Of all the musical instruments in the world there seem to be few that can compare to the unique qualities of the steel drum. Originated in Trinidad, the steel drum is virtually an “infant” among musical instruments, having had its creation and evolution occur only since 1945. The broad spectrum of cultural and economical changes that have occurred since Columbus’ discovery of Trinidad in 1498 all played a crucial role in the development of the steelband movement. For one to nurture a sincere appreciation for this art form an understanding of the history of Trinidad and Tobago and its people is essential.

The steel drum’s inception was a direct response to social injustices being forced upon the island nation in the years following the 1838 emancipation from British rule. Its social impact harbored fierce competition between different factions on the island, often resulting in violence among the youths (referred to as “yardies”) in the steelbands. This era of competitiveness nurtured a generation of instrument makers, known as “panmen”, who were very secretive about their craft. When a panman created an innovation, such as extending note range or reconfiguring note placement, the other panmen would attempt something more revolutionary.

The modern steel drum industry is still suffering from the effects of those years of competition and distrust. This history of competitiveness among steel drum makers and players has resulted in such problems as the lack of standardization of design and note configuration. While this rivalry did much to promote improvements in steel drum construction it also inhibited its progress by building up walls between panmen, thus limiting the sharing of ideas and concepts. As recently as the early 1980s panmen began to come together to pool their resources and knowledge to work toward establishing a universal system of instrumentation, note configuration, and construction. They further realized the substantial financial opportunities available in making the steel drum more accessible to enthusiasts, especially in the United States. More importantly, panmen have come to realize that their continued isolationism endangers the longevity of the instrument. The true originators of the steel drum, like Ellie Mannette, are aware of their own limitations and mortality.

I want to share my knowledge and experience about pan with anyone who is interested. I don’t want to die with my knowledge. Who would it profit to make the young tuners and builders struggle to learn what I’ve discovered through years of experimentation? My way is not the only way or the best way...but I know that my methods work for me and my students. I expect them to take what I and the other pioneers have done in the last 50 years and improve on it for the future.

Examination and documentation of all aspects of the steel drum, such as this manuscript, serve as a catalyst for panmen to continue their collaboration toward expanding public knowledge about this significant instrument. This current trend of cooperation and sharing of information among steel drum craftsmen and enthusiasts will help the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago to survive beyond the lives of its creators.

Shelly Irvine, “West Virginia University’s Steelband Workshop ‘96: Ellie Mannette’s Golden Celebration 1946-1996.” Pan-lime 3, no.7,8 (July/August 1996): 6.

Post-Emancipation Trinidad

The post-emancipation era was a time of great migration of Africans from surrounding provinces to Trinidad and Tobago. These new residents were forced to stay in over-crowded communities known as “shanty towns”. The resulting poverty and unemployment (termed “vagrancy” by the white upper class) forced the shanty town residents to often resort to prostitution, petty crime, gambling, and other unlawful methods to sustain themselves

By the 1850s and 1860s Carnival celebrations had been taken over by “jamettes”, a term used to refer to people living under the line of respectability. The jamettes organized themselves into bands that developed rivalries which often resulted in violence, especially at Carnival time. This was because the kalindas that the jamette bands sang, which had come to include hardwood sticks as part of the instrumentation (played by individuals later referred to as “stickfighters”), would issue challenges to other bands boasting of their stickfighters abilities. The resulting battles between the bands were violent, bloody affairs. The white ruling class began attempts to stifle Carnival celebrations on the grounds that they had degenerated to a volatile combination of lewdness and violence that endangered the stability of the islands’ economic and social structure. At the 1881 Carnival a large band of policemen attempted to disperse celebrants on the streets of Port of Spain. The result was a two-day battle between whites and blacks known as the “Cannes Brulles” riots. The following year the street processions were closely scrutinized and major confrontations were avoided. When violence erupted again in 1883 the Trinidadian government enacted the Peace Preservation Ordinance of 1884. This action empowered the government to ban torch processions, drumming, dancing, and groups of ten or more people with sticks. The simple act of possessing a drum was considered unlawful and punishable by arrest and incarceration. Although the drum ban was a serious setback for Trinidad’s cultural growth it did not stifle the creative spirit of the people. Different neighborhoods in Port of Spain began to establish their own bands, utilizing instruments made from pieces of a plant that was plentiful on the islands: bamboo. Various lengths and sizes of bamboo were struck against each other, with a stick, or on the ground. The resulting combination of rhythm, pitch, and timbre became known as “tamboo bamboo” (“tamboo” from the French “tambour”, meaning “drum”). Instrumentation for tamboo bamboo bands was divided into three basic “voicings”: “foulé”, “cutter”, and “boom”. The foulé was the highest voice, consisting of two pieces of bamboo about 12” long and .66” in diameter that were struck against each other end to end. The cutter, which was the middle voice, was a thin piece of bamboo of varying lengths that was held over the shoulder and struck with a hardwood stick. The boom, the largest and lowest-pitched bamboo, was used to provide a solid rhythmic foundation for the band. It was about 5’ long, ” in diameter, and was played by stamping the end on the ground. One additional “voice” in tamboo bamboo was a percussion instrument that was a product of the impoverished communities of Port of Spain: an empty gin bottle played with a spoon. This implement provided rhythmic accompaniment to help keep an accurate pulse for the bamboo players.

Instrumentation in tamboo bamboo was not standardized. There were a variety of different bamboo instruments throughout Port of Spain that were closely related to the foulé, cutter, and boom. Three of the most common secondary bamboo instruments were the “buller”, the ”fuller”, and the “chandler”. The buller was described as a 3’ boom, the fuller (foulé) consisted of two pieces of the same length but with a different number of joints in the bamboo, and the chandler, which was longer than the more common cutter. (Stuempfle, 21.)

The Emergence of "Pan"

For about fifty years tamboo bamboo continued to grow in popularity throughout Trinidad and Tobago. In the 1930s a change began to take place in the instrumentation of the neighborhood bands. A variety of metal implements such as biscuit tins, zinc cans, paint cans, soap boxes, dust bins, and miscellaneous iron scraps began to appear as rhythm instruments in tamboo bamboo bands.

There is a commonly accepted account of the accidental discovery of the resonance and timbre of steel when performed in tamboo bamboo. The Gonzales Place Bamboo Band held that the first time a steel container was used as a musical instrument it happened quite spontaneously. They were playing in the Lime Grove, or, according to some versions, in the yard belonging to the aunt of their famous bass bamboo player Mussel-Rat, when the latter's instrument burst. The resulting gap in the rhythm was filled by his accidentally striking the empty gas tank of an old motor chassis lying nearby. The note produced was so intriguing that he continued playing it through the session.

This was an era of experimentation that made an enormous impact on the development of the modern steel drum. When zinc or paint cans were burned in a bonfire to eliminate the residual chemicals it was discovered that this heating and tempering of the steel actually changed the 'pitch' of the can. It also made the can harder and more capable of withstanding the intense beatings from the players. This burning process is still used today in the manufacturing of steel drums.

Around this time players began to realize that certain areas of their metal containers would produce different pitches from other areas. They also noticed that as the shape of the containers changed so did its pitch. Winston "Spree" Simon, who is often credited as the "father of the steelband", was a pioneer in the development of manipulating metal containers to produce different definite pitches.

The story here, related by pan observer Anthony Rouff, is that Spree lent a pan to Wilson “Thick Lip” Bartholomew, who was known to have the strength to lift a tub of water and pour it on himself. When the pan was returned, it was badly smashed in.In the process of punching it out again, Spree discovered different pitches. He then began to tune a few notes on a caustic soda drum. Rouff claims that this happened during the 1941 Carnival. The story continues to allege that Simon was able to isolate four fairly distinct pitches on his convex-shaped soda drums with which he was able to play very basic melodies.

These discoveries introduced several new instruments that supplanted the bamboo instruments in the neighborhood bands. The "kittle" (also called "tenor kittle" or "side kittle") was a zinc or paint can that produced three definite pitches that were played in a repeated pattern. The kittle replaced the foul as the highest voice in the bands. The cutter was replaced by a caustic soda drum called a "bass kittle" (or “dud-up”) that produced two definite pitches. The “cuff boom” (or “slap bass”), a large biscuit drum with a single indefinite pitch, replaced the large bamboo boom as the lowest voice in the bands. Even the bottle and spoon were replaced by an instrument known simply as an “iron”. The iron was any small resonant piece of metal used as a time keeper. In the early days of the steelband it was usually two pieces of angle iron struck together. Later years introduced the automobile brake drum as a favorite iron instrument.

During the 1940s Spree Simon continued to make significant advancements in the manufacture of steel drums. He was the creator of the “ping pong”, the successor to the kittle. Ping pongs were small oil drums with the bottom hammered out to form a convex-shaped playing surface. It is believed that Simon had been able to obtain eight notes on a ping pong by 1945.

The Modern Steel Drum

It was about this time when a young member of a band called Oval Boys (from the Queen's Park Oval in Woodbrook, a suburb of Port of Spain) named Ellie Mannette introduced a series of innovations that directly influenced the evolution of the modern steel drum. Mannette is credited as being the first to use large oil drums for crafting ping pongs. Up to and during World War II he used 35 gallon sweet oil drums for his instruments. The larger 55 U.S. gallon drums became more accessible in the years immediately following the war, replacing the previously more available 44 or 45 imperial gallon drums. The use of larger oil drums allowed for the placement of more notes on the drum and a tonal production that was far superior to any other metal implement.

Mannette is also acknowledged as being the first to wrap his ping pong sticks with pieces of bicycle inner tube to soften the attack when playing the steel drum. The improvement of the overall tone quality of the steel drums was substantial. This innovation is still used today with strips of latex wrapped around the ends of sticks, rubber balls on the ends of sticks (for lower pitched drums), and even rubber tips specifically manufactured for steel drum sticks. Prior to this upgrade performers used hardwood sticks about 9” long and about 1/2” in diameter with no added material to soften the attack. The hardwood sticks produced a very poor and inconsistent tone quality and increased damage to the pan caused by excessive playing.

His third and probably most significant breakthrough is that he was the first person to sink the bottom of the drum inward, thus creating a concave-shaped playing surface with the individual notes remaining convex. As the playing surface of the steel drum was stretched downward and the metal made thinner it became possible to extend the note range and improve the resonance of each note. Ellie Mannette, the “father of the modern steel drum”, is said to have crafted a ping pong with two diatonic scales by 1947.

The majority of these innovations appear to have occurred during a four-year prohibition of Carnival processions from 1942 through 1945. This restriction was brought about due to economic turmoil as a result of the war. When Carnival processions were reinstated in 1946 the steelbands made their triumphant return.

Unfortunately the fierce competition among the bands during the 1940s and 1950s brought many reports of violent acts such as street fighting and stabbings. Ron Kerns, president of Panyard, Inc., describes a story of how a rival band stole one of Ellie Mannette's first 55 gallon pans and hung it in a tree in their own “panyard” (rehearsal facility), daring Mannette to try to retrieve it. According to Kerns, Mannette never attempted to get his pan back because he was sure that the other bands' members would have killed him. The white press reported that the reason for the violent altercations between neighborhood bands was that the membership of the bands consisted of poor gangs (or 'posses') of youths who had rejected the norms and values of European society. These youths were often referred to by such unfavorable terms as “hooligans”, “badjohns”, “robustmen”, or “yardies”. In the mid-1950s a Ministry of Community Development survey reported that steelbands drew their membership from teenagers who distrusted the upper-class society and who showed a high rate of delinquency and unemployment.

A steelband competition was held at Queen's Park Oval on the Friday before the 1958 Carnival in an attempt to circumvent the negative perceptions of the activity. The competition was not well received because other than having the opportunity to show off to other groups there was little incentive to draw bands to compete. When Trinidad and Tobago received its independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, plans were immediately implemented for the first annual Panorama competition at the 1963 Carnival. Panorama had government backing and offered substantial cash rewards to the winning steelbands. The resulting success of Panorama paved the way for further social acceptance of the steelband which has continued to grow in popularity during the past 34 years. Steelbands now typically number from 80 to 100 players and are continually growing in membership and instrumentation.

Since the 1980s many of the pioneers of the steel drum have made their impression on the American cultural scene. Panmen like Cliff Alexis, Roland ÒThe PopeÓ Harrigin, Ellie Mannette, and Len “Boogsie” Sharpe produce professional-quality instruments and music transcriptions that are helping to draw more contemporary musicians into the artform. In the late 1980s Cliff Alexis, who was only one of few panmen in the United States and who crafted pans for the University of Akron, was carrying an order list with a three-to-four-year waiting period. Ellie Mannette established the University Tuning Project at the University of West Virginia as a vehicle not only to manufacture professional-quality instruments but also to train enthusiasts on the art of making and tuning steel drums. Panyard, Inc. in Akron, Ohio was established in 1990 by two white Americans, Ron Kerns and Shelly Irvine, and in 1995 began producing drums made by Roland Harrigin. “Boogsie” Sharpe recently began working with Panyard, Inc. to provide music transcriptions of steel drum music that might have been lost forever.

It is apparent that there is still animosity from the populace of the islands toward these people who are perceived as “prostituting” the steel drum for monetary reasons. Regardless of this sentiment and the continuing growth in popularity of the steel drum Trinidad and Tobago will always be known as the birthplace of pan.

Steelband Instrumentation and Configuration

Although standardization of the steelband instrumentation is still a focus of attention among craftsmen and performers it is easy to understand the basic applications of the voicings of instruments. Steelbands follow a standard 4-voice chordal structure reminiscent of soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.

The soprano voice in the steelband is the only instrument that is a single drum. Among its many names are soprano, single tenor, ping pong, and, most commonly, lead. The range of a lead pan is about 2 ½ octaves. Traditionally, the most common starting pitch was a D4. However, in recent years the “C” lead has become popular, with a range of C4 to E6 or F6. The typical note configuration on a lead pan follows a right-hand lead progression of the circle of fifths, meaning that the circle of fifths progresses in a counter-clockwise motion around the perimeter of the drum and continues on to the inner ring in the same manner. It is easy to see the direct relationship from the outer to the inner rings in that their note placements correspond. Some craftsmen offer a left-hand lead which moves the circle of fifths clockwise around the drum.

The alto and tenor voices are performed on a group of instruments known as “rhythm pans”. This classification contains a broad spectrum of instruments that differ significantly in range, note configuration, and name from one craftsman to another. Steel drums that are classified as rhythm pans include alto, tenor, cello, guitar (sometimes referred to by the slang term “gitta”), double tenor, double second, triple cello, double guitar, triple guitar, quadraphonic, and the quaduet, a new instrument crafted by Ellie Mannette unveiled during the West Virginia University Steelband Workshop on July 27, 1996.

Note configuration for rhythm pans depends on the number of individual drums that are used for each particular instrument. Two-pan instruments like the double second or double tenor typically use a note layout based on a “synchronized” whole tone scale. Synchronized means that the note configuration on each pan is similarly placed, such as a C being located at “six o’clock” on the first pan and C# being located at “six o’clock” on the second pan. This system of tuning allows a performer to play a chromatic scale by moving back and forth between pans while striking in corresponding areas. That is to say that each drum in itself creates a whole-tone scale.

Instruments with three pans, like the triple cello or triple guitar, utilize a synchronized diminished seventh note configuration, as each individual drum ends up with an intervalic stack of minor thirds that produces a diminished seventh chord. Since there are three drums one must play three half steps, or a minor third, to facilitate a chromatic scale and subsequent return to the beginning drum.

Four-pan instruments like the quadraphonic employ the synchronized augmented triad configuration. The principle is the same as the triple-pan instruments: four drums mean four 1/2 steps before returning to each individual pan in the progression. This stacking of major thirds produces an augmented triad on each pan.

The lowest and largest voice of the steelband is the six bass. The person performing on this instrument is virtually surrounded by six full-length oil drums. Each pan usually plays only three individual notes due to the large convex note areas. The note range of the six bass is typically Bb1 to Eb3 and employs an octave/fifth note configuration, meaning each pan has two notes an octave apart with the fifth scale degree as the third note. This is a departure from other multi-pan instruments in that the half-step progression from drum to drum does not equal a perfect fifth when the sequence returns to the beginning drum. If the same half-step approach were used on six bass as with rhythm pans then the third note between the octaves would be a flat fifth, or tritone, which would not be as harmonically compatible as a perfect fifth. At least one panman, Phil Solomon, does not necessarily believe that the octave/fifth configuration is as essential as the half-step progression: his bass pans have two notes an octave apart with the tritone as the third note.

The last element of steelband instrumentation is the miscellaneous percussion, or the “engine room”, which helps to provide elements of rhythmic and timbral variety to the ensemble. During the days of tamboo bamboo the engine room was nothing more than the traditional gin bottle played with a spoon. As pan developed, the backing percussion also turned to metallic instruments. One of the primary engine room components is simply referred to as the “iron”. The standard iron in the early days was, and still is today, a simple automobile brake drum. The natural resonant qualities of the brake drum were similar to those of the gin bottle with one important improvement: the brake drum wouldn’t shatter if the performer hit it too hard. The iron is used as a centralized time-keeper around which all of the other instruments are performed.

After years of experimentation and development the engine room has expanded to utilize almost any percussion instrument imaginable. The drum set is a standard part of any engine room, as are instruments of Latin American influence, such as congas, bongos, güiro, maracas, and claves. While the brake drum is still the basic iron, other metallic instruments like cowbells, agogo bells, triangles, and recent creations like ribbon crashers (three strips of steel stacked on top of each other that produces a “splash” sound) have been introduced into the engine room. (Irvine: 5.)

Construction and Tuning

Through trial and error over the past half-century craftsmen have developed a fairly universal method of constructing steel drums. Although the exact methods vary from one craftsman to another the general steps in the evolution of a 55-gallon steel oil drum to a musically sensitive percussion instrument remain consistent.

The most commonly used drum is a 20/18 gauge 55 U.S. gallon steel oil drum with a depth of 35” and a diameter of 22.5”. However, Panyard, Inc. manufactures an instrument called an “extended lead” or “A” pan, made from an 80 U.S. gallon steel drum with a diameter of 25.5”. This larger diameter allows for more room on the playing area to expand the range down a minor third and up a minor second.

The first step in the transformation process, known as “sinking”, involves forming one end of the barrel into a concave-shaped playing surface. In the early days, and even on the islands today, the most common method of sinking involved dropping a small cannon ball onto the bottom of the drum in a circular pattern until the desired depth was achieved. Contemporary commercial pan shops use six- and ten-pound sledgehammers with all but about 6” of the handles removed to allow for better control of strokes and less fatigue for the “sinker”. The preparation of the drum for sinking is minimal. Circular marks resembling rings on a cut tree are carefully drawn on the bottom of the drum from the center out to the rim to provide a reference point so that the sinker can stress the steel evenly and consistently. This aids in preventing negative side-effects such as thin or thick spots on the playing surface or causing the rim to actually separate from the sides of the barrel. An experienced sinker can sink one drum in about 2 hours. The depth is determined by the particular instrument that is being crafted. The lead steel drum, with a typical range of 2.5 octaves, needs a larger playing surface so it is sunk to a depth of about 8.5”. The double second steel drum, with a sink depth is 7.25”, is lower pitched, uses fewer notes, and does not need a playing area as large as a lead drum. Cellos are sunk to 6.25” and basses, with only three notes per drum, are sunk to 4.5”. When the bottom of the drum is sunk to the desired depth the process of “grooving” and “shaping” begins. Prior to grooving the craftsman must mark the layout of the instrument on the sunken playing surface with a magic marker. In the early days of pan it was common for the craftsman to place the notes wherever they happened to fit. Eventually the panmen realized that the best sound came from the drum when notes were located adjacent to other notes that belonged in their harmonic series; typically fourths, fifths, and octaves. The sympathetic vibrations created by striking a note broadened the sound spectrum and vastly improved the intonation of the entire instrument. The outer ring of notes, those that are along the perimeter of the drum, are marked first according to preestablished measurements that will determine the pitch sequence, hence confirming the voice of the steel drum. The inner notes are then marked using a template to align the notes correspondingly with those of the outer ring. After placing this stencil on the drum the craftsman simply traces around it. Roland “The Pope” Harrigin, former craftsman for Panyard, Inc., uses laminated oval-shaped pieces of cardboard that are labeled for each specific pitch. These templates are graduated from high to low in a chromatic scale and show the result of many years of study in determining the best size and shape for the note surface. Once the note configuration is clearly marked it is time for grooving. Using a hammer and a steel punch the craftsman carefully isolates each note by gently tapping a series of indentations directly on the lines that define pitch placement. The purpose of the grooving process is to separate notes to keep undesirable harmonic overtones from “bleeding” into each other. Without grooves every harmonic from every note would vibrate simultaneously, creating a very unstable and out-of-tune sound spectrum.

There is at least one craftsman who doesn’t believe that such manipulation of the steel is necessary. Phil Solomon, a native of British Guyana presently residing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has perfected and is marketing a line of instruments known appropriately as Grooveless™ steel drums. In the 1970’s Solomon learned to utilize certain microtones of the harmonic overtone series of each pitch to essentially “cancel out” undesirable overtones from adjacent pitches. He believed that the random stresses surrounding each note as a result of grooving had a tendency to create an “unstable” overtone series. Eliminating the grooves also prevented the possibility of accidentally puncturing the playing surface of a drum, thereby rendering it useless.

When the grooving is completed the craftsman begins the “shaping” of the notes. A common method of shaping is for the craftsman to invert the drum and gently force each isolated pitch to bend away from the playing area. The result is a series of convex-shaped dents (reminiscent of “Spree” Simon’s first instrument) on a concave-shaped playing surface. Modern shaping technique focuses on lowering the areas of the playing surface that surround the grooved notes rather than forcing the note areas back up. This method is to help reduce stress on the steel by only forcing the note areas down rather than down and up again. The purpose of shaping is not to tune but to get each note contour as close as possible to the finished product so that there will be less stress on the steel following the tempering process known as “burning”. In post-war Trinidad craftsmen placed the sunken and shaped steel drum in a large bonfire at the panyard. This process of burning the drum served two purposes: burning off residual oil and tempering the steel. Undoubtedly the first panmen realized that the only way to rid their scavenged steel drums of the smell and mess of the oil once stored in them was to burn it off as they had done with zinc cans in the 1930s. Eventually it was discovered that the intense heat of the fires actually “tempered” or “stabilized” the steel. Although the problem of working with used oil drums is virtually a thing of the past, the process of burning the pan is still crucial in producing a quality instrument. During the sinking process the craftsman forces the drum to take on a shape to which it is not accustomed. One must remember that the whole process starts with an oil drum with a forged-steel bottom. If left as it is the steel would show a continual tendency to revert to its original form, thus creating an instrument that would constantly be out of tune due to the inability of the notes to hold their shape. During the burning process the pan is placed on a flame with the playing surface face down for about fifteen minutes. The molecules become super-heated and begin to rearrange their structure. Modern craftsmen affect a more controlled method of burning the pan with the use of a large gas burner, like the inside of a furnace. Using a gas flame insures a more even dispersion of heat than the large bonfire in which steel drums were once burned. Craftsmen are currently considering the use of large ovens in which to temper their steel drums. An oven would eliminate guesswork and provide the most consistent and controlled heat dispersion, which is essential to the tempering process. Uneven dispersion of heat could produce weak areas on the drum that would not stay in tune and would effect a different timbre from the rest of the drum. After the pan has cooled, either by immersion in water or by open-air cooling, the result is a playing surface with a reconfigured molecular structure that produces a more consistent and stable timbre. Before the final tuning the craftsman must cut the drum to its desired length. The length of the shell of the drum, or the “skirt”, is determined by the range and voicing of the instrument. A general observation is that the lower the pitch range of a pan the longer the skirt. The short skirt on a lead steel drum, which can be 5” to 6” inches in length, allows for more sympathetic vibrations of the higher pitches because of the decrease in mass created by the shortening of the skirt. While the outer ring of notes along the perimeter of the drum are larger and naturally more resonant the majority of notes on this steel drum (which can reach up to G6), are located on the interior and less resonant part of the playing surface. These smaller note areas have a very fast decay and a limited harmonic series, thus hampering their ability to “speak”. A long skirt on a lead steel drum would promote a muffled tone with little resonance. As the range descends from one instrument to the next, the skirt length increases. This compensates for the increase in harmonic overtones and undertones. The most common skirt lengths are as follows: lead, 5”-6”; tenor, 7”; second, 9”-9.5”; cello, 14.5”-27”; and bass, 35”, the entire length of the drum. The wide range of skirt lengths for the cello is one example of the problem of non-standardization since several different instruments fall into this voice category.

Once the skirt is cut to the desired length the drum receives its protective and decorative finish. A micro-thin coating of a rust-inhibiting primer is applied to the entire surface of the drum, both inside and out, after which the exterior of the skirt is given an ornamental yet functional finish. Chroming is widely considered to be the most desirable finish, not only for its brilliant appearance but also for its ease of care, rust inhibition, and timbral enhancing qualities that take a bit of the “edge” off of the drum. Federal regulations that commercial chromers must adhere to regarding environmental safety have driven the prices for chroming to a very high level. The cost of chroming for a six bass is almost as much as the price of the instruments themselves!

The more cost-effective finish is the use of automotive paint. Most panmen actually send their instruments to an automotive paint shop for this application. Some craftsmen have begun using a “clear-coat” on the playing surface itself to further protect the drum from the effects of the elements and general usage. Regardless of the type of finish, the crucial factor in this step of manufacture is that only micro-thin layers are applied so that the natural resonance of the drum is not impeded.

The final and most crucial phase of the construction of a steel drum is the most difficult to master: fine tuning. Years of trial and error are the prerequisites for becoming a master tuner. The fundamental pitch of each note area is fine-tuned first with the use of a strobe tuner and various types of acrylic or rawhide hammers. If the fundamental pitch is sharp then the tuner lowers it by a series of glancing blows across the top of the note area. In a similar manner if the fundamental pitch needs to be raised the tuner has two options: either raise the height of the dent by striking on the underside of the drum or by lowering the corners where the area had been grooved. Tuning the overtones for each pitch is an extremely difficult process. A professional craftsman will tune at least two overtones of each fundamental pitch, nearly always the octave and the fifth. The process of tuning the overtones applies the same striking technique as tuning the fundamental but with less force and more precise attacks. The craftsman utilizes two strobe tuners when tuning overtones so that the fundamental pitch can be tracked and maintained with one tuner while specific regions of the note area are being manipulated to tune the desirable harmonics to the second tuner. Tuning the octave is done by altering the note area at the ends of the longest part of the dent, usually on the groove or just inside of it. The fifth, which is a bit more difficult to locate, is tuned at the “corners” of the oblong-shaped note area.

Despite the tempering in fire and the fact that the pan is made of forged steel it will eventually need to be tuned again, usually about once a year. Playing the pan means striking the note areas much in the same manner that the tuner does with his hammers, thus the more a pan is played the lower the pitch becomes. A pan can also become out of tune if it is not played for an extended period of time. The concave playing surface will always have a tendency to flex back to its original flat shape, so it must be played periodically to maintain the “bowl” shape obtained during the sinking process.

Small holes are drilled in specific locations on the rim of the drum and loops of nylon or rawhide cord are tied through the hole. Using these cords the steel drum is suspended on stands to allow for maximum resonance of the instrument.

General Aspects of the Steel Drum

The modern steel drum is a carefully crafted instrument that must be played with mallets that are specifically designed for each voice of the steelband. Mallets with a wooden shaft have been the standard implement since the early days of steelband. Recently mallets have been developed that have a hollow aluminum shaft. This new mallet tends to produce a slightly brighter sound than wooden mallets and is preferred by many professional steel drum players. While the length of the shaft varies depending on the instrument for which it is designed the thickness of the shaft remains constant.

The ends of the mallets are covered with rubber or latex and are similar to those used by Ellie Mannette in the 1940s. Mallets for leads and seconds typically have long strips of latex tubing wrapped around the end of the shaft. The thickness of the tubing and the amount of wraps determine the timbre desired by the performer. Lower-voiced instruments like cellos and basses use a rubber ball for the shaft tip. Panyard, Inc. markets a line of mallets with replaceable rubber tips. The most obvious benefit from this innovation is that the player does not need to worry about the latex tubing unraveling during a performance.

Playing the steel drum requires developing a “feel” for each individual instrument. The performer must learn to apply variances in stroke attacks depending on the size of the note area. Lead steel drums, which have the largest note range on a single pan, have the broadest range of note sizes. The very small notes near the center of the drum require a harder stroke than do the larger notes along the perimeter of the playing surface. If a larger note area is struck with too much force it will produce a distorted tone and may jolt the note out of tune. Although the other voices of the steelband have a narrower range than the lead steel drum, the principle of a lighter attack still applies. The six bass, the largest instrument in the steelband, requires the lightest touch. Notes that are difficult to hear should not necessarily be played harder. If the lowest notes on a six bass (like Bb1, B1, and C2) are not easily heard the performer can help to stimulate the overtone series by simultaneously striking the upper octave. This emphasizes the lower note without compromising tone quality or damaging the instrument. There is no standard for correct sticking other than to use the most convenient means possible to play the correct notes. Percussionists generally use alternating sticking whenever possible, especially during faster passages. Strict alternation of strokes, however, will not always work on a steel drum due to the variances in note configuration as compared to other ideophones. As a general rule, steel drum players use the right hand for the right side of the drum and the left hand for the left side.

When playing on the area of the note surface that is farthest from the performer care must be taken to avoid accidentally striking the note with the exposed end of the mallet. The player can avoid this by keeping their wrists elevated around the circumference of the drum as consistently as possible and keeping the end of the mallets pointed toward the center of the drum.

Maintenance for steel drums is minimal. Although chromed and painted pans in good condition can be polished with an automotive wax most panmen simply recommend wiping them clean with a soft cloth and a little window cleaner. If dirt is allowed to build up on the drum, particularly in the seam where the inside of the skirt and bowl are joined, the resonance of the entire instrument will be impeded.

Care must be taken to never set a lead pan down on the underside of the playing area. If the pan must be placed on a flat, hard surface the playing area should face down. No other instrument in the steelband should be a concern in that all of the other skirt lengths are long enough to protect the underside of the bowl of the pan. As a protective measure the instruments should always be stored and transported in hard-shell cases.

Despite proper playing technique, regular cleaning, and protective maintenance steel drums, like any other instrument, will eventually go out of tune. The simple act of playing the drum emulates the function of the tuners’ mallets during the tuning process and will inevitably cause changes in the pitch centers. Most active steelbands will have their drums tuned once a year. Procedures vary among panmen regarding mass tunings of instruments. Some tuners have the drums shipped to their shops for tuning while others perform “on site” tunings. Many steelbands will coordinate their annual tunings with a large concert at which their tuner is featured soloist, giving the tuner two good reasons  to make the trip. It will also assist in drawing a larger audience for the band, thus providing money from ticket sales or donations to help defray the expenses incurred by having the drums tuned.


It has been nearly five hundred years since Columbus discovered the islands of Trinidad and Tobago. As the centuries have passed so have many eras in the islands’ history. Among the few serendipitous products of that history, one was an accident, stumbled upon by young people considered to be vagrants searching to find the voice of their people. Seventy years ago the white populace of Port of Spain was aghast at the terrible din made by these delinquents banging on pieces of discarded metal. Viewed as a sacrilegious act, it was thought that this new form of “tribal ritual” could never last for long.

Now, after more than half a century, the steel drum has made its indelible mark on the music of the world community. Pan is played in schools, universities, churches, concert halls, nightclubs, parades, and countless other venues. Public school systems are even establishing steelband programs as part of their district’s curriculum.

The new era of cooperation among the original panmen is nurturing a new generation of steel drum enthusiasts that will continue to educate the world about this exceptional instrument. As long as disciples of the steel drum continue their quest for knowledge the contagious sounds of the “heartbeat of a nation” will continue to pulse for centuries to come.


Arawaks: Native American Indian tribe indigenous to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, driven to extinction during Spanish rule from 1498 to 1797.

Bass Kittle: A caustic soda drum that was an early steelband instrument. The drum had two definite pitches and served as a replacement for the cutter in tamboo bamboo bands.

Boom: The largest and lowest-pitched instrument in tamboo bamboo bands. It was a piece of bamboo 5’ long, 5” in diameter played by stamping the end on the ground.

Bowl: The sunken playing surface of the steel drum.

Buller: A secondary instrument in tamboo bamboo bands. It served the same function as a boom but was only 3’ long.

Burning: The process in the manufacture of a steel drum that involves heating the playing surface of the instrument to temper (harden) the metal.

Canboulay: A term derived from the French “cannes brûllés” (meaning “cane burning”), Canboulay was the early celebration of black liberation following the 1838 emancipation. Initially observed on August 1, Canboulay was moved sometime during the 1840s to coincide with Carnival celebrations.

Cannes Brulles Riot: A violent clash that occurred when policemen attempted to quell street celebrations at the 1881 Carnival. The result was a two-day riot between blacks and whites.

Carnival: Observed during the period between Christmas and Lent, it is a time for celebration including masquerades, street processions, and music performances. Pre-emancipation Carnival was reserved primarily for the white European ruling classes.

Chac Chac: An African rattle that was a principal instrument in performing kalindas.

Chandler: A secondary instrument in tamboo bamboo bands. It served the same function as a cutter but was longer.

Cuff Boom: A large biscuit drum that was an early steelband instrument. The drum had one indefinite pitch and served as a replacement for the boom in tamboo bamboo bands.

Cutter: The mid-range instrument in tamboo bamboo bands. It was a thin piece of bamboo varying in length that was held over the shoulder and struck with a hardwood stick.

Double Second: The “alto” voice in the modern steelband consisting of two individual drums, each containing a whole-tone scale.

Doun Doun: An African “hourglass” drum that was a principal instrument in performing kalindas. It closely resembled the Yoruba bata drum.

Dud-up: See “bass kittle.”

Foulé: The smallest and highest-pitched instrument in tamboo bamboo bands. It was two pieces of bamboo 12” long, .66” in diameter played by striking the shafts together end to end.

Fuller: See “foulé.”

Grooving: The process in the manufacture of a steel drum thatinvolves the use of a steel punch and a hammer to make grooves on the playing surface of the drum to isolate individual notes. This aids in the prevention of undesirable overtones.

Jamettes: A term that refers to people living under the line of respectability, typically applied to shanty town residents by members of the white upper-class.

Kalinda: An antecedent of calypso music celebrating black liberation.

Kittle: A zinc or paint can that was an early steelband instrument. The drum had three definite pitches and served as a replacement for the foulé in tamboo bamboo bands.

Lead: The “soprano” voice in the modern steelband consisting of an individual drum containing a diatonic scale, usually with a range of two-and-one-half octaves.

Lime: A Trinidadian slang term for “hanging out.”

Marking: The process in the manufacture of a steel drum that involves marking the playing surface of the steel drum to show the location of the individual notes. Some notes are marked by using a ruler to measure exact location and others are marked using a template.

Nègre jaunt (field black): Popular during pre-emancipation Carnival, it was a nighttime procession in which dark-clad people carried torches and danced amidst African drummers. This was a good-natured attempt to imitate the slaves who would carry torches at night when going to the aid of a neighboring plantation that was experiencing trouble, such as a fire in the sugar cane fields.

Pan: Popular term for steel drum.

Panmen: Individuals who make and tune steel drums.

Panyard: Neighborhood locations where panmen tune steel drums and rehearse, and “lime.”

Peace Preservation Ordinance: Enacted in 1884 as a result of the Cannes Brulles riots in 1881, this measure empowered the government to ban torch processions, drumming, dancing, and groups of ten or more people with sticks.

Ping Pongs: A predecessor to the modern lead steel drum, the ping pong was an early steelband instrument that was a small oil drum with the bottom hammered out to form a convex-shaped playing surface containing four to eight notes.

Port of Spain: The capital and cultural center located in the northwest corner of Trinidad.

Shango: A nineteenth-century religion combining Nigerian Yoruba religious practices with Roman Catholic and Baptist influences.

Shanty Town: Over-crowded communities of impoverished residents, most of whom were newly-freed blacks or Africans who migrated to the islands from surrounding provinces after emancipation.

Shaping: The process in the manufacture of a steel drum that involves gently forcing the note areas back up after grooving or forcing down the areas surrounding the notes.

Side Kittle: See “kittle.”

Sinking: The process in the manufacture of a steel drum that involves the use of sledgehammers to create a concave “bowl” on the bottom of a 55 gallon oil drum.

Six Bass: The “bass” voice in the modern steelband consisting of six full-length oil drums each containing three notes: two notes an octave apart and the fifth above the lower note.

Skirt: The side of the steel drum.

Slap Bass: See “cuff boom."

Tamboo Bamboo: A product of the drum ban in 1884, it was a musical expression that consisted of bamboo instruments that were struck together, with a stick, or on the ground. The bamboo was typically accompanied by an empty gin bottle struck with a spoon.

Tenor Kittle: See “kittle.”

Triple Cello: The “tenor” voice in the modern steelband consisting of three individual drums, each containing a diminished 7th chord.

Tune Boom: A later version of the cuff boom that had three notes, reminiscent of the modern six bass steel drum.

Tuning: The final process in the manufacture of a steel drum that involves minimal manipulation of the note areas on a steel drum with various-sized acrylic or rawhide hammers. The tuner not only adjusts the fundamental pitch but also several overtones.

Yardies: An unfavorable term used to describe youths who had rejected the norms and values of European society.


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