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.
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!