Steel pans (also known as steel drums or pans, and sometimes, collectively with other musicians, as a steel band or orchestra) is Trinidad & Tobago’s national musical instrument. Steel pan musicians are called pannists. Pans are part of a family of musical instruments hand-crafted from 55 gallon oil drums to produce a full-range of precisely-tuned musical notes. This instrument gave birth to the steel bands or steel band orchestras, which are now an important piece of Trinidad’s musical identity. The pan is the last piece of musical instrument invented. In fact, it is the only musical instrument invented in the twentieth century. It is the result of a long African tradition of doing a lot with very little and finding creativity by recycling what you have.
History of the Steel band
Steelpans are made from 55 gallon drums that formerly contained oil or oil-like substances. The oil drum, originally used to store petroleum, evolved into the steel pan by making cross-sectional cuts into the 55-gallon metal container. Through further experimentation, percussive sounds of various pitches were produced by indenting and tempering the concave metal surface. The steel drum therefore was used in the creation of what is known today as the steel pan, and although there have been several competing claims to its invention, it is generally accepted that the steel pan was first made around 1939 in Trinidad & Tobago. What made the steel pan an instant hit is that it is an instrument that it is a versatile instrument that is capable of playing anything from calypso to a Bach symphony. Steelbands quickly become an international success, with shows all over the world. With this international success, the pan quickly becomes the national instrument of Trinidad & Tobago.
How Steeldrums are made
Every steeldrum is played with 2 sticks with rubber ends. The size and type of rubber tip varies according to the class of pan being played. Every pan is custom-made and then handed to a tuner who adds custom modelling. There is no standard way or industry for making a pan. It is always necessary to get an old barrel of petrol in order to fabricate a pan, which is why pan tuners are in such high demand.
Steel Bands Structure
Steel bands typically consist of 10 to 150 players. However, during Panorama, it’s possible to see steel bands with 200 artists. Each pan or group of pans plays part of the whole chromatic scale. They are divided into 3 important parts: front line pans, the background and the engine room.
- The Engine Room – The engine room is another term for the percussion section in the steelband. The engine room is usually where all non-pan instruments are located such as the drum kit, iron beaters, scratchers, congas, tamborines, cymbals and bells.
- The Frontline – The frontline is generally composed of the tenor, double tenor and seconds. This is the section of the steelband that brings out the melody.
- The Background – The background is the bass section of the steelband. This is where you will find the bass pans, the tenor bass, guitar and cellos.
Panyards are where pannists go to hone their craft and meet other pannists. Panyards are where you go to listen to the rhythmic sounds of the steel pans. In Port of Spain, during carnival season, you can easily discover and listen to the music of Steelbands by simply visiting a panyard. All over the city, Pan orchestras practice in open-air panyards long into the night. Many times, the steelbands practice the pieces that they will play during Panorama. Most of these practice sessions are open to the general public. The following are addresses of some of the most popular panyards in Port of Spain:
- Amoco Renegades at 138 Charlotte Street, Downtown
- BWIA Invaders at Tragarete Road, Woodbrook
- Phase II Pan Grove at 13 Hamilton Street, Woodbrook
- Blue Diamonds at George Street, Downtown
- All Stars at 46 Duke Street, Downtown
- Desperadoes at Laventille Community Center
Steel Bands During Carnival
The international popularity of Steelbands have led to the creation of an international festival for Steelbands that takes place on the Savanah of Port of Spain during the Carnival season. The Steel Pan Festival or ‘Panorama‘ is an important international event in Trinidad. Each February and March, steel-band music competitions are held throughout the islands. Most of the Steel Pan festivities are concentrated within Port of Spain‘s very own Queen’s Park Savannah. There are two competitions, one for the popular songs of the year, and a separate contest, which showcases both the technical ability of each band and the versatility of the steeldrum by presenting highly orchestrated classical pieces. You can also hear more pan at the Bomb completion, held at Adam Smith Square in Woodbrook as part of J’Ouvert celebrations. This is where the bands show off their skills at non-calypso tunes such as rock, pop and classical music. It can almost be described as the remix of the pan world.