FLINT, Michigan—According to ancient legend, the Jumbie is a spirit—that once it possesses you, you cannot resist playing the steel drum for the rest of your life.
Here, the Jumbie is a group formed five years ago at the Boys and Girls Club of Flint that includes nine students, 9 to 16 years old, who progress their musical skills and learn valuable lessons along the way.
And, they are among the very best.
A steel drum is actually not a drum at all. It is a free-standing instrument from Trinidad that features a curved metal pan. It plays different notes depending on where it is hit and it is known for its unique vibrational sound.
Tauzarri Robinson, CEO of the local Boys and Girls Club, admits he was a bit apprehensive about starting a steel drum band, funded by a grant from the Jean Simi Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Flint.
“(When) we started off, none of the kids had experience playing instruments. None of the kids had experience reading music—(some) still can’t—so it was a very, very, very raw group of kids, and James was very patient with them and just worked and worked and worked … and now it’s this big thing,” Robinson said.
James is James Coviak, the program’s director and music teacher at Mott Community College and Mott Middle College. He is their teacher and their mentor—teaching the players songs by Bruno Mars and Nicki Minaj, teaching them practice makes perfect, and teaching them to be the best.
“Really the number one goal I have as a teacher is to teach kids to appreciate and pursue excellence, and this group has definitely already reached a level of excellence,” said Coviak.
The band is made up of two original band members, two who have been in the band for three years, two who have been in the band for two years, and three newcomers. They have played at many different venues and events, including the Clio Amphitheater and at the Flint Jazz Fest.
This year, they entered their first competition—and they did so in grand fashion—performing at World Strides Onstage in New York City, as one of the youngest bands there.
Scored by three judges, they received two perfect 100 scores and a 96—earning them the gold award and the adjudicator’s trophy. This was the first contest that the band has entered.
One judge commented: “The band’s on fire, really on fire … wonderful, wonderful job, very musical, very tasty… congratulations.”
From the very beginning of the Boys and Girls Club's steel bands, James Coviak has been the band leader, director, mentor, and guide.
“This is a perfect example of the unlocked potential that is in our community. To be able to provide our kids with a once in a lifetime to perform in New York City is priceless. That is an experience that will live with those kids forever. This is the type of experience that shows them—and the rest of my club members—that they can do anything and they are not restricted because of where they live,” said Robinson.
Eboni Taylor has been attending the club since she was a 6 years old. Coviak invited her to join the band. The rest, as they say, is history.
“[I] really like playing steel drums and I like how it sounds and everything,” said Eboni, who is now 16 and one of two high school students in the band.
Being in the band has allowed Eboni to meet new people and go to new places. She calls being in the band “a huge opportunity.”
But she never even dreamed they would go to New York.
“I was really shocked when (Mr. Coviak) said we were going to New York, because at my school we don’t really go that far,” Eboni said. “I really thought it was like a good experience.”
The Jumbies are joined at the Boys and Girls Club by the Renegades, an entry-level steel drum band. Both Coviak and Robinson hope to continue to expand the program and offer more opportunities to enter competitions and prove to the world—and themselves—how talented they are.
“For many of our kids, this is one of their first opportunities to be on ‘center stage’ and recognized for their talents. Not a lot of young people in our community have the opportunity to play an instrument, and even less play the steel drum,” said Robinson.
The Boys and Girls Club of Flint started its steel drum band in 2012.