President Pastides shares alumnus Andy Akiho’s (’01) No Limits story

Marching to the beat of his own drum has taken this composer/percussionist to Carnegie Hall and beyond. 

Andy Akiho ’01, recently spent the day seeking inspiration at the Pantheon, an ancient Roman architectural wonder that has attracted travelers for two millennia. Andy, 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. 

 Andy’s love of percussion began in the mid 1980s when his sister convinced him to play drums in a rock band.  Later, in the mid 90’s, during his first performance on the high school drum line, he instinctively knew that “music had to be [his] life.”

 The S.C. native was accepted into USC’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. 

Andy flourished in USC’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.

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

 Andy flourished in USC’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. 

 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.  Andy is 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 Andy’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 LA 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 Andy 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 band and music at Dreher High School.  “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.  Andy 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.  I have a feeling he’ll be working deep into the night.