Once upon a time, my family and I took a trip to Barbados.  While there, I fell in love with the steel pan bands that are so popular in that part of the world.  The night before we came back to the States, some fellows from one of the bands I had gotten to know, found me a tenor steel pan.  Mind you, it had no case, so we had to devise a way to get it all the way back to Wisconsin without ruining the tuning.  We managed to find a cardboard box with no lid, and packed our bed pillows and beach towels all around it.  The hotel staff got two big plastic garbage bags to put in two layers around the outside.  Air travel was very different back then.  No one asked any questions when I checked that big, puffy bag for the flight home.  I saw it go on the plane in Barbados, and didn't see it again until we got to Chicago.  I checked it again for the last leg of our flight, and lo and behold, when it came off the luggage carousel in Madison, WI, there was only one small tear in the outside bag of our make-shift travel case.  That's how my steel pan followed me home!


Steel pan

My Caribbean Steel Pan, also known as the Steel Drum, has always been an audience favorite.  The 'pan' is an idiophone; an instrument made out of a resonant material that produces sound when struck or shaken.








Steel pan close up 


There are four different sizes of pans in a steel band; the bass, cello, guitar, and tenor or 'ping pong.'  My pan is a tenor, it carries the melody and is the highest sounding pan in a steel band.  It has 28 notes and is fully chromatic.









Steel pan with sticks


The Steel Pan has it's origins in Trinidad, where it is the national instrument.  It grew out of the Carnival celebration after the drum, bottle & spoon bands, and 'Tamboo Bamboo' bands were banned by Colonial authorities.







steel pan side view




The first Steel Band was called, 'Alexander's Ragtime Band,' after the popular song of that time.  They played buckets, dustbins, oil pans, soapboxes & hub caps.  There was no melody, but lots of rhythm and noise.






steel pan bottom



Winston "Spree" Simon, is said to be one of inventors of the steel pan.  While trying to knock a dent out of his garbage can with a hammer, he discovered each blow made a different sound as the dent changed shape.







steel pan close up




Dustbins were less than ideal for steel pans.  The metal was thin, and the dents would not keep their shape; thus being hard to keep in tune.  After WWII, there was an abundance of abandoned oil drums left by the American forces, the perfect pan material!








steel pan top view

The first stage in making a pan is called 'sinking.'  One end of an oil drum is hammered into a smooth concave basin which later accommodates the notes.  The highest pans are sunk the deepest, and the lowest the most shallow.







steel pan close up with sticks

The note patterns are marked and then 'isolated,' and grooved with a nail punch.  These hammered grooves insulate each note.  Here you can see the 'D' note in three consecutive octaves.  It takes thousands of hammer punches to make grooves on a tenor pan.






steel pan close up of notes from underneath


The oil drum has to be cut to the correct length for each type of steel pan.  Then the notes are then 'ponged' up from underneath by tapping at each note with a small hammer.  This is the beginning of each note.  The final tuning is the last step.









steel pan side view

The pan is heated face down in a very hot fire and then tempered by pouring water into it.  The water is emptied out immediately.











steel pan side close up


The final tuning is the last step, and it is a job that requires great patience.  Each note is tapped with a hammer until it is in tune.  Once tuned, it has to be handled carefully as it can easily be knocked out of tune.








steel pan close up inside


The sticks are made from pieces of dowel about 6 inches in length.  The ends are made from strips of rubber gloves that have been wrapped around the ends over and over until they give a nice bounce when played.







close up of hooks that hold the steel pan

My pan has wire hooks that fit into holes drilled in the side of a stand that my husband made for me.  The pan has to be suspended freely, or it will not ring properly.









close up of steel pan notes

Even though my pan was made in Trinidad, I bought it in Barbados about 15 years ago.  The fellows that found it for me marked out the note with a felt pen.  They have long since started to wear away, so I use bits of label to mark them.









steel pan, sticks, shell, sand dollar




Shell, Sticks, Sand Dollar & Steel











steel pan full view with shell, sticks, sand dollar

Music, art, nature and the masterful use of recycled materials!




Here's a great example of a pan maker creating a tenor pan, the highest sounding pan in a steel pan band.  What most would be consider junk becomes a very sophisticated instrument.





This video is an amazing example of all of the different sizes of steel pans, and what is possible with ensemble work.  It's worth watching the whole video as the Trinidad All Stars prepare for competition and finally perform.  Most of the time you see pans in small bands, but this orchestra is something else again.  Their sheer joy and exuberance, not to mention the discipline and coordination it takes for such a large group to pull off a performance is nothing short of remarkable.  Talk about 'rockin' out,' just watch the stage shaking!  I bet they sweat off 20 lbs. in a performance.




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An image of a young boy wading in a shallow stream surrounded by moss-covered, sandstone cliffs