Updated on September 23rd, 2021
Over several decades, musical instruments have evolved and even some new ones came up. In the 20th century amid all electronica music, one instrument that became popular just for its simplicity was Steel Pan. Even now steel pans are widely used in different kinds of music genres. However, its origination marked it as an icon of Trinidadian culture.
To understand steel pan music, you must first know a little about its history, and the way it was played in the 20th century. But before we begin with steel pan history and music, you must know that steel pans are often mistakenly spelled as “steal pan”, which is incorrect. The right spelling is the steel pan. So, the next time you are looking to buy steel pans, do remember to spell them correctly.
Moving on, steel panning first began in Trinidad and Tobago, where African slaves celebrated Canboulay while French and Spanish colonizers enjoy their catholic feast. Steel pans were widely used in the celebration of the slaves and this is how they integrated into Trinidad’s culture. Although earlier than steel pans, the slaves used tamboo bamboo, glass bottle, spoon, biscuit tin, and other metallic trash. In the 1930s, they started to use steel pans collected from the coast of Trinidad and Tobago.
Just like other musical instruments, even steel pan didn’t immediately become popular. It gradually rose to popularity and somewhere around the 1970s, it was included in mainstream music. Usually, steel pans are also known as steel drums and this term is inclusive of the instrument as well as the music. Besides, the ensemble playing is referred to as steel band or steel orchestra while the single-player is known as pannist.
Now that you have some essential points on its origins, let shift our focus to its music. And to understand its music, you have to consider its construct and design. The way it is designed and made determines a lot about how the notes and sound will be. The bottom side is stretched to make it like a huge bowl, and this process is known as Sinking. Next, each note is tuned in by flattening ovals, and the larger the oval lower is the pitch. Then, the barrel part is removed and the remaining depth-like structure called the Skirt is the one that produces the sound. This Skirt affects the Tessitura or the pitch range. And these pans can fit 3 to 30 notes depending on the ovals present in the bowl.
Nowadays, pannists use quality steel pans made from the best materials so that they get better sound quality. That means steel pans used these days have their physics and acoustics made with great precision. Besides, steel pan music is often referred to as the collective pan orchestra, which includes different drums as per various pitches. There is Tenor, Double tenor, double second, double guitar, triple or four cellos, quadraphonic, and bass. Furthermore, this combination of notes includes a range of six octaves. So, steel pans designed in such a way serve as typical orchestral music. You’ll also notice that steel pan ranges are usually chromatic to enable playing all keys while pentatonic tunings were found quite common.
Well, if you’re wondering how it is played then, you must know that steel pans are idiophone that has fixed pitch fields of a specific height. And you need to strike these tone fields with mallets made using wood and aluminum. The ends of these mallets have a rubber covering. Besides, you can play any genre of music on steel pans but amazing ensembles often play classical and pop tunes. Although traditionally, steel pans were mainly used to Calypso and Soca on which the harmony and rhythm are taken.
So, thinking about getting steel pans? Well, the market has a plethora of options available. However, we have a few suggestions that can help you pick the best one.
- Steel Tongue Drum-14 Inch 15 Note: This beautiful and eye-catchy steel pan/drum has a wide range of percussion methods. It includes 15 natural tones and even offers treble, midrange, and bass with different tapping ways. Designed using water-based toxic-free paint, this steel pan/drum helps you explore music in any way you want.
- Harmonic Star Steel Tongue Drum: This easy-to-play steel tongue drum is a complete kit with mallets, instrumental manual, travel bag, songbook, mallet support, and wiping cloth. With these, you can not only play but also maintain it like professionals. Designed elegantly, this steel drum produces calm and captivating sounds, which includes 11 melodic notes in D major. And this makes it perfect even for meditation, yoga and promotes relaxation.
- Panyard Steel Drum: As a complete beginner, you can start your steel pan drumming with Panyard Steel Drum. Sounds like a professional instrument; this steel drum is made using premium quality steel. Besides, it’s affordable and even comes with a music book that has notes on a drum with note letters marked on songs. Fun and super easy to play, this purple steel drum kit is ideal for both adults and kids both.
While there are plenty of options available, these 3 steel pan/drums are not just quality ones but are also affordable. Besides, when you’re playing keep in mind the music elements of the steel pan. It includes rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre, dynamics, texture, and form. Apart from these musical elements, recent musicians and pannists have developed new techniques to play a steel pan and that’s Hang drum and Rav drum. These kinds of steel pans are concave bowls instead of convex ones. While the Hang drum has a scale of only 5 notes, the RAV drum is made with slits in the steel, which makes individual notes. So, you can try these two also, as these are just like the regular steel pan.
Also, try practicing with guides and reference music first before you start to compose your songs. And if you need the right reference and guidance, then you can always check out steel drumming by renowned pannists like Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams, Ray Holman, and Liam Teague. You can also check out Exodus Steel Orchestra Performance and learn some new techniques.
So, what wait then? Let your inner musician come out and truly enjoy, learn and play steel pan music.
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