The Steel Pan (also referred to as the Steel Drum) is a percussion instrument originating from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930’s. It is a widely recognised instrument with a unique sound and rich history which is characteristic to Caribbean culture. Although the steel pan was originally designed to play Calypso music, modern influences have integrated the steel pan due to its versatile nature.
The steel pan was an instrument used in street music and designed to be played at festivals, known as Calypso music. When French planters arrived in Trinidad in the 1700’s they introduced the concept of carnivals and their slaves had their own festivals which were driven by drum music. After emancipation, the music become noisier and drum music was banned by the British government. Tamboo-bamboo then surfaced, which were bamboo cuts being struck on the ground which was also then banned in 1934, thus the emergence and survival of the steel pan. People began experimenting with pots and pans lying around and the steel pan became iconic to Trinidadian culture. By 1941, the sound of the steel pan had entered America.
The steel pan is originally made out of 55 gallon industrial oil drums. The process consists of ten steps including sinking the drum, marking and denting the metal and tuning the notes. Modern steel pans use sheet metal instead of oil drums. The instrument has three main parts; the skirt, the belly and the playing surface. The skirt is the surrounding base of the drum – the shorter the skirt, the higher the pitch. The belly is where the sound resonates and the playing surface contains the notes. The higher pitch notes are made of smaller indentations that the lower notes. The tenor steel pan is a typical example of a short-skirted, higher pitched drum and is the most recognised. The metal is then hit using mallets. Talented pannists may sometimes use two mallets per hand. The grip can alter the sound produced so there is a specific technique to be mastered.
This Trinidadian instrument is extremely versatile and although developed initially for calypso music, it can be used to play any genre. The steel pan has been used in reggae, ska, western pop and even contemporary Christian music. For example, The Hollies used the steel pan in their song “Carrie-Ann” and Prince popularized the sound in his “New Position.” The steel pan is also the defining instrument to the Disney song “Under the sea” in the Little Mermaid. It seems to be a popular choice as its high pitched sound promotes an exotic and tropical image. This makes the steel pan useful for producing upbeat and happy songs which resonates sunshine and unity.
The steel pan is still undergoing development, with advancements in notes, tuning and attempts at simplifying the manufacturing processes to allow mass production. Steel pans can also deteriorate quite easily and need retuning twice a year. Sheet metal can now be used as an alternative to oil drums. Electronic pans have also been designed; the E-pan for example, by Salmon Cupid. British composer Daphne Oram was the first to use an electronic steel pan in her composition. This instrument is only 80 years old which allows for expansion however traditional pannists will insist that there is nothing like an original Trinidadian steel drum.
Trinidad holds various competitions for Steel bands, honouring their tradition. The most famous is the World Steel band Music Festival which has been running since 1964 and invites competitors from across the world to re-interpret calypsos and perform a piece of their choice, usually a classical rendition.
The steel pan is a unique and inspiring instrument with an enriched history which is upheld with each playing. The joyful pitch and exotic tones can transport listeners to an auditory paradise, while Trinidadians are reminded of their rejoice and conquer from oppression. It is an instrument with room to develop, perhaps making it an innovative choice to use in a modern, Caribbean inspired composition.