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Steel Drums: An Ongoing Legacy

Sep 12, 2008
If asked what they think of in association with the Caribbean, different people will probably tender wildly different answers: the sun, the beach, the food, the sheer sense of relaxation and of course, the alcohol. Yes, for those lucky enough to include the islands of the Caribbean among their vacation getaways, the islands boast a veritable plethora of pleasures and pastimes. And one of those pastimes is to while away the afternoon, sipping a pina colada, while listening to the incredible music of a steel drum band.

The steel drum, or steel pan as it is sometimes called, is a fascinating instrument for several reasons. Of course there are the unique sounds that can be produced, but just as interesting are the history and construction of the steel drum. I will hazard a guess and say that the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago is the only country ever to produce a musical instrument made from a 55-gallon oil barrel. Yes, steel pans are traditionally made from oil barrels, although many modern instrument makers no longer rely on used steel containers. The instrument's roots probably lay in the fact that steel pans were originally used by enslaved Africans as a form of covert communication. Naturally, such individuals would have been forced to use whatever came to hand, and oil barrels would have made handy makeshift drums.

The celebration of Mardi Gras and Carnival on Trinidad was directly linked to the evolution of the steel drum. Musical groups of African slaves performed at Carnival, and when slavery was eventually abolished, the tradition of performance continued. By the mid-1930s, the bands were using bits of metal percussion and by the end of the same decade, occasional all-steel drum bands began to appear. However, it was not until about 1950 that steel drum bands became accepted and expected facts of Caribbean culture. The first recorded use of a 55-gallon oil barrel in making a steel drum was in 1947 and in 1951, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra formed and attended the Festival of Britain. From that time forward, steel drums became an accepted facet of life in the Caribbean.

As mentioned, steel drums are, traditionally at least, made from oil drums. Today, however, many manufacturers commission new steel containers. The sheet metal is between 0.8 mm and 1.5 mm thick and the area struck to produce sound is in the shape of a bowl. Different, oval-shaped points on the bowl are struck to produce different pitches, and the larger the oval, the lower the tone. Modern steel drums come in a wide array of sizes and can be used for a variety of applications.

Steel drums have come a long way from their humble beginnings, and their journey is not over yet. Recently, the music of steel drums has been incorporated into more and more musical genres, even traditional classical music like Beethoven's Quartet in A minor. And the people of Trinidad continue to uphold their musical heritage with the annual World Steelband Music Festival, which is currently in its 56th year.
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for guitars, drums, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio. You can find the best marketplace at these sites for drums, steel drums, steelpans, sheet music, guitar tabs, and home theater audio.
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