The East of the River Steelband practices at the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Ward 7 on Aug. 15. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)
The East of the River Steelband practices at the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Ward 7 on Aug. 15. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)

The sounds of steel pan drums can be heard upon entering the Episcopal Church of the Atonement on East Capitol Street in Ward 7.

The room is filled with the tropical sounds of the East of the River Steelband, a crew of young D.C, children who are rhythmically in sync and attentive to the direction they are given.

The music program is open to youths ages 9 to 18. There are currently 11 young folks in the program from Wards 6, 7 and 8 who come to the church twice a week for practice.

Leading a recent practice session was volunteer John Barnes, a Prince George’s County schoolteacher and Steelband alumnus who joined the band in seventh grade and stayed through high school.

Barnes said he has seen how being in the band has contributed to the participants’ growth, something he believes is important for young Black boys and girls.

“It’s not as many programs and outlets for kids,” said Barnes, who graduated from the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore and is currently in a graduate program at Trinity Washington University. “It’s important for me to reach back and volunteer with a program that I know helped me. I want to see the kids stay on a positive path.”

Rita Dozier, manager and trap drummer for the East of the River Steelband, and her grandson Jaylen Jackson pose for a photo during band practice at the Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Ward 7 on Aug. 15. (Robert Roberts/The Washington Informer)

The musical group was the vision of the late Gladys Whitworth Bray, who was a science teacher and substance abuse prevention coordinator at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts (formerly Western High School) for more than 30 years. She was inspired to start a steel band in the District after visiting Trinidad and Tobago.

Since its founding in 1993, the East of the River Steelband has been a place where exploration of other cultures, music and life skills development has opened the eyes of young people to many possibilities in life.

The current East of the River Steelband is an offshoot of a steel band program at a Boys and Girls Club that was started by Bray in 1992 and other cultural arts programs she created for area youth.

Bray died in 2017, but her vision continues through current Executive Director Linda Fisher, who became a volunteer when one of her sons joined the band. After Bray’s death, Fisher who is retired, assumed control and wrote grant proposals for the band.

“I felt a calling because I knew how valuable the program was for children in our community,” Fisher said. “I talked to the board. With their support and work, we wanted to ensure we keep the organization going.”

The Episcopal Church of the Atonement also wanted to support Bray’s vision, so after her death, the church offered free practice space to the band at the church.

The band eagerly shows their appreciation through community service projects at the church, including a recent Saturday when band members dusted pews, cleaned the sanctuary and tidied up their practice room, which is also used by other groups at the church.

Members of the band’s board of directors and parents are required to make a financial contribution. There is 100 percent participation from the board and parents with contributions. Parents also help organize fundraisers such as flea markets and gala events.

Additional parental responsibilities include bringing their children to practices and performances, plus volunteering as chaperones for events. The parents also meet every two weeks to keep up with planned band activities.

Rita Dozier, who manages and plays trap drums for the band, is another volunteer whose three children also are band alumni. She and her husband are musicians, so participation came naturally for their children.

Dozier saw how being in the band helped her children and current band members, which now include her grandson.

“I think that music helps children to be more confident,” she said. “If you know you can do something, then it makes you feel better about yourself.”

East of the River Steelband has scheduled a free 25th anniversary concert for Sept. 29 at 7 p.m. at Kelly Miller Middle School (301 4th Street NE). Leonard Jack and Fusion also will perform at this concert.

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Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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