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History of The Steel Pan Instrument and Music
By Thorne

During the time of slavery and repression in Trinidad the British government banned African drumming claiming it was promoting violence. Trinidadians always believed that music should be made by whatever comes to hand so hey created music from bamboo which they thumped on the ground, and later created “Tamboo Bamboo Bands”. Between the 1930’s and 1943 inspired by such ideas hubcaps and empty oil drums became a new sort of drum-steel with distinct notes hammered into the surface. Winston “spree” Simon is generally credited with being the first person to put a note on a steel drum. Ellie Mannette, a pan-maker, was the first to dish out a pan and give the steel drum its mature form. Many tuners have experimented with and producing tuned 'pans', eventually forming large groups of the neighborhood panmen into orchestrated bands The steel band members called the music Pan and the oil drums on which it is played were called “pan drums”. The Steel Drum carries the full chromatic range of notes, and can produce just about any type of music you can think of. The steel drum is the only non-electronic musical instrument invented this century.

How the Steel Pans are constructed
Each pan is constructed by hand, starting with the bottom of a 55-gallon oil barrel. The bottom is hammered out into a concave shape, and the different notes are marked on the surface of this "bowl." (There is currently no standardized arrangement of the notes; each tuner has his own preferred setup for the different ranges of pans.) The edges of these areas are then "grooved" into the surface, by hammering grooves into the surface of the pan using a hammer and a nail punch (or chisel). This isolates the different areas of the surface, allowing for the creation of distinct pitches on the drums. Common practice calls for the larger (lower-pitched) notes to be situated near the edge of the barrel, with smaller (higher) pitches towards the center.

The sides of the barrel are cut to a particular length (or left their full length, in the case of bass pans), depending on the range of the drum being constructed. Higher-ranged instruments will have a shorter "skirt" (the name for the sides of the instrument), and lower-ranged instruments will have longer "skirts." The space inside the instrument acts as a resonating chamber, helping to increase the volume of the instrument.

Here is where the "magic" begins - although, the "magic" is nothing more than years of experience and skills developed by the individual tuner. By hammering each individual note, the metal is shaped and stretched, such that it produces not only the fundamental ("primary") pitch, but harmonics - harmonics which are also shaped and tuned by the instrument builder. Originally, these instruments were all tuned by ear, but modern-day tuners use strobe-tuners to finely hone their work.

Once the tuning is completed, the drum is set over a fire, to re-temper the steel. After all of the hammering which has taken place, the metal is relatively malleable, and in that condition will not retain its tuning for long when played. The process of tempering makes the steel strong enough to withstand the rigors of performance. Instruments do need to be retuned from time to time, usually at least once a year, depending on how much the instrument is played. The final step is finishing off the instrument's surface, either by chroming or by painting, depending on the builder's preference.

Just as stringed instruments are found in different sizes and ranges (violin, viola, cello, contrabass), pans come in different ranges as well.

Lead ("tenor") Pan - highest range, single barrel; traditionally plays the melody in steel band arrangements

Double Tenor Pan - next highest range, comprised of two barrels. May play the melody, or a harmonized version of the melody, or may "strum" chords beneath the melody.

Double Seconds Pan - slightly lower than the Double Tenors, also comprised of two barrels. Often strums chords, but may play melody, harmony or other parts of an arrangement.

Cello pan - usually three or four barrels, set in a semicircle, comprise this instrument. These fill a variety of roles in a steel band, ranging from bass lines, to strums, to the melody.

Quadrophonics - a sister instrument to the 'cello pan; however, rather than having the drums arranged side-by-side in a semicircle, two of the drums are set flat in front of the player, while the two remaining barrels are set vertically.

Bass pan - as the name would indicate, the lowest-ranged instrument in the steel band. Due to the size of the notes used on this instrument, there may be as few as three different pitches on each barrel, requiring the use of six, eight, or even more barrels to complete a single instrument. The traditional role of this instrument is bass lines.

Steel bands are usually embellished with a rhythm section (known as an "engine room"), including drum set, congas, iron (brake drum), cowbell, and any other percussion instrument which suits the arranger's purpose.