Carribean Prodigy Finds All-American College Experience

Apr 17, 2013

A native of Trinidad and Tobago, Atiba Williams began playing the steelpan before most people his age were potty trained. By age 4 he was playing the national anthem at major festivals and by age 5 he was composing his own original pieces. 

Steelpan prodigy Atiba Williams.
Credit Joey Adams

When he was 9 years old he was asked to arrange a piece for Panorama, which is one of the biggest steelpan festivals in the world. He is the youngest person to have this honor. Williams has played for every president and many important diplomats who visited his country, including Prince Charles. 

When he was 16 he left Trinidad to study at the United World Colleges in Italy, but he has spent the last 4 years of his life studying music composition at the University of Oklahoma. 

WILLIAMS: I started when I was very young… I have a musical family and we did tours around Trinidad and Tobago, (where I come from). At one point we were doing this charity concert and my mom had this idea that we would all switch instruments. My sister, who was usually a singer, was asked to play the steelpan.

I don't know if you know very much about the steelpan, but it's not very linear, like most instruments. It's based on the circle of fifths, which can be a bit confusing, and she couldn't figure it out. You know it was causing her a bit of stress, so we took five. I was one and a half at the time and my sister held me above the steel pan just to calm me down because I was crying and I played the song that she had been trying to play and my mom got scared and thought it was demons…and that's how I started!

ADAMS: You've studied in Italy, and you've studied in different places around the world. You've played for a ton of people in Trinidad. Why did you want to come to America to study? Particularly OU?

WILLIAMS: I don't know if it was the American movies, but I've always been enameled with the big college experience. I wanted to go to a regular college with frats and drinking, you know the “all-American” experience. But, at the same time, I didn't want to compromise quality, so OU seemed like the perfect fit because we have a pretty awesome music program here. Dr. Lamb, my composition professor... is kind of legit!

ADAMS: Would you say that OU has fulfilled what you wanted out of your American college experience?

WILLIAMS: Yes, definitely! I mean I study hard, and I party hard. Which is kind of awesome.

ADAMS: When you got here did you have to take a step back a little bit? What types of struggles did you go through?

WILLIAMS: First of all, when I first touched down I had problems with the accent. I could not understand a lot of the people that were here. I've since learned how to listen and decipher what people are saying. But I couldn't understand anything that a lot of people were saying. It's really strong (to me at least).

The second thing a had to encounter was that I had to jog-in-place because a lot of American high school students aren't really privy to sort of music education that people in Trinidad or Italy are. You know we go to school, then we go to music lessons on the side. And it takes all day, and Saturdays. You know we learn quite a lot, and American students really don't do that. Freshman year I was in classes with students who didn't know what a treble clef was, and this is when I'm discovering things like spectralism. That was a problem, I guess. But I learned to jog-in-place. I did some work on the side and it was all cool, it was all fine and dandy.

The third thing that I had to deal with was sort of like the very American spin that the classes seem to have at OU. You know this is an American college; therefore it is a college for America, and a college for Americans. Although we do have a really large international population here at OU, it's not very often that you find a class, unless it's like an international studies or world music, that takes the world perspective. So I had to adjust, I had to be like, ok, this is America, and I'm here to learn the American way. So that was kind of a culture shock for me.

ADAMS: You're graduating in May. What's next after OU?

WILLIAMS: I'll go back to Trinidad. My sister has an organization that deals with gifted and talented students in the Caribbean. Before this organization we didn't really have a way to categorize and deal with the gifted and talented students that we had. So I'm going to go home and help her develop curriculums and programs so that gifted and talented students of every field and every level can participate and be engaged because that was a big problem for me growing up. I wasn't really engaged with school, I didn't really care. And now, I do, and it's because I was able to find programs and stuff outside of school that I could engage myself in.