Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Trini Tuesday-Home of the Steelpan

Since I gave you a brief history on the development of Calypso music a couple of weeks ago, today I will give you an introduction (reworked from posts in the early days of this blog) to the instrument Trinidad gave to the world, the Steel Pan. It is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. It was invented there during the 1930s.

"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. They left a lot of "materials" behind. Among the castoffs were 55 gallon oil drums. Local authorities had clearly learned nothing from the slave masters of old and had prohibited or heavily regulated animal skin drums and bamboo bands. Local musicians merely transitioned to the ubiquitous oil drums left by the military.

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 interest of the younger generation. Bands were formed, rivalries sprang up, and some clashes occurred. 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 several steel pan orchestras was held. Today, the sound of orchestras rehearsing in open air pan yards and the frenzy of excitement that crescendos 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 chiseled 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.

I've found a groovy little YouTube video that demonstrates how pans are made. They won't let me imbed it here so go watch it and then come back, we'll wait...

Pretty amazing huh? Something the video doesn't tell you, because they show a nice sterile looking factory, is that it is only in recent years that there has been any attempt at standardization.

Previously, each orchestra had its own makers and each maker placed the notes on the pans according to their own arrangement. So, if it was with Desperados that you learned to beat pan and then you left because Winston over dere was givin yuh plenty belly and yuh had yuh fill so yuh goin to Renegades and beatin with all of dey...Well, expect to learn to play all over again because Renegades has a whole different set of pans. Remember I told you about the annual competition during Carnival? Each orchestra has it's own pan makers and musical arrangers and it helps keep the finer nuances of the arrangements within the respective orchestras. Interestingly, many pannists do not read music at all and learn the arrangements entirely by ear. and now for your listening pleasure, several different styles of music interpreted on the pan....





An example of classical music on the steel pan...Trust me, here and give it a listen.


A different sort of classic played on pan...In this one you can see playing the steel pan is as much a dance as anything else.


Amazing Grace


Finally, all yuh get on yuh feet and Dingolay (That's Trini slang for dance with abandon)!


Now, steel pan music may be heard all over the Caribbean and across the world, but make no mistake. It was BORN and BRED in Trinidad!

14 comments:

Cricket said...

Gotta love steel pans. When we were little, my sister and I had an LP of calypso that we would put on whenever we were feeling grim, or to cheer the other one up... it never failed.

A few years ago when she was having a bit of a time I sent her a CD of it. It still works for us.

Am hoping to get back on track visiting and reading this week.

Jazz said...

My dad brought me back a toy steel drum when I was a kid. Damn how I loved that drum...

Craig said...

OK, I'm gonna check out the vids as soon as I get home tonight. . .

Cocotte said...

I love the sound.....it just goes with warm breezes and tropical fruit drinks!

furiousBall said...

love this, love this, love this!

steel drums are one of my favorite instruments - because they are so perfectly flawed

S said...

Oh i really like those drums! I remember when you posted this before.
(thankfully, some of us working women have LOTS of repostworthy blog fodder from days of olde!)

Suldog said...

The Toccata on pans is fantastic! One of my favorite pieces, and the instruments lend it an entirely different air. So cool to hear something so familiar done in a way that totally catches the ear in a good way.

VE said...

Very nice...but if you get my son interested and he starts to practice in the house...you're in big trouble...

G-Man said...

Bangin to Bach!!!!!!

Logophile said...

Ya know, from the first time I heard it, I have always loved steel drum music. There was a group in Seattle, playing in the open and I made my friends stay around till the band packed up and moved off.
LOVE it!

Sue said...

The year: 1972
The place: Barbados

This was when Ron and I first heard steel drums - on a beach with rum punch, and celebrating our 3rd wedding anniversary. We didn't make it to Trinidad during that trip, but we can still hope.
But every time I hear steel drums, it makes me smile.
Thanks for the smile you gave me today.

Craig said...

OK, now that was cool. I'm impressed at the varied sounds they can get out of those things. . .

Are they doin' the Lime Dance? (Or are you doin' theirs?)

The Toccata and Fugue was pretty amazing. . .

Thanks for this. . .

Ananda girl said...

I had the good fortune to be friends with a family where the dad was the head of the music department at our local college. They traveled all over the world so that he could collect various kinds of music and lore. One of the things he learned was to make steel drums... in Trinidad and collected many pieces of music to share. The performed as a family. Wonderful music. Magical!

Jocelyn said...

This is THE instrument I've always wanted to learn...and the dancing? Would be a great side bonus. I think I'm Trinidadian at heart. You've just shown me.