Thursday, October 13, 2005

Steel Pans



Thanks to each one who came over to check out the new digs and leave a comment as well as for the birthday wishes. It's all much appreciated. After putting up a post about liming I had the most wonderful opportunity to do some serious liming last night. I got a call, out of the blue, from a friend from Trinidad who I hadn't seen in probably 7 years or more. I found out he was touring with a small steel pan orchestra he had formed. Fortunately, he was performing only about 45 minutes away from my house so I packed up my boy and we went off to hear some sweet pan. After the performance we shut down the place catching up on old times. When the lights were shut out on us and the folks were standing at the door to shoo us out I bawled in meh bes' Trini accent, "Don't let's mash up de lime!" A chorus of agreement rose up and we decided to continue the lime back at the house where the orchestra was staying. Food, drink, and LOTS of laughs and smiles continued until about 1am. Today I am letting my son break beach (cut school) to recover from his first authentic Trini lime.

Allow me to give you a brief primer on Steel Pan though. It is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. It was invented there during the 1930s. It is the only accoustic instrument invented in the 20th century.

"Liming" was introduced by Brit sailors and raised to an art form by Trinis. Steel pan can be traced to American sailors and again, the Trinis "gone mad wit' it." The US Navy had a base in Trinidad and when departing they left an awful lot of material behind. Among the castoffs were 55 gallon oil drums. Animal skin drums and tamboo bamboo bands had been outlawed or heavily restricted but the need for rhythm could not be so easily regulated. The ubiquitous oil drums became the next item to carry the beat.

As the instrument gained popularity it had an effect on 1940s Trini culture that was similar to the effect of rock music here in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a somewhat suspect activity of the younger generation. Bands were formed, rivalries sprang up, and some clashes occured. The instrument gained wider acceptance in the 1950s when a band was sent to the UK to perform for a Commonwealth celebration and was received with enthusiasm. During the 1963 Carnival season the first national Panorama competition between a host of steel pan orchestras was held. Today, the sound of orchestras rehearsing in open air pan yards and the frenzy of excitement that cresendos with the annual competition is a defining feature of Carnival in Trinidad.

The process of creating a drum is incredibly harsh and yet precisely refined. The tools used are sledgehammers, chisels and blow torches. The bottom is heated and pounded down to stretch deeply then each note is chiselled out and heated and pounded up slightly to hold its specific tone. Stretch the bottom too far and the metal ruptures, not far enough and the notes remain flat. The sides of the drum are cut to varying lengths depending on which range of notes the drum will play. The varying lengths give a rich and layered orchestral sound.

Calypso is the most obvious music to be played by pan orchestras but it is easy to find any other musical style adapted and arranged for pans, whether it is pop, jazz, hymns, or even classical music. A mellow rendition will lull you like a gentle tropical breeze on a sunny beach. If it is interpreted "wit' a jump up beat" and fails to get you on your feet and dancing then the coroner needs to be called.

If you'd like to hear some free mp3s of a little pan music youcan check out

Pan music may cover the Caribbean, but make no mistake, it was BORN and BRED in Trinidad!


bsoholic said...

Awwsome! What an oddly cool coincidence you posted about liming and got to take your boy liming! Sounds like it was a lot of fun!

barefoot_mistress said...

Tres informatif! That's so cool that you boy got to break beach today after liming! What an awesome experience for him, i'm sure!

FunkyB said...

That sounds like just about the most fabulous evening. Note to self: get out of the house!

Ariella said...

I likes it,
now chair dancing to some calypso

word veri-
this MEANS something

snavy said...

I fell in love with calypso music when we went on a cruise my junior year in high school!! Thanks for the background!

So glad you got to "LIME" on your birthday!!!

lime said...

bs, it was uncanny!
bare, 2:15pm and he is stillin his jammies, lol
robin.....get limin' girl!
ariella....slamdzl: the effect female hips gyrating to calypso has on men
snavy, thanks! glad youliked:)