Monday, February 16, 2009

A Reprieve from Winter

Last night, Small Town high school's steel band gave its annual big-deal concert, Pantasia. I love this thing, not just because my kids were in it for years, but because it's so unusual. Who would expect to find a steel band in the middle of Ohio?

It's here because one of the school's band directors graduated from the University of Akron, and the music department there has had a steel band program for years. It's this director's goal to teach her students that this instrument is a gift, and she goes so far to say that it and the music related to its history is inspired. And she wants to keep it from becoming a cartoon—that means no cheesy Hawiian shirts and no stupid Rasta hats with fake dreadlocks. I should add this teacher is one of my dearest friends.

I had the privilege of covering the concert for Small Town Newspaper, so I spent some time reading up on the history of steel pans, and I spent some time talking to the professional steel drummer who was in town all weekend to help teach the kids. He's an expert. After he graduated from college, he went to Trinidad to study steel bands on his own. He took a Walkman and recorded everything he heard so he could make his own arrangements and see what was what. Now he goes back to Trinidad as a professional and plays in gigs there.

What I didn't realize was that the steel pan is relatively new as far as instruments go. Here's the story—the Spanish invaded an island they named Trinidad along with Tobago, and they brought in African slaves to do all the work. The French showed up eventually and brought the tradition of Carnival with them. The Africans were forbidden to participate in Carnival, so they started their own party and made their instruments out of bamboo.

The British came along in the 1800s and freed the slaves but still kept them at bay, outlawing their percussion instruments because they were afraid the Blacks were actually passing secret messages in their cadences and not just playing music. That led the drummers to make tunable sticks out of bamboo, and then of course those were outlawed. Then they got their hands on the biscuit tins the British brought in by the ship load and started pounding away on them with sticks.

That's when they learned you can tune metal by shaping it and hammering it into various levels of thickness. They formed biscuit-tin bands based on what they could tune. Eventually, in the early 1900s when the oil industry moved in, these drummers started "finding" oil drums and tuning them into steel drums. They got good at it and formed rag-tag bands. Most of these guys were street kids with not much else to do and not much opportunity, and they were known as "Bad Johns," what we might call hoodlums.

During WWII, the US Navy moved in and set up house. The Bad Johns started stealing oil drums from the navy base and making pans out of them. When the navy's commander found out, he called the boys in for a talk and was so impressed with what they could do musically that he turned a blind eye to their stealing.

The navy eventually formed their own steel band that performed until 1999. Interestingly enough, their final performance was with the Small Town high school band at that year's Pantasia.

Photos by Eustacia.


lynn said...

Love the first one, Eustacia! You have a ghost in there....brr.

dive said...

What a wonderful post, Robyn!
A marvellous history of the instrument (I'm glad we horrid Brits did something right, even when we were trying not to), beautifully written.
And well done for giving Eustacia credit for the excellent photos; I was going to say "I LOVE that first photo, Robyn", but now I'll join Lynn and say "I LOVE that first photo, Eustacis!"
Hee hee.

Anonymous said...

try to study more...

Scout said...

Lynn, ooo, it is a ghost, isn't it?

Dive, those horrid Brits is right, although the horrid Spanish and French were just as bad if not worse.

Anonymous, I bet your pardon?

Sassy Sundry said...

I have steel drum music going through my head. Great post!

Liz Mannette said...

thanks for sharing this aspect of steelpan history, and Pantasia.
Just finished my Museum exhibition here in Trinidad, aptly called: Oil, Steel, Style. As a descendant of one of the original pan pioneers from the 1930s and 1940s (he was not a bad john, though) Ellie Mannette, I've created a line of jewelry based on the steelpan to allow those who love the instrument to always have a memory with them, whether a bracelet or pendant, etc. do visit us at

all the best