Marching to the beat of his own drum

Andy Akiho recently spent the day seeking inspiration at the Pantheon, an ancient Roman architectural wonder that has attracted travelers for two millennia. 

Akiho, however, is no tourist; he is the recipient of the prestigious 2014-15 Luciano Berio Rome Prize, a fellowship that allows him to spend a year in Italy focused solely on music composition. The 35-year-old plays the steel drums and has been delivering groundbreaking work for more than a decade. 

His love of percussion began in the mid-1980s when his sister convinced him to play drums in a rock band. Later, in the mid-90s, during his first performance on the high school drum line, he instinctively knew that “music had to be [his] life.” He was accepted into the University of South Carolina's School of Music where he says it all started. Professor Jim Hall and adjunct instructor Chris Lee, along with his fellow students, became his mentors.

Akiho's extraordinary work ethic was sometimes misunderstood. “People actually thought I was a little crazy and sleeping in the rehearsal room,” the S.C. native says with a laugh. In truth, he wasn’t even tired, just so determined to improve that he would often practice into the early morning hours.

He flourished in UofSC’s open environment. “Here, a percussionist could play in the orchestra, the symphonic band, the marching band, the West African drum and dance ensemble and the steel band,” he says, and, naturally, he tried to do it all. But it was the steelpan that captured his heart. He left for Trinidad, birthplace of the instrument, immediately upon graduation in 2001.

From Trinidad, he moved to New York where he played in clubs, Caribbean parties and busked before returning to school to earn a master’s of music degree in contemporary performance from the Manhattan School of Music. Next was Yale for a master’s in composition. He's currently pursuing a Ph.D. at Princeton.

From steelpan to traditional classical music or combos of both, his unique compositions are fresh and new. The New York Times calls Akiho's music “mold-breaking” and “vital.” His compositions have been called “exotic” and “immediately appealing.” 

His wide-ranging compositions have been performed by the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and American Composers Orchestra, Bang on a Can and eighth blackbird. His unusual rhythms have graced major venues such as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

In 2009, when Akiho was invited to perform his original work, “Alloy” with the LA Philharmonic, he called up a few old friends, including Lee, who’s now director of bands and music at Dreher High School in Columbia. “Do you want to come to LA to do this piece?” he asked. They did. More than half of the ensemble hailed from Carolina. “It was really great to reunite with the USC crew,”  he said. 

But now, reminiscing is over. Akiho has a ballet to compose, followed by a steelpan concerto, a ping-pong concerto and two chamber ensemble pieces. And he’s still thinking about the Pantheon.

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Andy Akiho's story appears in the winter 2015 edition of Carolinian magazine. Get the magazine by joining the My Carolina Alumni Association or contributing to the Carolina's Promise campaign.  

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