Steel Pan and Band History
Steel Pan Band?
There’s no better music that evokes sunshine than the intriguing and unique sound of a steel pan band.
Many clients contact Solid Steel to enquire if we are available to play for their events. They often ask ‘is your steel pan band available to play at my wedding?’
But have you ever stopped to think about just where the musical style of this so-called ‘steel pan band’ originated?
Steel pans also known as ‘steel drums’ or just ‘pans’, when collectively played with multiple musicians sound amazing. But this musical group is called ‘steel band’ and not ‘steel pan band’ because this musical instrument originated from Trinidad and Tobago and that’s what it is called there.
A folk instrument like the steel pan is clearly worthy of international respect. Using the terms that are used by the home country where the instrument was invented and developed seems to us to be the minimum requirement the people of Trinidad and Tobago should expect. The pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, after all!
Steel band history
Back in the 1800s, when Trinidad was a sugar plantation society, slaves were brought to the region by colonists from Central and West Africa. They worked on the plantations and brought their music with them. Drumming and singing were commonplace and were a big feature in all religious ceremonies and other celebrations, as well as a method of communication.
But eventually the colonists became concerned that the drumming was being used as a way of organising riots and uprisings. As a result, all drum parades were banned towards the end of the century. After this, bamboo sticks were used to beat out rhythms, with groups of musicians later known as tamboo bamboo bands. But then these too were banned in the 1930s because rival bands would often clash and fight in the streets.
The first steel drum was invented in Trinidad at about the time of the second world war. The tamboo bamboo bands had also voluntarily made the move to steel because metal was stronger and louder than bamboo, with the first versions of the steel drum being paint and biscuit tins!
After beating what were just junk metal containers, it was soon discovered that dents and bulges of various sizes in the tins could make sounds of different pitches. Musicians started to tune them up so that melodies could be played and the first bands of steel pans were then born!
Steel pans made from steel drums
The modern pan is a chromatically pitched percussion instrument made from 55 gallon industrial drums that formerly contained chemicals.
The term ‘drum’ refers to the steel drum containers from which the pans are made. The steel drum is more correctly called a ‘steel pan’ orjust ‘pan’ as it falls into the idiophone family of instruments, and so is not a musical drum which is a membranophone.
The pan is struck using a pair of straight sticks tipped with rubber; the size and type of rubber tip varies according to the range of notes being played on any particular pan. Some steel band musicians use more than 2 pan sticks, sometimes 3 and even 4 to simultaneously play more notes for more complex harmonising.
Steel pans are built using sheet metal with a thickness between 0.8 and 1.5 mm (1⁄32 and 1⁄16 in). Historically, steel pans have been built from used 55-gallon oil barrels or drums. Nowadays, many instrument makers do not rely on used steel containers and get the resonance bodies manufactured according to their preferences and technical specifications.
Steel pan manufacture
In a first step, the sheet metal is stretched into a bowl shape (this is commonly known as ‘sinking’). This process is usually done with hammers, manually or with the help of air pressure. Secondly, the note pattern is then marked onto the surface, and the notes of different sizes are shaped and molded into the surface. After the tempering the notes have to be softened and tuned for the initial tuning. The pan maker will then use the best possible tuning device to get the right pitch for each of the playing areas allied to the note that is wanted. Often they will use an electronic tuner called a strobe tuner to assist the tuning process.
The size of each note corresponds to the pitch—the larger the surface area, the lower the tone.
The size of the instrument varies from one pan to another. It may have almost all of the “skirt” (the cylindrical part of the oil drum) cut off and around 30 soprano-range notes. It may use the entire drum with only three bass notes per pan, in which case one person may play six such pans. The length of the skirt generally corresponds to the tessitura (high or low range) of the drum. The pans are usually either painted or chrome plated. Other processes such as nickel plating, powdercoating, or hardening can also be applied as a finish.
Steel band musicians
A pan player is sometimes called a ‘pannist’ or ‘panist’ in modern day Trinidadian society, but these recent terms are very much efforts to lend respectability to the instrument. They sound way too ‘scientific’ and far too similar to the term ‘pianist’. Outside of the world of classical music those who play piano prefer to be called ‘piano players’ sooner than ‘pianists’. To call oneself a ‘pianist’ sounds pretentious and deeply ‘uncool’, so by that measure most players who actually play pan for a living- like those in Solid Steel- would prefer to be called ‘pan players’. Furthermore, older terms that were used in Trinidad like ‘panman and ‘panwoman’ do not belong in a gender-inclusive modern world!
Influential pan players in the early history of this instrument include Ellie Mannette, the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum” and an accomplished musician, and Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, the inventor and a skilled player of the “Ping Pong” pan. He’s the man widely credited with playing the first recognisable tune on a steel pan and you can read more about him on the TriniSoca website.
Steel band competitions
Pan players in Trinidad and Tobago generally do all their practicing and playing with their steel bands in preparation for performance in competitions, the largest and most famous one being ‘Panorama’ which takes place annually pre-Carnival. Most players generally memorize the musical parts that they practice in preparation for that performance with no reading of charts involved. Those pan players that have more musical knowledge are likely to have more senior positions within the band.
The most important figure in a steel band competing at a Panorama is that of the arranger. It is his musical ideas that need to be communicated to the band and the majoryiy of points awarded to the band are based on judgemnts of the quality of the arrangement of a Panorama tune.
Amongst the pan players themselves, the top position in a Panorama steelband is that of the captain, but these large ensembles often also include section leaders who are accomplished pan players that monitor the tonal sections in the band.