Mickey Mills is a man of steel. Banging on a reconstituted 55-gallon drum is his main gig. But when he wants to communicate with children, he uses a different instrument.
"I call 'em canophones," he cackles.
Growing up in Trinidad, Mills made instruments from juice cans. The custom seems to have died off in his homeland, but Mills is resurrecting it here through a program called Steel-a-Rama, his steel drum introduction for kids.
"I go in the cafeteria and I tell the head teacher to get the cans. And they will save up a lot of cans and I will go into the workshop and tune different sets of cans for the kids," Mills says from his home in Carrboro. He tunes the cans by putting dents in the lids that correspond to eighth notes. Together, the cans make a full orchestra.
"Those cans sound just below the steel drums, but I can play anything on the cans. I can play it just like I can play a marimba or a xylophone," Mills says proudly.
But growing up in Trinidad, Mills discovered that banging the steel cans or drum could be dangerous, the sure sign of a rebel.
"As a youngster going to school, I remember having to run away from home to play my instrument," Mills says. "Because in them days when you played the steel drum, you was considered one of the bad guys, the guys who want to hang out on the block, the guys who want to make noise."
There were physical consequences, too. Mills was told that his father thought he was playing in the carnival and was coming to get him. "I take the drum off my neck and throw it in the street and run because he will beat me," Mills remembers. "They didn't understand the value to music then."
But he couldn't escape his vocation: "We had a big family. There was 14 of us--only four girls, all the rest was boys. Sometimes I can't go to bed because the guys be practicing so near to your house that you actually think the drum is playing in your bedroom."
His father eventually acquiesced. By the time he was 12, Mills became a steel drum soloist with Trinidad's Solo Harmonite Steel Orchestra, traveling all over the Caribbean and eventually reaching America. In 1970, Mills moved to America, eventually settling in Brooklyn. Music wasn't his main business at first, as he sought to fulfill his childhood dream of working in a bank. Eventually, he decided he liked making music more than counting others' money.
"The music was always there. So I was always writing, always arranging," he remembers.
He had a leg up in the business due to his previous exposure touring in New York with the Solo Harmonite Steel Orchestra. "We came to America, the tour came here to Brooklyn to perform. We were practicing in Brooklyn, and then Mick Jagger and them came to town. They was playing at Square Garden. And that's when they needed someone, and that's when we came in," Mills remembers.
That was the Stones' 1969 tour. That helped Mills land gigs around town. While working at the bank, he was also playing music at the prestigious Village Gate, for four decades a showcase for folk artists like Bob Dylan, who wrote "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" in the building in 1962.
As Mickey Mills and the Birds, Mills was playing with top musicians at the Gate. Mills says that his music was "mixed Caribbean, but we was also doing R&B, we was doing jazz, we was doing a little bit of everything." Virtually everything Mills was doing was based on calypso, the main music of his homeland. Since coming to Carrboro to live in 1983, Mills has been playing a mix of reggae, soca and his own specialized blend that mixes classical, jazz, rock and the islands. But old-school reggae remains a favorite, and a staple of his act. "My heart is full of Bob Marley sounds," Mills says.
Rolly Gray, another Trinidad musician who now lives in Chapel Hill, says that virtually all Caribbean music, including soca and reggae, came from calypso: "Soca means soul, soul calypso. I was listening to some old calypso from before the Second World War, and what I hear in that music is pure reggae. I think Jamaica put the brand on that music and adapt that music. But when I listen to the old calypso, I hear the reggae that they're playing now."
Mills, like many of his fellow longtime island musicians, has no room in his heart for reggae's current dancehall phase. "Do you want something that'll stay with you and be positive guidance?" he asks. "Which is your roots. Which is clean lyrics. Which is telling people to come togedder, talk about love. I deal with positiveness, do old-school. We don't need that other stuff."
Mills delivers his message to children and adults alike: He has released three CDs and regularly plays pre-show parties at Alltel Pavilion for people like Kenny Chesney and Jimmy Buffett. It's all done with the help of a heavily modified 55-gallon drum. The only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century, the steel drum (or pan) was first used in Trinidad in 1946. Mills knows how to construct one with a little heat, perfect pitch and a lot of muscle.
An empty 55-gallon drum is beaten with a sledge hammer. The extent of the beating depends on the desired pitch: The deeper the depth of the dents, the higher the sound of the drum. When the beating is done, the notes are marked off in pencil, then punched with a nail. Then, the instrument is torched so it can be stretched into a pan.
"And after that you got an instrument, an actual instrument," Mills says, speaking from experience. He has made several instruments before, but now he prefers to hand the job off to artisans who build them as their day job.
In fact, one instrument craftsman is building Mills a new steel drum right now. "There are some guys who are tuning some bigger drums, bigger than 55-gallon oil drums. Large, biiig," he says, chuckling. "It's almost 100 gallons. Pretty soon in the Triangle I will be playing this drum that looks like two drums in one. I can't wait. You will love it."
Mickey Mills plays Raleigh's Tir Na Nog on Friday, June 30 at 10:30 p.m. See www.tirnanogirishpub.com for info.