going to Indonesia next month for 12 days.

I went to Lebanon for a year with my wife, Sabreen Staples '04, who is also a Berklee alum. She's a vocalist and professional music major. She went to Lebanon with the Harlem Gospel Choir, and she was asked to come back by herself. Then I was approached and asked to perform, as well. So I did a three-song set of music every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for a year over there. I'm going back to Lebanon in September for three days with Native Deen. We're going to Lebanon, Morocco, and Algeria.

Is it tough to tour and teach at the same time?

The Boys and Girls Club works with my schedule, which is great. I want to be able to go out on the road as much as possible, so I can have stories to tell the kids. I have an ex-gang member in my steel drum group now, and if I can inspire him by telling him if you do this, you can end up at Berklee like I did, I want to talk about my experience.