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 among 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.