Steelband Music

Steeldrums are called steel pans or just “pans” in Trinidad and Tobago. Beginning in the 1930s, they were created and refined in the poorer sections of Trinidad’s capital, Port of Spain, by young men of African heritage with little formal education or musical training. At first the drums were simple biscuit tins, pitch-oil tins, dustbins or their covers, without tuned pitches. Gradually, through experimentation and refinement, pitches were added by pounding in and out on the top surface of the drums, and drums of varying depths were created to produce different ranges.

Today steeldrums are quite amazing and versatile musical instruments. The small tenor pans may have up to 32 different pitches. Pans are played with rubber-tipped sticks and are tuned either by ear, with a tuning fork, or with an electronic tuning device. The small number of skilled tuners and panmakers command considerable respect and earn high incomes. Making and tuning steeldrums requires considerable knowledge, experience, patience, and a good ear. The proper raw material must be carefully chosen, the top hammered down to a precise depth, notes carefully marked in, sometimes with calipers, the drum cut down to the correct size and tuned, and the metal tempered by throwing water or oil over the drum while it is in a fire. According to a 1952 government report on the steelband movement, “The magician behind this wizardry of sound is the ‘tuner’ who, with his uncanny sense of ear, tempers and pounds the metal until its notes respond to the tonal pattern deep in the recesses of his soul.”

The tuning of steeldrums is not standardized, so it is usually not possible for two or more steelbands to play well together unless their drums have been tuned by the same person. The number and position of the notes on the drums vary from tuner to tuner, and the pitches on some of the drums are not arranged in chromatic order, which facilitates striking the notes with the rubber-tipped sticks. Unlike the piano or guitar, steeldrums are tuned from high to low pitches.

There is wide variation in the types and combinations of steeldrums used in a given ensemble, depending on the occasion and the personal preferences of the band leaders and arrangers. Following are the basic types of drums and their voice parts:

  • The tenor pan, also known as the melody pan or the ping-pong, approximates the soprano voice and plays the melody. It has from 28 to 32 pitches and is about six inches in depth.
  • The double tenor is a set of two tenor drums, which play harmony and counterpoint and are about one-half inch longer than the single tenor.
  • The second pan is in the alto voice range and about eight inches in depth.
  • Double seconds play harmony, in a set of two drums, providing the upper register of chords.
  • The guitar pan plays rhythm and has about sixteen pitches. It is about fourteen to sixteen inches in depth and is played in pairs.
  • The cello pan is in the tenor voice range, about twenty-one inches in depth, and played in sets of three, with eight, eight, and five pitches, respectively.
  • The tenor bass plays rhythm, in sets of four, with two or three pitches on each drum. It is about five inches shorter than the full bass pan.
  • The bass pan is the full size of the oil drum and plays rhythm in sets of six or nine. Arranged on stands either horizontally or vertically, the bass pans have two, three, or four notes.
A steelband might also include a set of trap drums, some congas, bongos, maracas, and a piece of steel or heavy iron (sometimes an automobile brake drum), played as a percussion instrument with a piece of steel or an iron bar. Because pan music is almost always played by ear, band members, who today include more women, East Indians, mixed and white people than at the start of the movement, must attend long and frequent rehearsals to memorize their parts for the repertoire. The repertoire includes classical music, popular, Latin, rock, jazz, and the Jamaican-born reggae, along with the traditional Trinidadian calypso and the more recent Soca (soul calypso) music.
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