From Oil Drum to International Orchestral Instrument
The steel pan instrument fascinates the world with its unique melodic, tonal, and rhythmic qualities, and its sounds reverberate as the musical heartbeat of the cultural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago. The steel pan is nowadays a worldwide recognized and well-respected music instrument, which now enjoys high participation and popularity on the twin island.
Since then the popularity of the instrument has grown rapidly. It is used in live music performances, and as concert percussion worldwide, portrayed in a lot of art pieces of the Caribbean.
Pan is played using a pair of straight sticks tipped with rubber. The size and type of rubber tip vary according to the class of pan being played. Some musicians use even four pan sticks, holding two in each hand.
The pan can play all classical notes and is used in orchestral ensembles worldwide. There are also quite interesting workshops worldwide, where you can learn the tamboo bamboo, the forerunner of the steel pan.
The Africans’ music consisted of many instruments, melodies, and rhythms which they left behind as they were forced into bondage due to slavery. Still as Doris Green states: „The sound of the steel pan resembles that of several African instruments. Some pans sound like stone instruments; some like chordophones, but the majority sound like xylophones, in particular, those used in east and southeastern Africa“.
The resonators of some of these xylophones are usually out of metal. Green states that the „bass xylophones use the same oil drum that is used to make the steel pans“. I was not able to locate a picture of it.
It seems also that other traditions have been still been continued, maybe even only subconsciously. The tapping on a glass bottle, beating on the backside of a pot, and the use of wooden spoons, sticks, and blocks as rhythmic accompaniment are common in Africa.
In fact, children who are learning to play drums can often be seen parading through the streets beating on pots. The use of sticks as accompaniment in singing is common in Kenya and the use of clapping blocks s common in Nigeria.
The Evolution of
Its metamorphosis starts with the tamboo bamboo, tunable sticks made of bamboo wood. These were hit onto the ground and with other sticks in order to produce sound.
Different lengths and sizes of bamboo, simulating the main voices of music (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass), were the basic elements. By the 1930s there was already a tamboo bamboo band (which was located in today’s area known as Gonzales (Belmont). The bands also included percussion elements like a (gin) bottle and spoon, which reminds me of earlier mentioned African traditions.
By the mid-1930s, bits of metal percussion were being used, the first probably being either the automobile brake hub „iron“ or the biscuit drum „boom“, which is still used today to create a sound for the Jab Molassee Carnival Character to perform.
By the late 1930s, their occasional all-steel bands were seen at Carnival and by 1940 it had become the preferred Carnival accompaniment of young men in underdeveloped areas.
The 55-gallon oil drum was used to make lead steel pans from around 1947, however today the highest quality version are drums made out of sheet metal.
The Trinidad All Star Steel Percussion Orchestra, was formed to attend the ‚Festival of Britain‘ in 1951 in London (UK). It was the first time, the instrument was heard outside of the Caribbean. I am sharing a music documentary and more information about importance of this event for steel pan music. You find the article on the music blog.
Following this, steel bands was given the chance to tour different European countries and also North and Middle America. From this time the instrument traveled across the world mesmerizing people from all cultures with its sweet sounds.
The Spread of the
Especially in the 1950s, the Trinidad Allstars were known for their record releases. Here I am sharing a few covers from steel band recordings.
There are a lot of calypsoes and soca songs, that touch on the topic of the steel pan in a huge variety. I personally like to call them „pan-thems“ because in many cases they are paying tribute to steel pan bands and arrangers. Let me show you two for now. Both describe a change in the pan music. The first is from soca and calypso singer Scrunter from 1986. The second is „Pan in Danger“ by calypso singer and composer Merchant from 1985, arranged by Leston Paul.
I am personally still teaching myself about Caribbean jazz, especially pan jazz, which combines elements of jazz with the smooth sound of the steel pan. Rudy Smith and John Gibbs are artists to mention here. Internationally stays Andy Narell in my mind, shares the steel pan traditions and arranges pan jazz instrumental tracks. In general, can the instrument be combined with any others, there are even fusion tracks of punk rock with a steel pan. The research on the music will show you a lot of interesting fusions with other genres. I am showing you examples from around the world further in this article.
The Power of
Steel Pan can be played solo, but also as steel bands typically consist of 10 to 150 players. However, during Panorama, it’s possible to see steel bands with 200 artists. In this vibrant and powerful performance by the Pan Revolution Steel Orchestra at a Panorama event in 2019 in New York, you can see the interaction between the director, or pan arranger, and the different instrument sections in the orchestra. If this interests you, take a look further on the internet, especially for concert pieces. There are numerous beautiful examples like this.
A great live impression from home can be watched in the following piece that I am sharing. Pamberi Steel Orchestra, from San Juan in Trinidad, live on their tour in France in 2010. Their local pan yard is one of my favorite places to go. This video piece is 25 minutes long.
This musical tutorial shows you notes to play for the 2020 African super hit „Jerusalema“, performed by solo pannist Keishaun Julien and accompanied with the saxophone by Ricardo Seales. The tutorial shows you also how to use the pan app if you would like a little entertainment on your phone. Both musicians are very recommendable for their great cover versions of popular songs and local hits. Both originated in Tobago.
To understand the significance of panyards, I would like to show you the following video by the Pan Elders Youth Steel Orchestra from San Fernando, South Trinidad released in 2021, due to COVID-19 the performers have to wear masks, but I still hope you are able to „catch the vibe“. Enjoy the very special version of Farmer Nappy’s „Backyard Jam“.
The steel pan became the instrument of the nation in 1992. It reached a state, where acceptance was achieved even by classical symphony orchestras of Trinidad and Tobago.
Dive inside classical music in the following video, the „1812 Overture“ from Tchaikovsky by the Casablanca Steel Band Orchestra (12 minutes long) from 1982.
Since then the popularity of the instrument has grown rapidly and on a worldwide scale. Here are a few international examples.
This is a snippet from the Australian Steel Band Festival 2013. You can literally see the joy created through the instrument’s sound and its presentation. And this is just Australia!
Trinidad and Tobago is represented in a lot of countries worldwide, sometimes without even realizing, how amazing this is. In very seldom cases, the media covers the international steel pan music development or the international events for soca and calypso locally.
Lord Kitcheners Classic „Pan in a Minor“ performed by CSULB Steel Orchestra in Canada in 2014.
Pan Rocks! fascinates all across the world. The idea to fuse rock music with steel pan is very well done by this group, who had their first concert in 2013. They performed throughout the continental US, as well as performed in Hawaii, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Evolution of Pan
The sound and form of the steel pan continue to be experimented with and new variations and also ranges are being explored. In this article, I am going just going to touch the electric pan and the hand pan (or hang) with preference. There are a lot of instruments, that was created out of the idea of the steel drum.
The electric pan reminds me a lot of an electric keyboard. The video is from 2010. Besides the regular pan, there was also an electric bass launched in 2015, both by inventor and trademark holder Salmon Cupid, nowadays located in Canada. He grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and started playing the steel pan when he was a child. He describes how he spent many hours at the local pan yard. I am sharing this video clip from a national television program.
The e-pan is not in competition with the acoustic steelpan. It is there to add to the steelpan family. The latest e-pan technology includes a touch screen, and 6 different steel pan tones (including one from the 1940s). Options of looping and pitching sounds, adjustments of note layout (note mapping) as well as the opportunity to upload own notes via USB. It includes jacks for routing in- and output signals to amplifiers and sound systems.
There is the option to use headphones as well as Bluetooth. The e-pan is durable, compact, and lightweight to facilitate ease of transportation.
The Nape Inc (as the manufacturer) offers several electric pan versions of instruments in the steelpan family such as tenor, double tenor, double seconds, and six basses.
Handpan is a term for a group of musical instruments that are classified as a subset of the steelpan. Several handpan makers and brands have emerged in recent years, resulting from a growing worldwide interest in the hang, which is an instrument developed by the company Swiss-German manufacturer PANArt that is based on the physical properties of the Trinidadian steel pan, Indian ghatam, Thai gong, and Indonesian gamelan.
There was an official classification of the steel pan as „pang“ instrument. Here is an overview of all instruments from 2000 compiled by PanArt (Switzerland).
In the paper, the company described how they have been developing these instruments during the last years (which would be in the middle of the 90s).
They write: „The Pang orchestra is a group of individual musical instruments. Some of our instruments can be integrated in the artform steel band. Others find their place in new formations“. To me, this sounds a little strange and after a little research I was not able to find any „pang orchestra“. Still, I am sharing their definition and trying to see it in relation to the original steel drums.
Pan Art Classification of Pang Instruments (2000): 1. Ping 2. Pong 3. Orage 4. Pung 5. Pang-Bell 6. Double-Peng 7. Peng 8. Tubal 9. Hang
Ping, Pong & Peng
As the manufacturer writes on their website: „These are the names of three instruments which are new members of the steelpan family. Their notes are hammered into the sphere and recople with their neighbors. The singing character of these harmonically tuned instruments is produced with a tremolo. They may have the place of a choir in a Pang orchestra. These three instruments are related to each other not only in the material and tuning but also in their layout“. To me, they look very much like the original version. Double-peng seems to be close to the double-tenor pan. The difference is supposed to lie in the color of the sound because the attack on the stiff shell produces noises that can enrich the timbre.
Pang bells are made of the hardened deep drawn form. The bell is excited with a wooden hammer layered with rubber or leather. The leather hammer produces a brilliant sound, the rubber a warm sound. The bell player has to give a short strong impact horizontally on the rim. They are inspired also by cow bells from European countries within the alpine region. The bells that hang around the necks of cows, sheep, and goats are made of iron or bronze. Big bells of iron have a dark sound, bells of bronze a long ringing bright sound.
These cymbals are made of gas-nitrided steel of different qualities. The combination of sound and crash makes it interesting to listen to. The different sounds originate from the different diameters, thicknesses, steel quality, and hammering. The dome stabilizes the form and changes in curvature influence the shifting of energy.
A pung is made of cylindrical resonance bodies. The skirt gets a stiffer form made by the metal former. A strong impact on this instrument produces a bright sound or even a crash, a soft impact produces a warm harmonical sound. They are played with the backside of the fist.
It is a percussive instrument consisting of individual notes. The instrument is placed on a rubber-like material to avoid the loss of energy in the ground. The Tubal tones are arranged in whole ton scales.
The hang consists of two spheres of gas-nitrided steel fixed together. The notes are tuned in the upper sphere and in the lower sphere, there is an opening. The instrument lies for playing on the knees or on the floor.
The term handpan first appeared in 2007. The Handpans official name, hang, is trademarked by the company. However, Trinidad and Tobago did not trademark the steel pan as their own, the instrument’s physical form is not protected under international patent law.
Today, significantly more than 400 handpan builders have entered the market and offer instruments that vary widely in material, manufacturing, shape, sound, and quality.
This is an example for you by Sam Maher and recorded in Brooklyn, New York. There are a lot of examples on Youtube. In the comments, you might be able to read sometimes, that this instrument has a meditative character while listening to it, due to its frequencies, it is used as an art therapy technique to overcome abuse and addiction.
Maybe also the steel pan could have these healing powers. There is still a lot to discover. Lean back and relax to this one, recorded in Goa, India.
I hope you enjoyed this collection about the steel pan and its evolution. There is more fascinating information to come.
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Jocelyne Guibault (2007): Governing Sound – The cultural politics of Trinidad’s Carnival Music
University of Chicago, Ian Randle Publishers
John Mendes (2003): Coté ci Coté La – Trinidad & Tobago Dictionary, Medianet Publishing
Gerard Besson (2011): Calypso, Calypso Music
Ronald C. Emrit: Calypso History
Doris Green: From Xylophone to Steel Pan
TraditionalMas.com: Archive about Traditional Mas Characters
Calypsoworld.org: Calypso in Trinidad – Carnival and Musical Traditions
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