Artist helps students to bang out beautiful noise

First graders circle around artist in residence Step Raptis and the items they’ll use to create a musical performance.

First graders circle around artist in residence Step Raptis and the items they’ll use to create a musical performance.

At its heart, it's about as elementary as musical expression gets - the banging on a pan lid that most kids outgrow with their diapers. But with artist in residence, dancer and percussionist Step Raptis, kids in grades kindergarten-five are learning how simple tones add up to startling complexity.

The program is a mathematical and architectural learning experience," said Raptis during a break from his Junk Funk workshop in the school multi-purpose room. Here, the junk part is laid out in categories on the floor - bundt pans and drumsticks, lids of all sizes, 55-gallon drums, plastic cups, lengths of plastic pipe, mixing bowls, tea kettles, and much more - in all, about 200 pieces with tones ranging from tinny to deep.

Once upon a time most of it was someone's trash or a thrift store bargain. Putting it in the hands of the kids, Raptis is coaxing forth music one beat at a time. The community can see the result tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at the school.

Since he started on Monday, Oct. 8, he's worked with each grade daily through the past two school weeks, designing a number for each grade for the performance. Even the teachers have come up with a piece and Raptis hopes to add a finale that includes everyone.

"It's good practice for learning," he said. "They have to memorize, and learn to work in unison. There's knowing when it's your turn to play music."

If it's done with concentration, the tones from pots and pans meld into what he calls "exquisite Junk Funk harmonies." If not, "you just don't pull it off," he said.

The residency was funded by a grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts with support from the Grand Canyon PTA.

Raptis started developing the Junk Funk concept in the early 1980s while living in New York City. He started picking up things that he found on the street, intrigued by the possibilities in their tones.

"I would pick things up and listen to how they would resonate," he said.

While some pieces stood out as obvious instruments of Junk Funk percussion, others were a revelation - the teakettles with their snapping lids, for instance. There were also rare finds, like a big watering can that gives off several rich tones depending how it's played, as well as the discovery that not all mass-produced items are equal. Out of about six plastic wash tubs that look identical except for color, the green one has a tone that's superior, he said.

After moving to Phoenix, through his professional affiliations he started to incorporate his Junk Funk orchestra into residency programs and programs for at-risk youth.

"I want to help the students bring their voices out," he said. "If they can get involved in the creative process, they take ownership of their voice."

He also performs it as a solo artist. Among his routines: playing a trench coat he's wearing, posing as a butler who plays his tray and playing a stagehand with a mop and a fascination for the junk that's left behind after the show.

"I get caught up in Junk Funk and get yelled at periodically," he said.

He received his bachelor of fine arts in dance choreography and performance in 1976 from Mary Grove College. He also worked with companies in New York and Canada including National Ballet of Canada and Le Groupe de la Place Royale. As a percussionist, he also studied with C.K. Ganyo, master drummer from Ghana and a partner, with Raptis, in the founding of Adzido West African Folkloric Company.

He is a member of the Scottsdale Cultural Council, Tempe Center for the Arts, the Arizona Commission on the Arts. He's also associate artistic director and music director of Desert Dance Theatre and performs with the music ensemble, Meadowlark.


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