My Steel Pans

On this page you will find some articles I have authored. These articles are based on my personal experience and are reflective of my first hand knowledge. Most of them concern the actual history of the instrument and the Steel Pan movement and art form. Each of the basic instruments of the Steel Pan family has an article which traces its development. There is also a more general article on the evolution of the Steel Pan as a musical instrument in the Caribbean. "Nomenclature" is an informative article detailing how and why pans are named as they are. Finally, there is an article of a more technical nature dealing with understanding the physiological characteristics of the Steel Pan.

Click on the title to the left for more information.

The Chromatic Tenor/First Pan and Its Relationship to the Primal Voices of the Steel Pan Family

The evolutionary path from rhythmic bamboo to the beautifully melodic chromatic Tenor Pan of today is a story of trial and error. It is a story of a journey that cannot be attributed to any one person, time or location within Trinidad and Tobago and cannot be told in a linear, chronological timeline. Many developments took place in isolation in different geographical locations with the same idea bearing fruit in more than one mind at the same time yet relatively unknown to others working on similar concepts. What can be done in the discussion of the evolution of the Tenor Pan is to document the major developments, the approximate times they took place and site some of the people responsible for major contributions.

To understand the development of the Tenor Pan, one must return in time to the era of Tamboo Bamboo bands which provided rhythmic accompaniment to celebrations. Once the government banned the cutting of the bamboo, older instruments began to wear and burst. When this occurred, the bamboo was replaced with metal (cooking pots, dustbin covers, brake drums from automobiles, etc.) The metal was purely rhythmic to begin with and used in combination with the bamboo. Over time, the bamboo disappeared from the rhythmic ensembles and they were comprised solely of metal objects. Eventually, it was discovered that the metal surface being struck could be distorted to produce specific pitches. Winston “Spree” Simon is most usually credited with performing the first short musical piece in public on a primitive steel pan. The pan eventually changed from a convex shape to a concave shape which allowed for the addition of more notes. Larger barrels assisted in the addition of more notes as well. You will find extensive information on the above transformation in two other articles: The Evolution of Steel Pan as a Musical Instrument in the Caribbean and Understanding the Physiological Characteristics of the Steel Pan.

This article is going to focus on the chromatic tenor pan and the two main paths that were followed in development of the instrument. The first discussion will focus on Elliot “Ellie” Mannette and the Invaders style Tenor Pan. Anthony “Tony” Williams and his Spider Web (Circle of 4ths/5ths) Tenor Pan used in North Stars Steel Band will be the focus of the second discussion. In addition, commentary regarding the relationship of the Invaders Tenor Pan to the other primal voices of the steel pan family (the Double Second, Triple Guitar/Cello, Tenor Bass) will be discussed. At this critical point in the development of the steel pan there surfaced many new ideas, some accepted, others discarded. One of the new ideas that became permanent was the introduction of the chromatic scale by the same innovator who was responsible for creating the concave construction of the pan, Ellie Mannette. The newly chromatic format led to the widespread acceptance of the steel pan as a musical instrument. One of the main sources in the development of the steel pan became the Woodbrook Invaders, formerly the Oval Boys later to be known as the Shell Invaders, led by the same Ellie Mannette. Under Ellie’s guidance and leadership some of the first primal voices of the steel pan family were developed. During this period different styles and designs of pans were introduced, many of which were rejected or replaced by another after a short while. The evolution of the pan was in high gear and what did not work was quickly abandoned. Individual steel bands of the era fashioned their own patterns or configurations of notes on the instruments. Tuners of the bands were the deciding factor as to note placement on the pans. This led to widespread diversity and from time to time changes were made to accommodate the playing of a particular song.

The steel pan art form underwent a metamorphosis that led to a critical upsurge of invention amongst most of the major steel bands, especially those who had become more musically sophisticated since the introduction of the chromatic scale. A large number of new voices emerged. With this emergence came the personalizing of steel bands caused as a result of the way these voices were used within the band. Bands were recognized by their overall sound depending upon which pan received the emphasis in the arrangement. For instance, City Syncopators (led by Philmore “Boots” Davidson) were noted for the emphasis being placed in the guitar section during their mambo arrangements. Casablanca Steel Band placed emphasis on the double second in their arrangements. You could tell one band from another by the difference in sound. The Invaders acquired the nickname of “the harps” because of the sweet sound of their tenor pan.

It was quite noticeable when bands began placing greater emphasis on how they sounded and became more aware of how in tune the pans were. These were times when bands boasted of having more arrangements as opposed to only sounding good because of how well the pans were tuned. This became a turning point in the development of the steel pan where more focus was placed on the tuning of a note rather than on just playing the pan. It was not long before many bands noticed the difference in the sound of the bands that had a particular kind of configuration of note placement on the instrument. This occurred mainly amongst the steel bands in the west part of Port of Spain that were influenced by the Woodbrook Invaders, the home of the first chromatic tenor.

The Invaders Steel Band successfully introduced the first chromatic Tenor Pan. The steel pan had come out of a period where the pan community would simply follow the last interesting thing that happened in the search for a better instrument. Pan tuners and early pan men worked tirelessly towards coming up with a tenor that would accommodate playing in a manner that would be more acceptable rather than the particular styles of that period. Most of the styles of the early periods were designed in a manner in which the player had to play around the radius of the drum. This may have been caused by the influence of the piano and by trying to mimic its positioning of notes. The new tenor that was to become the mother of the steel band world would not only accommodate the chromatic scales but was built with a sense of universal balance for playing throughout the entire instrument from north to south (top to bottom) and east to west (right to left.) This was the birth of the Invaders styling as it was called. It is the pan that was a template for all the other voices of the modern steel pans as far as the combination of notes. There are combinations of notes in the Invaders style tenor that are represented in all of the voices of the steel pan family. That same method of balanced playing is transferred to the Double Seconds, the Triple Guitars, the Tenor Basses and the Quads. The Invaders tenor was the first pan that was totally accepted by the steel pan community as the leading configuration for a tenor pan. It became the hallmark of the entire world of pan during the mid-fifties and throughout the sixties.

These patterns or configurations that were developed by the Invaders Steel Band facilitated the dexterity and flexibility of the player and as a result could only enhance one’s ability to better understand the instrument’s capabilities. This in turn encouraged a musical environment of its own. Going back to the template pan, the player can reflect psychologically and physiologically on any one of the pans while playing another. They are connected to each other musically. When one examines the manner in which each voice is played, whether it is a Double Second or a Double or Triple Guitar, there is always a commonality in the chord patterns. This innovation set a high standard for pan men allowing a subtle discipline to be developed into a complete cultural experience that gave the steel band a social presence in the fabric of our society as our national instrument and an academic and educational tool.

Throughout the development of the steel pan and with regard to the longevity of the innovations of the Invaders Steel Band there have been only two replacements of the six primal voices of the pan family of instruments to date. In the late sixties-mid seventies-early eighties the Circle of 4ths/5ths Tenor Pan or Spider Web that was introduced by Anthony “Tony” Williams and the North Stars much earlier on finally came to the fore front and became the Tenor Pan of choice for most bands, replacing the Invaders style Tenor Pan. The basses designed in the Circle of 4ths/5ths are the second replacement. All other primal voice pans: the Double Second, the Double and Triple Guitar and the Tenor Bass remain as established by the Invaders. (Please see individual articles on each instrument for a more detailed discussion.)

There were a few other innovations that were introduced by other bands such as the Desperadoes with the Quadraphonic Pan (Quads) and the new note layout for Double Guitars. Both voices drew upon and were influenced by pans previously introduced by The Invaders. The Quads reflect the configuration of the Double Seconds divided into four parts in the exact combination of notes as the Double Seconds pattern, and again we have the Double Guitars reflecting the exact configuration of the Double Seconds from a lower range. In fact, the Tenor Basses are one and the same combination of notes as the Quads from a lower range, with a longer skirt. One other voice that became a significant addition to the pan family was the Double Tenor introduced around the late fifties by Bertram “Bertie” Marshall, “The Marshall” as he was also called. He was one of the first tuners to successfully apply harmonics and upper partials to the technique of modern pan tuning and brought a certain flair to the sound that changed the timbre of pans that has encouraged and helped to refine tuning methods throughout the Pan community.

The Invaders style Tenor Pan introduced by Ellie Mannette became the standard pattern for most of the pan community. With interest in the steel pan at a very high level, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, better known as TASPO, was formed. TASPO was under the direction of Lt. Griffith, the St. Lucian Police Bandmaster and the Musical Director/Conductor who had the task of preparing the group for a tour of England during the Festival of Britain in 1951. This elite group consisted of eleven of the best steel pan players and tuners. Amongst them were Ellie Mannette and Tony Williams. Lt. Griffith also had the task of ensuring that the pans taken on this trip were chromatic. Elli Mannette’s tenor was the pan of choice.

The members of TASPO, after three months in England and France, returned to their respective bands, creating a musical leap forward for the movement. It is also at this time that Tony Williams made his most famous contribution to the steel pan - the pattern of the placement of notes on the instrument. During a rehearsal session, Mr. Williams noticed that when middle C was struck on the piano, the C on the Invaders tenor pan resonated without anyone playing it. His further observation of the pan convinced him that this may have occurred partially because the low C and the octave C were exactly opposite each other. (In retrospect, we can guess that the C on the pan was perfectly in tune with the C on the piano and a sympathetic vibration occurred!)

Tony Williams had become convinced that the major reason some notes on the instrument were of inferior tone compared to others had to do with the placement of some notes next to others which were in disharmony. He set about an extended study of the problem, making sketches and calculations. Out of this research, he created the three octave “Spider Web” pan, so called because of the resemblance of the pan to a spider web because of the grooving between notes and a lack of “dead space” between notes. It later came to be known as the circle of fourths and fifths Tenor Pan, which is now the international standard.

Tony Williams did not set out to make a pan with any preconceived ideas about the Western music pattern of the cycle of fifths. His approach was a little different in that he wanted to have all notes with their octaves situated directly inside each other on the pan. Anthony was fascinated with numbers and astrology and that may have led him to this configuration. He counted seven half-steps starting on C. This took eight notes: C-C#-D-D#-E-F-F# G. Was eight his lucky number? We’ll never know but that is how G ended up to the right of C on the Spider Web/Circle of 5ths Tenor Pan.

Although the instrument was developed as early as the Invaders tenor pan, it was not known to many unless they played with North Stars, Tony Williams’ band. This band was not as open to scrutiny as some. Many players took one look at the pan and automatically thought it would be too difficult to play. This may have had something to do with why it took longer to take a hold in the pan community. Tony Williams and North Star’s victories at the Music Festival in 1962 (Voices of Spring) and 1966 (Poet and Peasant) and at the first two editions of the Panorama, in 1963 (Dan is the Man) and 1964 (Mama Dis is Mas) became legendary. These performances demonstrated and established the potential of the Spider Web Tenor Pan. Although the new pan was accepted for its tonal qualities, there was not enough known or understood about the tuning of the pan by other pan tuners.

In the mid-sixties, there was a split of North Stars. West Side Symphony was born under the direction of Herman “Rock” Johnson, Anthony Williams’ right hand man, who also had first-hand knowledge of the Spider Web. For the first time the Spider Web could be scrutinized at close range by the steel pan community. This definitely helped to stir the interest of pan tuners and turn the tide of acceptance towards the Spider Web pan. Still, tuners were skeptical about making the pan exactly as Tony Williams had with all notes connected to each other and no dead space on the pan. At the time, tuners were focused on separation and isolation of notes, a process introduced by Bertie Marshall (and proven to work on his Double Tenor Pan) and Ellie Mannette (who used a similar separation in the manner in which he prepared and grooved his pans.) Tuners decided that a pan with as much natural harmonics as the Spider Web would be a lot easier to tune if the notes were separated. As a result, tuners reverted to the previous method of petal shaped notes with the higher octaves separated and isolated from the lower octaves. Thus, we have the modern day Circle of 4ths and 5ths Tenor Pan. The fact remains that whether we call it Spider Web or Circle of 4th/5ths, this pan is one of the most important links in the evolution of the steel pan as an accepted musical instrument.

Second Pan

Another pan that occupies a place of importance in the pan family is the Second Pan. This single pan was introduced to provide accompaniment to the First Pan and was named Second Pan by pioneer steel bandsmen of the era. One must understand that the people involved in the naming of these instruments had no formal musical training. Pan names were influenced by the colloquial musical expressions of the local pan community.

The name Second Pan meant the second primary voice in the family to be introduced and developed (coming after the First Pan.) Second also referred to the harmony of the second pan (i.e. the root, third, fifth, seventh, etc. of a chord or combination thereof) that accompanied the melody of the First Pan. Simply put, the Second Pan played the second part of the musical arrangement.

The Second Pan also had another set of names. It was called the Alto Pong at the time when names like Soprano Pong and Ping Pong surfaced. All these names eventually filtered down to Second Pan as the accepted title.

The Second Pan gained popularity rapidly in steel bands. During the forties, many steel bands could be identified by the unique way in which they played their Second Pans. The Casablanca Steel Band was among the first to place and emphasis on playing the Second Pan.

When the performance of classical music gained popularity and importance with the steel pan community, the range and tonal quality of the Second Pan came under close scrutiny. Pan tuners and enthusiasts embarked upon an experimental mission to improve the range of the Second Pan. At one time, the focus on improving the design of the pan to include the full chromatic scale led to welding two drums together. The welding of the drums was short-lived but the idea of two pans instead of one remained.

During the late fifties, the Invaders Steel Band, led by steel pan innovator Elliot “Ellie” Mannette became the first band to introduce the modern Double Second. The addition of the second pan made it possible to have more area available for adding larger (lower) notes. Each pan held six notes and their octaves with a whole tone scale (augmented chord) on each pan, one half-step apart from each other. When played in combination they produced the full chromatic scale needed for performing all types of music in any key. Ellie built his Double Second Pan from low E3. Some builders used F3 or F#3 as the lowest note. Today, most Double Second Pans are built from F#3 simply because it is easier to tune than the low E or F. During the fifties at Carnival time the steel pan community saw for the first time the present day modern Double Second introduced by Ellie Mannette and the Invaders playing tunes like Lieberstraum, Melody in F and a calypso piece by the name Michael sung by the famous Lord Melody. This period ushered in a few new innovations. In addition to the first pair of Double Seconds, the Double Guitar pans made their debut. Both the Double Second and the Double Guitar became the standard for all such pans during the ensuing years. They were chromatically tuned.

The Double Seconds at that time ranged from E3 to F5. (Today’s Double Second has a more extensive range with notes up to C#6.) These pans were designed to accommodate playing with both hands on separate pans simultaneously. The two pans were tuned one half step from each other with each drum containing eight notes on the outside of the drum and three notes in the center of the drum. With the new Double Second design, the player could run the chromatic scale by simply alternating hands between each pan for the notes. Of course, nobody in the band knew how these pans were going to be played on the road. They could not be held with a strap around the neck like a single pan. This was a mystery until the very morning the Double Second premiered on the road. Ellie Mannette brought out a stand with wheels for the Double Second and the first “pushers” were rounded up to move the pan while the player performed.

Other sticking patterns emerged in addition to the chromatic scale when playing the Double Second. Three of the unique patterns were for the major, natural minor and whole tone scales. The major scale always had the first three notes appear on the pan where the scale began, the next four notes on the opposite pan, returning to the beginning pan for the final note. Therefore, simple major triads or chords had the root and third on one pan and the fifth on the opposite pan. The natural minor scale had the first two notes on the pan where the scale began, three notes on the opposite pan, returning to the beginning pan for the final three notes. Speaking in terms of triads or chords, the root was found on the beginning pan and the minor third and fifth on the opposite pan. The whole tone scale simply played on one pan from lowest to highest note or from whatever note chosen to begin. Diminished chords alternated between pans and augmented chords were all within one pan.

The Double Second Pan replaced what in retrospect is now called the Single Second Pan. Presently, although designed to be a rhythmic strum instrument, the Double Second has become the first choice of many leading pan soloists because of its flawless and user friendly configuration as well as its range and tonal quality.

Guitars and Cellos

The third primary voice of the steel pan orchestra is what we now know as the guitar or cello pan. This single pan appeared in the late forties-early fifties and supported the middle range of notes. The names guitar and cello reflect a direct link to Trinidad’s Spanish and European musical influences. The pan was known to have many different names at different times depending on how it as used in a particular piece of music by different bands.

The Guitar Pan was referred to as the main strumming instrument in most steel bands in the earlier days and is still regarded as such by modern arrangers. As its usage became more popular and its function as a background instrument became more defined and prominent, names like “Grumbler” surfaced, descriptive of the husky tone of the instrument during that era.

There were no permanent designs to this pan during the early years. Notes were added from time to time to accommodate the key or range of a particular piece of music. These occurrences caused the pattern and playing method to change, producing a new sound each time. This prompted the local pan community to choose names that would sometimes suggest an air of musical and/or emphatic importance to the instrument. One example of that type of naming was the Grundig Pan, a name given to the Guitar Pan to describe its tonal quality and a name taken from a German stereo player in the late fifties. In the following years however, more musical names like Quatro Pan (small strumming guitar) and finally Guitar Pan became more permanent.

The influence of the European classical orchestra was very present in the name “Cello” Pan. Even during the era of single pans (late forties-early fifties) Double Cellos were introduced as a refinement of the Single Guitar. Two drums were used and the skirt (barrel length) of the drums was cut much longer than the skirt of the Guitar Pan to give the Cello pan a more sustained tone.

As the innovative years of pan development continued, the Single Guitar Pan was upgraded to two drums and called the Double Guitar. This occurred around the same time as the appearance of the Double Second Pan and was presented by the same man, Elliot “Ellie” Mannette. The design of the Double Guitar was chromatic but modified to accommodate the keys in which the band played. With the same playing methods in mind as the Double Second, it became easy to play both guitar pans simultaneously. The Double Guitar had a range from C3 to F4 omitting the low C#3 and the low Eb3. For some time during the late fifties through the late sixties these voices became accepted as the primal voices by most steel bands. There is still a Double Guitar used today but the configuration is very different from the original Double Guitar. Today’s Double Guitar is fashioned after the Double Second, displaying the same whole tone scale pattern with a range of one and one-half octaves.

Due to the need for an entirely chromatic instrument in this voice range that could play in all keys and have octaves of all notes, the Double Cellos soon became Triple Cellos. The arrangement of notes on the three pans varied until Ellie Mannette designed the current configuration which is now fairly standard. Each of the Cello Pans is designed on one of the three diminished chords (a series of intervals of a minor third built upon each other) present in Western music (B diminished on the left, C diminished in the center, and C# diminished on the right.) The range was three octaves from B2-C#5. It was not long before the skirts of the Triple Cellos were cut down to Guitar size and the Triple Guitar was born. In reality, the Triple guitar as we know it today is the Triple Cello with the skirt cut down to Guitar length. As is obvious from the above narrative, the development of the Guitar and Cello Pans were deeply intertwined with each other while sharing the same musical role and having the same general range of notes within the steel band.

The original Triple Guitar designed in this diminished chord manner was for a very specific reason. Ellie Mannette’s first official stage side, Shell Invaders, was preparing the classical selection, In a Monastery Garden, for the Steel Band Festival. The arrangement demanded that the Triple Guitar play a phrase with a descending arpeggio starting on Bb4 down to Ab4 and continuing. None of the Triples at that time had the required high range for this passage so Ellie brought out a new pan, configured with diminished chords and having the desired range to accommodate the musical arrangement. It was not unusual to build a pan to suit a particular arrangement. However, this pan, in addition to fulfilling that requirement, standardized the full chromatic range of the pan once and for all.

It is interesting that the placement of notes within each pan is different. On the left side, the lowest note, B3 is at the top of the pan, D4 on the bottom, F3 on the right and G#3 on the left. The higher octave center notes inside the pan follow the same pattern. To play the diminished chord lowest to highest one would play top, bottom, right and left in the pan. The pattern from lowest to highest in the center pan is bottom, left, right, top. The right hand pan goes in a circular pattern from bottom, left, top, right.

The reason for placement of the notes in this manner was twofold: to facilitate the equal sticking between pans and to take advantage of the change in overtones from one pan to the next to produce the desired timbre. Playing across three drums was still relatively new. They were placed in a triangular formation to assist in making them equally accessible. These were the elements of coordination between instrument and player that the steel band community inherited from the Invaders Steel Band. The difference in note placement on each of the three pans was intentional, causing the value of the overtones to change from pan to pan and making the difference in construction and note combination come together to form the strength and velocity of each pan.

If you take a look at the sticking of chords on the Triple you will find that a major chord has the root note on one pan and the 3rd and 5th on the pan next to it in a clockwise direction. A minor chord has the root and 3rd on one pan and the 5th on the next pan in the clockwise motion. Of course, the diminished chord is all in one pan. That leaves the augmented chord, each note on a different pan, again in a clockwise manner.

Tenor Bass and Bass

The Bass Pan is responsible for providing the exact pulse, rhythm and tempo for the band. With the first beating of metal in the early forties, two main voices emerged. One of them was the Bass or Boom or Kettle Drum. Keep in mind that there were no melody pans at the time and the band or group of revelers depended solely on the rhythm and their voices for musical direction.

The Boom was the largest pan of the era and was usually made from an empty Bermudez Biscuit container that measured approximately 18” in diameter and was 18” high. This Boom Pan was played with a folded fist wrapped in a towel and was the first instrument to be carried on a strap around the neck (long before the First Pan.) As stated, this Boom or Bass voice supplied the main and syncopated beats of the band.

In the following years this pan was modified and became known as the Tune Boom. The word “tune” meaning it had actual tuned notes. At first, the Tune Boom had two notes, then three and even four at one time) The Tune Boom eventually settled with three notes and was made of a caustic soda drum that was a little wider and taller than the Boom.

During the age of innovation for the pan, the Boom and Tune Boom evolved too. They began to be made from 55 gallon barrels. A second drum was added and the Double Bass was born. Just as with the Guitar and Cello, the Boom and Tune Boom and intertwined development while sharing the same role in the pan band. The Bass evolved into three, four, five, six, seven, nine, and twelve pans in a set. The Tune Boom became the modern Tenor Bass. The Five Bass was introduced by Phillmore “Boots” Davidson on Syncopaters Steel Band, Quarry Street. It was further refined and developed chromatically by Elliot “Ellie” Mannette of the Woodbrook Invaders who later became the Shell Invaders.

Both the Tenor Bass and the Bass became fully chromatic instruments. The Tenor Bass provides the fourth primary voice in the steel pan orchestra and is arranged into four pans, each with an augmented chord pattern with a range from F2 through C4. The Bass, the fifth and lowest of the primary voices in the steel pan orchestra, is patterned in 4ths or 5ths. The range varies but is usually from either Bb2 to Eb4 or B2 to E4 (sometimes even as low as A2 to D4.)

Nomenclature

From its inception through its short but rapid evolution, trial and error has played a fundamental role in the development, design, structuring and even the naming of the instruments of the steel pan family. Two almost opposing influences played particularly important roles in the naming of the instruments by pioneering steel band men. The first of these two influences is the colloquial expressions that developed based on the instrument’s sound or its function in a particular piece of music. The second influence, which arrived with the European culture, is the growing awareness of traditional Western classical music and its accompanying vocabulary.

A comparison of the evolution of the naming of the Tenor Pan (as it is called today) provides a good example of these two influences. Consider the colloquial influence first. The Tenor Pan was originally called a “Ping Pong.” This name was given to the instrument and Small groups of pan players would parade the streets of Port of Spain (the capital of Trinidad and Tobago) playing what was at that time the first type of melody pans, the “ping pong.” This was the first name given to the pan by community members who heard and enjoyed this new musical sound. To the ear, the words ping pong almost sounded “Chinese” and were descriptive of the sound the instrument made when held aloft in one hand and played with one stick with no rubber tip. The word pong appeared again in later years, this time used by pioneering steel band men in the naming of some of the newer instruments (i.e. Alto Pong, Tenor Pong, Soprano Pong.)

Even back then the Ping Pong, Tenor Pan or First Pan as it was eventually called had an air of importance to both the community that supported the steel band and the authorities who were totally against the steel band’s progress. Although it was legal for revelers to parade the streets at different times for one reason or another with the Bermudez Biscuit Drum call the Boom, the Kettle or snare Drum, and the bugle, the Ping Pong was not allowed. It was outlawed. When these parades took place police officers were placed along the route to seize the Ping Pong and arrest the player. As a result of these actions by law enforcement, the community would place lookouts along the route to warn the band of such activities so the Ping Pong player and pan could take another route to bypass the road block that was up ahead.

The name “Ping Pong” later changed to “First Pan.” The name First Pan has at least two interpretations. The term refers to the fact that it is the oldest or first pan invented in the family of instruments with more than three tuned notes. In addition, the First Pan was recognized then and still is today as the first choice of pan to play melody. Because it plays the lead or melody line, it is also sometimes called the Lead Pan or the Melody Pan.

Eventually, the names Ping Pong, First Pan, Lead Pan and Melody Pan gave way to the current nomenclature of Tenor Pan. This demonstrates a clear connection to the growing awareness of Western classical music and its accompanying vocabulary. Tenor refers to the highest male voice. Since this pan had the highest range of notes of any pan in the family of instruments, it was called the Tenor Pan. Do not get confused: the range of the Tenor Pan and a male tenor voice do not coincide. The range of a Tenor pan is more in the area of a female soprano voice. Some even called it a Soprano Pan. These same influences were the inspiration behind the name Piano Pan. However, Tenor Pan is the name that has survived. It is only in academic hindsight that a different name seems more appropriate for the pan.

Truly, the name Tenor Pan is a combination of the colloquial and classical influences in the development of pan and is a good representation of all that took place during the naming of the pans from the earliest days to the present.

The Evolution of the Steel Pan as a Musical Instrument in the Caribbean

The Steel Pan has become recognized as a cultural art form and is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. It has spread throughout the world. This joyful, vibrant instrument was born of poverty in the backyards and streets of a cosmopolitan country with the pent-up energies of a population that included influences from African, East Indian, Carib Indian, Spanish Creole and Chinese cultures. The roots of the steel pan as an art form can be traced from the Tamboo Bamboo Bands (as they were called) of the thirties, through the use of metal dustbins (garbage cans) as a substitute for broken bamboo, to the modern Steel Pan instrument.

To begin, we must go back to the days when Trinidad and Tobago was a British Colony. With British rule came the Christian religion along with its many holidays, feast days and saint days, not to mention New Years Day and Discovery Day. The biggest celebration of the year however, took place on Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday called Carnival Monday and Tuesday. This celebration was a combination of the French “Mardi Gras” and the festival of the burning of the cane fields known as “Cannes Brulee.” Together they formed one big festival called “Jour Vert.” These were the days when the people took to the streets to celebrate, make music and enjoy themselves.

One must also understand that Trinidad and Tobago were sugar producers to the world. Along with their Christian religion, the British brought East Indians to the islands as indentured workers to work the cane fields. Because of extreme conditions, many of the East Indians contracted one or more illnesses and died. The British Government then decided to import Africans as slaves to supplement the East Indian workers. However, unlike the East Indians, who were allowed to keep and practice their cultural and religious heritage, the African slaves were forbidden to beat African drums or to practice some of their religious ceremonies. The ruling European Christians felt somewhat threatened by the African drum and religious practices. As a result, most African drum and musical culture were actually outlawed by 1851. The East Indian culture then surfaced and the use of the bamboo plant as a rhythmic instrument emerged.

Bamboo stalks of differing widths were cut at varying lengths and used as a rhythmic instrument. They were hollowed out inside by knocking out the joints. The bamboo was cured in linseed oil and put to dry. When the wide bamboo was held in an upright position and struck upon the ground, the bamboo gave off a booming sound similar to that of a muffled drum. At the same time the bamboo was struck on the ground, the sides of the bamboo were struck to play contrapuntal African rhythms. Smaller pieces of bamboo which gave off a higher pitched sound were held in the hands and struck together in different rhythmic patterns. This was a merging of two cultures. Bands of bamboo instruments soon formed. Tamboo Bamboo Bands emerged and remained in the forefront as the main form of rhythmic musical expression through the thirties.

Around the late thirties a proclamation was issued by the Governor banning the cutting of the bamboo plant which was necessary for the making of these instruments. This proclamation was posted only a few weeks before a celebrated holiday leaving no time to make new instruments. The people were forced to use whatever old bamboo instruments that remained.

On the appointed day, people took to the streets with the bamboos they had and anything that could make a noise, including the famous bottle and spoon. After a few hours of vigorous playing, the old bamboo instruments began to burst apart. Intent on continuing the rhythms, the revelers picked up dustbin covers and eventually the dustbins themselves and began beating on them. This was one of the first mixtures of bamboo and metal. In the choice of dustbin covers as a replacement for the bamboo, the idea of pan was born.

What followed was the direct inclusion of the sound of metal (be it a cooking pot, a brake drum from a motor vehicle or a paint can,) with the sound of the bamboo. The new sound of steel had arrived in Trinidad and Tobago, never to be quieted again. Tamboo Bamboo Bands underwent a total change. In some communities there was a mixture of bamboo and steel. In other areas, the bamboo became obsolete. The new bands that boasted of having all their rhythms played on metal of some sort were called steel bands and the men who played them were called steel band men. The instrument became known as the steel drum or steel pan.

In September of 1939, World War II broke out and much of Trinidad and Tobago went into seclusion. This was not the case with the steel band man. In the backyards of communities (pan yards as they came to be known) unemployed youth began to develop a new art form. These young men had no formal job for the most part and could afford to put their time and energy into the development of the steel pan. During the war years, pan men experimented with new ideas. Attempts were made to place tuned notes on biscuit tins and paint cans. By the time the war was over, short melodies were being played with one stick on these pans while being held in the palm of one hand.

The discussion regarding the development of the steel pan from 1939 onward deserves and requires a detailed manifest too lengthy for this particular article. However, a brief description is appropriate at this point. At first, the method applied to the playing surface of the metal containers was a convex shape, where the inside of the top of the container was pushed upward and outward. Tuned notes were dents made in the surface of this cover or domed piece of metal. Later, in 1945, a concave playing surface was introduced on a 45 gallon drum by Elliot “Ellie” Mannette. The playing surface had reversed itself and was now concave or pushed down inside the container. Areas containing tuned notes were more carefully marked in a geometrical pattern. These individual tuned areas were grooved along the outside with a wooden punch and raised slightly upward. This method of building a pan became accepted by all pan men and is still employed in the modern steel pan to this day.

Steel bands were loud. All day. They were not a welcome addition to the community in the early days. Neighbors would complain of the noise and call the police. Steel bands were subject to frequent police raids and arrests. The authorities were intent on wiping out the steel bands and used every means possible to do so. The steel pan was (and still is) listed under the law as a nuisance instrument. This created a rebellious attitude towards the police in steel band men that led to fierce fights between the two groups. These fights became commonplace in most communities. Police would invade areas to either seize or destroy the instruments. In trying to repel the attacks steel band men were labeled hooligans and vagabonds. From that time on, the steel band was left with an ugly sigma that placed it in direct opposition with the law. With this oppressed environment, steel bands turned their frustration inward on each other which led to the steel band wars of the late forties.

Even through the unrest there remained a breed of pan men dedicated to the advancement of the steel pan art form. These were individuals who would, through trial and error, become the innovators of the different pans, patterns, names, building/tuning/blending methods in developing the modern steel pan. Three men worth noting who contributed significantly to the continued development of the steel pan are Elliot “Ellie” Mannette, Bertie Marshall and Tony Williams. These three men are responsible for and can be directly linked to a large percentage of the innovations in building and tuning steel pan that has led us to the refined instrument we know today as the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the Steel Pan.

Understanding the Physiological Characteristics of the Steel Pan

One major physical characteristic of the steel pan that is observed throughout each period of development and that is still quite present today is the manner in which the placement of the outside notes and the overall design depends upon lines that radiate outward from the center of the drum to the rim of the drum, dividing the space. This physical characteristic is demonstrated at all levels of steel pan manufacturing and tuning since the early thirties to the present time. The geometric pattern that results from connecting the center point of the drum to measured points along the radius of the drum is quite evident in all the configurations of each of the different styles of steel pan. We can safely assume that this form is a permanent physical feature and as such is to be considered a major characteristic of the steel pan.

“From Convex to Concave” can describe one of the major turning points or gateways to modern steel pan construction and describes another physiological characteristic. From the very concept of creating a steel pan through trial and error to the present day steel pan, the sinking of the drum head still remains the main form of preparation in the building of all the voices of the steel pan family. It is important to understand the logic and reasoning behind the acceptance of concave construction over convex construction and how this came about.

During the early years, the introduction of metal containers allowed for vigorous rhythms played continuously by each player with a stick or a crude wooden mallet. Bear in mind that the containers were designed to carry products such as butter and cooking oil (or sweet oil as it was called.) The weight of the material that was used for these containers was of a very light quality tin.

At this time there were no exact pitches on the containers and the band depended on the twisted and distorted areas that were produced by the player’s continued striking of the drum’s surface for sound. As the players struck the drum to produce the desired rhythm, the soft metal containers would buckle under the pressure and would sink inwards causing the player’s stick or mallet to come into contact with the rim of the drum. As a result, the stick would sometimes break. To avoid breaking sticks it became quite natural to turn the pan upside down and push the surface back up to its previous position which would renew the area for continued playing once more.

With repeated displacement of the surface area it became noticeable that the pan would become warped. This caused the twisted surface of the drum to produce different sounds. In the years that followed, developing steel bands adopted this convex method of shaping the top of the container and for the first time pioneer pan tuners deliberately attempted to place definite pitches on the surface of the drum. Quite the reverse of what we have today, the convex surface was pushed upwards causing the entire area to form a type of dome. Dents were randomly placed on the surface of the dome and, depending upon the rudimentary pitches that were acquired by this method, parts of the scale could be recognized and simple songs could be played. Winston “Spree” Simon is often credited with playing the first tune on this type of primitive pan.

Convex construction was the norm for most steel bands until the forties when a young innovator by the name of Elliot “Ellie” Mannette (lathe turner by trade) decided to reverse the playing surface from convex to concave. This led to the present construction that is evident today. For some time this idea caused widespread criticism. Derogatory names like “tub pan” and “basin pan” surfaced. Additionally, for some time it was taboo to have one of these styles of pans. This changed when it was realized that this concave approach to construction made it possible to have more space for note placement on the drum than before. The country’s steel bands embarked upon a quiet race to see who could place the most notes on a drum. The 45 gallon barrel became the drum of the future. For the first time, a full size 45 gallon oil/caustic soda drum was sunk inwards creating one of the first concave steel pans. Gradually, widespread acceptance of the concave method of construction followed.

With this new approach tuners had more control of the surface of the pan, creating a sound board which was not previously possible. This combined with more space for note placement led to more separation of the notes. Tuners began to stretch the metal which led to even more space and, coincidentally, better sounding high notes. Tuners found that the repeated hammering hardened the surface. With the separation of the notes and the hardening of the surface came a method of grooving around the note by taking a wooden dowel to create an impression around the edge of the note to further isolate the vibration of that note from other notes on the working surface.

In summary, the change in the construction of the pan from convex to concave led to more space for note placement, better control of the working surface of the instrument, the creation of a soundboard for the notes, separation of notes, hardening of the surface and grooving of the notes. These are all basic elements of modern day construction of a pan.

It became critical in the construction of the steel pan, where all voices are made of the same material, to be able to control and distinguish the tone and timbre produced by each instrument. One method that was found to affect these properties was the length of the skirt of the pan. Another method found to control these qualities was the placement of notes within the pan.

Pan tuners discovered through experimentation that the length of the skirt of the instrument affected its tone and timbre. In musical and acoustical retrospect, the results the pan tuners arrived at make perfect sense. The length of the skirt must be long enough to accommodate the longest (slowest) vibration emanating from that pan. Therefore, the skirt of a tenor pan would be shorter than that of a guitar because the lowest note of a tenor pan is higher (faster vibration) than the lowest note of a guitar pan. A guitar pan, with lower notes, requires more skirt length for the longer (slower) vibration to act against the skirt of the pan before the audible sound exits the pan and is released.

Many of the discoveries made through experimentation by the pan tuners make very good sense when looking back at them through the lenses or viewpoint of traditional Western music theory. Placement of notes on the pans is one of these. Note placement had to accommodate ease and equality of playing as well as tone and timbre of the instrument. This includes not only the combination of notes on the pan but the placement of the notes against each other within the pan and, to some extent, the shape of the notes, and the size of the notes. The early pan tuners had an uncannily exacting musical ear. The final arrangement of notes within each of the primal voices of the pan family, arrived at through ear only, can be compared favorably with the application of musical theory. Briefly, the Tenor Pan and the Bass Pans are arranged in a circle of fifths. The Double Second Pans and Tenor Bass Pans are arranged in an augmented chord. The Triple Guitar Pans are arranged with each in one of the three diminished chords. This did not happen because of any musical knowledge but rather because of how the notes fit into and sounded on the pan.

Though all the primal voices of the steel pan family (tenor, double second, triple guitar, tenor bass, bass) are made of the same material and have a range of notes that overlap, each has an unmistakable timbre: C4 (middle C) does not sound the same on the tenor as it does on the double second or the triple guitar or the tenor bass or the bass. Just as a major chord sounds major no matter the inversion [root (1, 3, 5) first inversion (3, 5, 1) second inversion (5, 1, 3)] each combination expresses its special, unique quality of overtones. When Middle C is the lowest note and is arranged in a circle of 5ths as in the Tenor Pan, it has a different set of overtones than when it is set as a mid range note of the Doubles Second pan arranged in an augmented setting. The Middle C of a Triple guitar, in the upper range of the instrument arranged in a diminished chord yields yet another set of overtones and timbre. Thus, the arrangement of notes on and within the pan(s) is of great importance to the timbre produced.

During the period when pans made the transitional change from single pan to double or triple and larger sets, the major contribution came from the Invaders Steel Band. This was not by chance but by a combination of studied measurements and an understanding of the methods of construction-based principles. This approach was introduced after exhaustive efforts by the pan community to arrive at particular patterns and designs suitable for playing across the pan, from one hand to the other, as opposed to playing around the pan. Elliot Mannette, the leader of the Invaders Steel Band (known as Ellie to the steel band community) always talked about equal separation of notes and scales and the importance of balanced playing in all scales on all pans, not just the Tenor Pan. The Invaders were very fortunate to have someone as gifted as Ellie working with them. His experience working with metals and fine measurements as a lathe operator had a great impact on the entire development and construction of the pan as we know it today.

At this critical point in the development of the steel pan there surfaced many new ideas, some accepted, others discarded. Again, in the forties one of the new ideas that became permanent was the introduction of the chromatic scale by the same innovator who was responsible for creating the concave construction of the pan, Ellie Mannette. The newly chromatic format led to the widespread acceptance of the steel pan as a musical instrument. One of the main sources in the development of the steel pan became the Woodbrook Invaders, formerly the Oval Boys later to be known as the Shell Invaders, led by the same Ellie Mannette. Under Ellie’s guidance and leadership some of the first primary voices of the steel pan family were developed.

During this period different styles and designs of pans were introduced, many of which were rejected or replaced by another after a short while. The evolution of the pan was in high gear and what did not work was quickly abandoned. Individual steel bands of the era fashioned their own patterns or configurations of notes on the instruments. Tuners of the bands were the deciding factor as to note placement on the pans. This led to widespread diversity and from time to time changes were made to accommodate the playing of a particular song.

The steel pan art form underwent a metamorphosis that led to a critical upsurge of invention amongst most of the major steel bands, especially those who had become more musically sophisticated since the introduction of the chromatic scale. A large number of new voices emerged. With this emergence came the personalizing of steel bands caused as a result of the way these voices were used within the band. Bands were recognized by their overall sound depending upon which pan received the emphasis in the arrangement. For instance, City Syncopators (led by Philmore “Boots” Davidson) were noted for the emphasis being placed in the guitar section during their mambo arrangements. Casablanca Steel Band placed emphasis on the double second in their arrangements. You could tell one band from another by the difference in sound.

It was quite noticeable when bands began placing greater emphasis on how they sounded and became more aware of how in tune the pans were. These were times when bands boasted of having more arrangements as opposed to only sounding good because of how well the pans were tuned. This became a turning point in the development of the steel pan where more focus was placed on the tuning of a note rather than on just playing the pan. It was not long before many bands noticed the difference in the sound of the bands that had a particular kind of configuration of note placement on the instrument. This occurred mainly amongst the steel bands in the west part of Port of Spain that were influenced by the Woodbrook Invaders, the home of the first chromatic tenor.

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