The Joyful and Riotous Steel Drum

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The steel drum, also called the steel pan or just pan, is surely one of the most unusual and versatile musical instruments in the world. The clangy sound of a steel band performing during carnival in Trinidad and Tobago (or Jamaica) can only be described as powerful and omnipresent. Brian Eno once told me—in reference to steel bands during carnival—that some of the most violent sounds come from happy music.

Of course other unique instruments exist, including the Australian didgeridoo, sourced from eucalyptus tree branches hollowed out by termites, which plays just one note. Or the Brazilian berimbau, which evolved from an African pygmy hunter’s bow and plays just a few notes. The modern steel drum, however, can cover a three-octave chromatic scale in tune, thus capable of playing any melody in any key. When you look at a steel drum you don’t have any idea that it could make such musical sounds. In fact, you may not even recognize it as a musical instrument.

Carnival 78 Stamp (Photo by Mark Morgan, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The steel drum originated during the 1930’s in Trinidad and Tobago, where the pan takes pride of place as the national instrument. In the early days, Trinidadian musicians, not being able to afford other instruments, used trash cans and buckets to make music for carnival and other festive events. During colonial times, the British banned these early percussion versions.

I was fascinated to learn how the late Ellie Mannette (1927-2018), who recently passed away at the age of 90, created the modern steel drum. As a young man in his hometown of Port of Spain, Trinidad, Mannette refined the instrument by tempering and precisely tuning the drums. Starting with 55-gallon oil drums discarded by Esso and other oil companies, Mannette used heat and hammer to forge them into concert-scale instruments, with drums for bass, middle octaves, and treble. His refinements made them respectable—capable of playing carnival songs as well as classics by Bach and Mozart.

Ellie Mannette creating a steel drum in 2016 (Photo by Gates55, CC-BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons) (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Once associated with gang rivalries, steel drums became musical ambassadors of Caribbean culture, largely due to Mannette’s innovations. Early on, in 1951, Trinidad and Tobago sent him to Britain to perform with the Trinidad All-Steel Orchestra and he also introduced steel-band music to America with the Navy Steel Band in 1960. Mannette moved to the United States in 1967 and dedicated the rest of his life to building and teaching the craft of steel drum to others. His honors include receiving the Chaconia Medal from Trinidad and Tobago, being named a National Heritage Fellow by the N.E.A., and induction into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame. In this wonderful video, Ellie Mannette recounts how he became a steel drum player and maker:

Also check out the following assortment of songs showcasing the versatility of modern steel drums, with artists playing Cuban classics like “Guantanamera,” Khatchaturian’s “Sabre Dance,” and The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” Versatile, indeed!