Steel Pan Music Child of the Twentieth Century
Written by Simeon L. Sandiford
Thursday, 21 July 2011 22:23


In the Musician of February, 1990, Mark Rowland asserts with conviction,

"The steel bands of Trinidad and Tobago are at once one of the music world's greatest spectacles and great secrets. Spectacles because the sight and sound of these bands, numbering anywhere between 20 and 100 players, knocking out rocking calypso tunes with melodic elan and perfectly synchronized arrangements, is the closest thing to rhythmic ecstasy this side of you know what. Secrets because you have to go to Trinidad to hear them. Yeah, there are steelbands in the U.S., but once you've heard the masters play, it's like hearing bar bands covering the Beatles."

That Rowland marvels at the hypnotic power and majesty of the steelband as played by Trinidadians is not surprising. The steelpan sprang from the hunger, pain and defiant joy of the ex-slaves of Trinidad and Tobago, people of the rough streets and ghettos. Here was a people's burning need for self-expression and identification. A need so strong that it fashioned something new to proclaim itself. The majority of players still learns by rote and play without any tangible financial reward. Pride of performance is everything to them and this is what empowers their music. To hear our steelband music is to hear the soul of Trinidad and Tobago.

From crude beginnings the steelpan has evolved to acquire a breathtaking sophistication. The steelpan has demonstrated the capacity not only to extend the range of orchestral music but also to replicate the sounds of many other instruments. Because of this gift of mimicry, entire symphonies have been faithfully rendered solely by steelbands. Yet no other instrument possesses the bell-like echoing, the silver purity, of the steelpan. Stephen Brookes, writing in Insight of December 5,1988, says,


"Playing classical music on the pan has been necessary to secure its stature as a modern musical instrument, pannists say, but it also has shown just how broad and colorful the steel band's musical palette really is. From delicate, shimmering passages that suggest the ethereal sound of a glass harmonica to detailed counterpoint and intricate passagework and thundering, unstoppable percussive crescendos, the sound of a full-size steel orchestra is, in a word, extraordinary. It has an uncanny ability to evoke the sound of trumpets, woodwinds, even strings. Ringing with complex harmonics, the sound is almost hypnotic."

Jerry Jemmott, one of Trinidad's most respected arrangers and conductors of the steelband, says,

"Audiences who hear pan orchestras in Europe can't believe we're getting all these different tones from them. They come up and look around for wires. They think we're using a synthesizer."

Easley Blackwood, a music professor at the University of Chicago who has been a judge at Trinidad and Tobago's Steelband Festivals, is quoted in the above article in Insight of complaining that his colleagues in the U.S. music world do not take pan seriously enough.


"They do not realize that it really is high-class music making, very accurately and beautifully played, and getting more sophisticated all the time," he says.

The comments of non-Trinidadians show the response of music-lovers on their first exposure to the steelpan as played in the country of its birth. Tens of thousands pour in during Carnival. Tens of thousands are enraptured, mesmerized by the awesome power of giant steelbands exploding with music. Why then isn't this music rocking the airwaves in the U.S.A. and Europe?

Reggae, after all, is only a beat yet it quickly gained world recognition. Credit Jamaica's close links with the U.S.A.'s large music market and its aggressive promotion machine. Credit Bob Marley, the prophet of reggae, who blazed a trail for others to follow. Blame Trinidad and Tobago itself, the twin-island state so long on talent and woefully short on the necessary confidence to push her creation, the steelpan. Yet the steelpan is the only new family of acoustic instruments to have been invented in the last 100 years! The voyage to discover and chart the musical range and artistic possibilities still sleeping in this new, flexible instrument beckons. What an exciting, even irresistible prospect for musicologists!

American documentary film-maker, Don Sanders, assures us in his movie, The Rhythm In Steel, that not more than one out of every one hundred persons has heard steelpan music. This is amazing when one considers the spread of information in the shrinking global village. What is a steelpan after all? The steelpan is the National Music Instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. It was invented there circa 1940. The steelpan is a definite-pitch, acoustic, percussion instrument. It consists of a circular steel playing surface stretched to a concave shape, attached to a hollow, metallic, cylindrical resonator called a skirt. The playing surface is divided into an optimum number of convex sections called notes, each of which is acoustically isolated and tuned to a definite pitch. The instrument is usually played with a pair of hand-held, rubber-tipped, non-sonorous mallets called sticks. Persons skilled in the art of playing the stelepan are called pannists. The ensemble, which usually consists of a family of steelpans encompassing a range of approximately six chromatic octaves, is known as a steelband or steel orchestra. It is often supported by a rhythm section consisting of a variety of other indefinite-pitch percussion instruments which, when played in harmony, regulate the tempo of the music.

Christine Zephirin, narrator and co-producer of Drums of Steel, a WRLN Radio Special Series, summarizes the potential of steelpan music this way:


"Pan music embraces all cultures. It sings the songs of Trinidad's own Calypsonians, the Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener, swings the melodies of Rogers and Hart and Duke Ellington, and brilliantly interprets the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven".


The single focus of the article, however, is the extended arrangements of Calypsos called Panorama Music, as played by steelbands.

Panorama is a unique steelband competition, totally indigenous to the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. It was inaugurated during the Carnival Season of 1963 mainly because the steelband movement felt the need for formal competition and the self-respect and recognition that would arise from this. Since then, for every Carnival season, with the exception of 1979, as many as 100 steel orchestras, each consisting of between 50 and 100 players, spend four to six weeks of long, irregular hours learning an arrangement of a calypso. Each band is allowed a maximum of ten minutes to interpret and extend a melody that is originally about 1½ minutes long. The arrangements when fully exploited are varied, interesting and challenging. The structure of a typical arrangement includes an introduction, statement of the melody, harmonic and melodic developments, changes of key, changes of rhythm, modulations, improvisations and a finale. The headiest victory for a panman is to be part of a team that wins a Panorama and this is pursued in a manner that may best be described as obsessive.

The music for each orchestra is laid down aurally by a respected arranger in such a way as to give endless delight to the audience while, of course, maintaining the vigorous tempo that is the very spirit of Carnival. The competition itself takes place in various venues over a period of about two weeks, the country being divided into zones. The grand finals take place at the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain, on Carnival Saturday night before a highly charged audience of between 35,000 and 50,000 patrons. The massive outdoor stage measures 274 feet by 48 feet and each orchestra occupies up to 90 per cent of it. Each arranger works to send the adrenalin racing with all kinds of devices. Some will change parts of an arrangement on the final night itself. Others will come down with just the rhythm section playing, keeping the audience in suspense. Others have been known to practice sections of the band separately and put them together just before going on stage. Imagine the drama! The greater the risk, the more the excitement.

Over the years, Panorama competitions have become an integral part of some of the other hundred and fifty-odd Carnival celebrations throughout the world - such as those in Grenada and Antigua, Notting Hill in England, Caribana in Canada, Labour Day in Brooklyn and Boston Carnival. It is well known that the Japanese would like to stage such a competition in Tokyo. The logistics of such an undertaking are still being fine-tuned by the organizers. The main problem regarding the longevity of Panorama music outside the traditional Carnival season is the length of the renditions. Most radio stations do not play music that is beyond four or five minutes and it would be nothing less than sacrilegious to fade out a Panorama selection. Therefore, airplay is almost entirely restricted to specialized, non-mainstream radio stations. It is sad to say that the musicians quickly forget these elaborate and intricate arrangements when Carnival is over.

However, since 1992, the Trinidad and Tobago Methanol Company has sponsored a project aimed at publishing sheet music scores of the better Panorama arrangements of each season, with a view to preserving them. These scores are available for purchase and are used by steel orchestras, mainly those outside of Trinidad and Tobago. As a further step, some of the earlier classics, for example, Dan Is The Man by Pan Am North Stars (1963), The Wrecker by Solo Harmonites (1968), Queen Of The Bands by CIBC Starlift (1971), ought to be resurrected and published before these arrangements are totally forgotten.

International recognition of steelpan music has been sporadic and uncertain, though much increased in recent years. It is being taught in schools and universities in many parts of the world. There are Summer workshops featuring such distinguished Trinidadian pannists as Ken Philmore, a brilliant performer and writer for the steelpan. Also Ray Holman, one of the most innovative and respected composers of pan music, known for the unique voice of his creations. And one of the greatest Trinidadian tuners of the steelpan, Ellie Mannette, is now Director of Steelband Studies at West Virginia University. There are such bands as the Birds of Steel of Glendale, Arizona - a United Methodist Church orchestra that plays in the church and has released their CD of religious music in October, 1995. For the second year the Centre for Music of the Americas has held an annual Centre for World Music Performance, which includes steelpan playing. The Pan New England Steelband Festival has been taking place for even longer - seven years. The Washington High School Steelband has made tours throughout the U.S.A. and toured Europe in 1995.

Far away in Nigeria the army also has a Steelband and now the music is to be taught in schools. A church in Kenya also has a steel orchestra. Members of the Dutch National Police Force have formed the Dutch National Steelband and there are steelbands in Switzerland. The Japanese are developing such a taste for the steelpan that players from Trinidad and elsewhere are regularly contracted to perform at such functions as the Opening Event of Landmark Plaza and the Dockyard Summer Festival in Yokohama. Small cabaret steelpan groups are now playing in the U.S.A. to enthusiastic audiences and there is growth in the sales of Steelband cassettes and CD's. Steelpan music is not, therefore, limited to the confines of a single country's folklore. From Japan to Nigeria it has stirred a wide appeal among many different peoples. Its use and appeal are universal.

Recognition by such a powerful organization as NARAS would aid immeasurably in bringing the steelpan and its music into the forefront of world culture. Creating a special category for Steelpan Panorama Music in the Grammy Awards would be a start. Panorama music does not necessarily have to be calypso-derived. As long as the rhythmic ingredients exist, any suitable music from a particular country could be ingeniously extended to ten minutes by Steelband arrangers. Imagine an exciting and very new, fresh occasion/adventure - the formal launching of a WORLD Steelpan Panorama Music Competition. With the right publicity it could be an enormous drawing card for music lovers from all over the world. And on that occasion, to light up the sky, pyrotechnics galore - the steelpan players from Trinidad and Tobago!

© 1995 Simeon L. Sandiford