Getting Panned in Trinidad

by Jacob on October 1, 2013

Given the choice between Chinese water torture and being forced to listen to a recording of steel drums I might lean towards the former. The steel drum, or steel pan or just “pan” as most Trinidadians call it, is one of the instruments that just doesn’t translate very well to recordings and it is best appreciated it in its natural setting: performed by an orchestra of hundreds on a hot, sweaty night in Trinidad, ideally during the annual Panorama competition and with a belly full of local rum.

I witnessed firsthand just how awful steel drums can be on two occasions this past week. First, at the hands of a disinterested steel drum band of about 6 musicians playing watered down versions of “Volaré” and “Bamboleo” at the Hilton hotel overlooking downtown Port of Spain. This was quintessential elevator music: bland, insipid, lifeless and just plain cheesy. Ironically, we were just a few hundreds yards away from the neighborhood where the steel drum was invented back in the early 1940s.

The second opportunity to hear steel drums gone bad was in the lounge of the National Geographic Explorer ship, on which I am currently traveling down the east coast of South America. The local Guyanese tour operators probably thought they were giving us what we wanted when they brought on board a very cool looking steel drum player, older and with long dreadlocks. He proceeded to set up his laptop computer to provide horrific drum machine and swooping synthesizer chords to back up his renditions of “How Deep Is Your Love” by The Bee Gees, “The Greatest Love of All” and, in a particularly inappropriate choice while playing on a cruise ship, the Theme song from “The Titanic”. I was gritting my teeth, hoping none of the guests thought I had anything to do with this textbook example of how far the steel drum has come from its funky and actually quite inspirational origins.

Indeed, the steel drum deomstrates how creative people can transform industrial garbage into beautiful art. It symbolizes the ingenuity of a culture that, in the face of limited resources, political and social restrictions and a historical legacy of slavery and exploitation, could invent an entirely new acoustic instrument that would one day be used to play complex orchestral works and embody the soul, spirit, culture and history of the Trinidadian people. All the more tragic that it has become ubiquitous in Caribbean tourist hotels and used to perform songs best left to seedy karaoke bars.

Something magical happened while I was in Port of Spain last week. I was transported back in time, to 1947 to be precise, and witnessed the first ever steel drum competition. Young men dressed in white t-shirts, sailor caps and khaki pants jumped on a decrepit stage, British flags on the curtain behind them, as they held their rudimentary steel drums. Some we’re cut small and held in their hands, others were full drums lined in rows to provide bass notes. The audience cheered, their surprise at the magical sounds coming out of the waste of the local oil industry, sparking a cultural and musical revolution that lives on to this day.

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About five years earlier, someone looked thoughtfully at one of the many oil drums littering Port of Spain’s oil yards (Trinidad struck oil back in the 1850s and remains one of the Caribbean top producers of oil and other petroleum products) and thought to themselves, “I wonder what that would sound like if I hit it with a stick.”

Trinidad, as with many parts of the Caribbean where African drums were banned, has a long tradition of making musical instruments out of found objects like frying pans, car brake rims, bamboo sticks, metal bars and other found objects. In the oil drum this found its ultimate expression.

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It wasn’t long before an indentation was made in the top of the drum to give it two separate notes. That soon expanded to more elaborate indentations until a fully formed melodic instrument was formed, one that was capable of playing all of the tones of a scale and thus could be used for all sorts of musical mayhem.

Check out this great short Pete Seeger film from 1956 on how to make a steel drum

 

Competition, sometimes friendly, sometimes violent, has long been part of Trinidadian culture and soon rival steel drum gangs were battling in the streets of Trinidad. Sometimes the knives would come out and actual blood was shed, but eventually the competitions became formalized and in there I was in 1947 watching the first official steel drum competition.

I wasn’t actually back in time – I was a guest at a film shoot for a new movie docu-drama that tells the story of the development of the steel drum, from its humble beginnings in the poor neighborhoods of Port of Spain to the awesome Panorama competitions that attract an audience of thousands from all over the world. The film is to be called Pan! A Modern Odyssey and its producer is Jean Michel Gibert, an old friend who has been at the forefront of the Trinidadian music industry for years.

Watch The Preview of the Film Pan! A Modern Odyssey

Learn More About the Film Pan! A Modern Odyssey

 

Even though he has been living in Trinidad at least as long as I have known him, almost twenty years now, Jean Michel still has a strong French accent. He is a tireless proponent of local music, and every time I meet him he is excited about some new project, be it the documentary Calypso at Dirty Jim’s that he helped produce, the new album in development from soca diva Calypso Rose or the latest carnival hit “Differentology” by Bunji Garlin. Jean Michel has his fingers on the pulse of the Trinidad music scene, so of course he was the first person I called when I knew I would be in Port of Spain.

He did not disappoint – being able to witness the reenactment of this monumental moment in Trinidadian music history was the next best thing to being there. I immersed myself in the moment, and it wasn’t hard to imagine I was actually in the crowd on that day that changed Caribbean music forever.

On my way over to the shoot I explored the downtown streets of Port of Spain. As I walked past one building with a mural on the wall advertising steel drum lessons, I heard the unmistakable tinkling of steel drums wafting out of its open doorway. I peeked my head in to see a group of children, aged 9 or 10, getting taught the basics of how to play the steel drum. It was a new generation who would be tasked with the responsibility of keeping steel drum music going strong far into the future.

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I also walked by the steel yard of the Renegades, an orchestra that competes every year in the Panorama competition. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it back to the yard later that night to attend their evening rehearsal, which I’ve heard is more of a social club. Much beer is imbibed, fights break out, and occasionally, the groups strikes up the metallic cacophony that is a true steel drum orchestra. Sounds just like my kind of scene!

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Alas, my dream of experiencing a full steel drum orchestra live and in its natural context will have to remain just that. My time on Port of Spain was so short and not during carnival season, when the steel drum orchestras truly shine. Hopefully, I won’t have to suffer through too many hotel bar steel drum bands before I get a chance to see the real thing, live and in person. The watered down version most people are familiar with has nothing to do with the real thing. While I had a chance to travel back to the past and witness the origins of the steel drum first hand, I’ll need to wait for the future to have an opportunity to hear a true steel drum orchestra performance during a hot Carnival night in Port of Spain.

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