Steel Pan review

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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The steel pan is originally made out of 55 gallon industrial oil drums.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.

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Assasin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Soundtrack Review

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The soundtrack for Black Flag was designed by American composer Brian Tyler, whose works include The Expendables, Iron Man 3 and the video game Far Cry 3. The latest Assassin’s Creed instalment is based upon Caribbean pirates so the soundtrack needed to generate a nautical authenticity, which it does very well. The overall composition is 34 tracks and is a wonderful blend of extensive orchestral and rock instrumentation. The tracks may have a familiar sound to them as they are strongly inspired by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt with their work on Pirates of the Caribbean. The main opening theme for the game has a strong resemblance to the lively folk jig of the first POC film.

The tracks in Black Flag really create a seafaring atmosphere and vary in timbre to compliment the player’s actions. The three prominent tones vary between jovial jigs, dramatic combat and calm exploration. The jigs are used when the player visits the towns and comprise of Irish folk music using percussive drums, strings and brass. This maintains the nautical feel while providing some light hearted music to accompany a pirate’s errands. When exploring a relatively safe location like a jungle for example, the music takes a more minimal approach. The drums are quiet and light in the background while strings play delicate yet lengthy notes. As tension increases when entering battle, the strings are shorter, sharper and used in repetitive bars. The drums become dominant as they increase in volume and tempo. A key instrument to this soundtrack and other music depicting the Golden Age of piracy is the Marimba. This is a percussive instrument made up of wooden bars. It originated in the West Indies by African Slaves in the 16th and 17th century, making the sound characteristic and relevant to the Black Flag soundtrack.

When sailing the high seas, the music disappears (unless in combat with another ship) and is instead replaced by sea shanties. These are collectable in the game and allow your crew to sing while sailing and include famous shanties such as Drunken Sailor. The singing can be turned on and off by the player. They add a charm to the game and reinforce the authenticity of the setting however if the player is not a fan of drunken chants they can become quite irritating, especially when you find yourself singing along even when not playing the game as they are extremely catchy. When the shanties are turned off, there is no music at all apart from the gentle lull of the waves which although slightly boring, is an accurate portrayal of being a pirate.

Although wonderfully composed, the integration of the soundtrack can be inconsistent at times. The music tends to alter in tone, becoming tenser which makes the player think they are approaching danger when they are not. It then ebbs away again into the previous music which can be confusing. It can also phase in and out randomly leaving the player nothing to listen to but their own footsteps, for quite some time until it kicks in again. With 1 hour 38 minutes of play time, the music can become quite tedious as there are no tracks which really stand out. The tone does change to accommodate battles, but there are no individual songs which really represent a character or a place and they all tend to sound quite similar. Even when listening to the soundtrack when not playing the game, there is no song which really sparks an association.

Overall, Tyler’s composition is outstanding representation of 17th century piracy and has been beautifully crafted to fit around the needs of the game. It produces such an authenticity that it really enhances the setting and atmosphere of Black Flag. Except for a few small inconsistencies, the music is flawless and lends a hand to making this instalment evolve from the other Assasin’s Creed titles.