Friday, September 26, 2008


Like one of our heroes, Bart Hopkin, we like the idea of making music from “found” objects—a coffee can cuica anyone? (pronounced “QUEEK-ah”) Takes about 5 minutes (if that) to make, & (assuming you were going to drink the coffee anyway), costs nothing—we used one in the Alice in Wonder Band.

But what I’m writing about here is a
bit more of a “serious” instrument than the coffee can cuica (tell me, tho—how is something you “play” ever totally serious?)—namely, the steel drum.

For those of you who don’t know, the steel drum, or steel pan, is an instrument from the Caribbean, & more specifically from the island of Trinidad. In this case, a cruel necessity was indeed the mother of invention; the British rulers of Trinidad outlawed the use of hand drums in street parades in 1883, apparently fearing that the hand drums were being used to transmit secret messages & thus to foment unrest among th
e African population. Of course, the hand drum is the central instrument in African music—central in a way that really has no counterpart in European music. At first, drums were replaced by sticks, & especially by bamboo sticks (which could be tuned) called Tamboo Bamboo. These sticks were struck against the ground to produce a rhythm. The Tamboo Bamboo bands soon added other “found” instrument, including bottles & spoons (apparently gin bottles were favored), & then later parts of automobiles (such as brake hubs), as well as biscuit tins entered the bands.

The biscuit tin, then, was the first “steel drum,” though something more like the modern version was created when paint cans were pounded out from the inside in a way that allowed the musician to play different notes—if you’re reading
carefully, you’ll notice that these proto-steel drums were convex rather than concave, which steel drums are now. A drummer by the name of Winston “Spree” Simon is credited with creating the convex steel drum, while Ellie Manette is credited for the first concave steel drum; forming the steel drum in this concave shape is known as “sinking the pan.” The use of oil barrels (55-gallon drums) for steel pans probably started in the mid 40’s. The first all steel drum bands came about in the 50’s—the first of these, The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, toured Great Britain in 1951.

Nowadays steel drums orchestras are common in the islands—& elsewhere. There are a total of 13 sizes of this

Soprano, lead, or tenor
Double tenor
Double second
Double guitar

Quadrophonic (four pans)
Triple guitar
Cello—typically made of three to four barrels
Six pan
Tenor bass (three and four pan variations)
Six bass (and numerical variations)
Seven bass
Nine bass (with numerical variations up to 12)
12 bass

The steel drum is also an effective solo instrument, particularly in the “lead” size. One very intriguing feature of the lead steel pan is that the notes are arranged in what’s known amongst us musician folks as the Circle of Fifths. As you can see in the pic, if you move in intervals of five, the movement across the 12 chromatic notes of a scale can be described in a circular fashion.

Anyhoo, the steel drum is something we really like—our very good pal Dani Leone is a steel drummer (she performs under the name of Sister Exister, & she does have a cd available!) Dani played steel drum with the Lipsey Mountain Spring Band, still plays with the Spurs of the Moment, & as I said performs both solo & with a back-up band as Sister Exister—the back-up band sometimes includes a cello & trombone—what a hoot! Dani writes her own songs (though she also does calypso & traditional country with the Spurs), & you’ve never heard anyone quite like her. There are some music clips on her MySpace page. Dani plays both with sticks & with ping-pong balls (Dani being about the best ping pong player I know—but it’s also a traditional way of playing the pan). She also has made steel drums both for herself & others (for $ of course in the latter case). The steel drum pictured below is the first one Dani had a hand in building, though in that case she was apprenticed to a more experienced maker.

Eberle also plays the steel drum; she loves the logic of the circle of fifths arrangement, & there is something so compelling about the bright notes with their overtones—the steel drum is an especially “ringy” instrument. As a result, it can b
e tricky to mike either in live situations or for recording. However, we used the steel drum (played both by Dani & Eberle) in our recent Moominpappa at Sea soundtrack & were happy with the takes we got. You can hear Eberle playing one of these numbers on our Moominpappa at Sea page. It’s the third selection in the “Sound Samples” section.

So next time you get a chance, check out the very wonderful steel drum.

Top pic is Dani w/steel pan at the 07 Portland Garden Eclectica Art Fair

** NOTE: I deleted the comments on this post. I felt the comment by "anonymous" was unwarranted & inappropriate, & several other readers felt the same way- no one I asked about this felt "anonymous'" comment was justified. Once "anonymous's" comment was deleted, there was no point in leaving my response to him.

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