Steel Pan review


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The steel pan is originally made out of 55 gallon industrial oil drums.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





The Japanese culture is one of etiquette and tradition and even their instruments reflect this. A shamisen is a three stringed instrument which resembles a banjo or perhaps a guitar. It is played by plucking, using a fan shaped plectrum called a bachi. Despite consisting of only three strings, the sound of the shamisen is very distinct and can be manipulated in a variety of ways.

Traditionally, the shamisen is constructed of high value materials such as silk and ivory however there are cheaper and more durable versions, usually used by practising students. The shamisen is comprised of two main parts which can be disassembled for convenience; the body and the neck. The frame is usually carved out of mulberry or sandalwood. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and has three pegs at the end used to tighten the strings. The strings would be made using silk, or sometimes nylon, and would be pulled across the base of the shamisen. The body resembles a drum and is covered with taut hide. For professional players, this is usually cat skin and some of the most highly regarded shamisen still feature the cat’s nipples.

The shamisen is derived from a Chinese instrument called the sanchian in the 16th century. Since reaching Japan, the shamisen has become a characteristic feature of Kabuki; the Japanese theatre. It can be played solo or as part of an ensemble.  Shamisens are also often associated with geisha as maikos take lessons in learning the shamisen shape their future as geisha. They often play the shamisen at teahouses to entertain the guests. Memoirs of a geisha (a film and novel) exemplify the importance of learning the shamisen and even show the lead character performing Kabuki where the shamisen is used as an accompaniment to a dance performance.

The shamisen has a very unique sound and could be likened to a whiney twang. The piercing notes linger by the amplification of the drum body and this gives the instrument a melancholic tone. When plucked slowly, the shamisen produces quite an eerie yet calming sound with a mysterious implication. However, when tempo and volume are increased, the shamisen can create a lively and upbeat atmosphere which emanates a slight urgency.

Traditional shamisen playing adhere to very strict rules about the construction and composition of shamisen music. However,   Tsugaru-jamisen is a genre of shamisen music developed in northern Japan which has been growing in repertoire. The rules are much more relaxed with this genre and has allowed for variation in shamisen playing. For example, the strings of the instrument tend to be thicker, the components are made out of acrylic materials and even an electric tsugaru-jamisen has been developed. This style of playing has a more percussive quality, created by the plectrum striking the body after each stroke.

In 1999, the shamisen was revolutionised by The Yoshida Brothers who beautifully demonstrate the variation in energy which a shamisen can have. Playing tsugaru-jamisen, they incorporate elements of jazz and rock and use other instruments such as drums and synthesizers to enhance the shamisen. They became extremely popular, reaching American ears and their music was even used to advertise the Nintendo Wii.

The shamisen is an instrument which radiates delicacy and reform. With a single note, the mind inadvertently delves into the realm of Japanese culture. An instrument which is able to do this is a powerful one and this essence must be retained. Although modernists have updated the perception of shamisen playing, the unique sound still resonates, reminding listeners of the underlying history and culture. If anything, the updating of shamisen playing has reminded the modern world of this pure instrument and has allowed it to enter the market, therefore re-entering minds.