Our Steel Pans
Steel Pan Alley currently has 18 steel pans.
We have five Lead or Tenor pans. These are single drums that are cut off at between six and nine inches, and hung on stands. They have 29 to 34 notes in one pan. These are the melody pans, comparable to the soprano part in a chorus. Lead pans are the only steel drum with a standardized note layout, always displaying the notes in nestled circles of fifths.
We have five Double Second pans. These are pairs of drums cut off are between nine and twelve inches and hung on stands. They have 16 notes in each pan for a total of 32. These pans can play rhythmic harmony (strum) or counter-melody like a choral alto section.
We have 2 Triple pans, called a guitar or cello pan. We also have 2 of the less common double cellos. They are cut off at 14 inches. They have 9 notes in each triple pan for a total of 27. There are 28 notes between the double cellos. As the names imply, the cellos play low harmony and "strum".
Our Four Basses are only slightly shortened at 28 inches and sit on wooden frames. Each has 5 notes for a total of 20.
We have two 6-Basses. They are not shortened at all remaining 35 to 36 inches in height and sit on a wooden "legs" with foam rubber "feet" to dampen any rattle. Each drum has only three large notes for a total of 18.
There are other types of steel drum that we don't have. Quad guitars. double tenors and 12 basses are a few other configurations.
In addition to the pans, a steel band has an "engine room" or rhythm section that includes a variety of instruments. The cowbell keeps the beat. The bongos add cross rhythms. The "iron" is a car's brake drum (remember that panyards started in junkyards) used to play 16th notes. Other Latin instruments like maracas and claves are also used. Because our band doesn't march, we sometimes use a drum set.
A History of Steel Pans
In the 1930s, Trindad was under the jurisdiction of England. Schools taught only English music and folksongs. Afro-Caribbean melodies and rhythms were strictly prohibited so village teens began to gather together to make their own music. Some of these groups (which got pretty rough from time to time) were called gangs, and they soon began to engage in showdowns with gangs from other villages.
They started with "Tamboo Bamboo", tall heavy bamboo sticks that they would strike on the ground in complex rhythms, often accompanied by rapid chanting. The competitions became fiercer and somebody added a steel oil drum struck with a stick. The sound was so loud it tended to drown out the Tanboo Bamboo. Soon other bands added steel drums and a new instrument was born.
The first steel drums were tuned to just one note, and then someone domed the barrels' bottoms to create two different notes. The idea grew and expanded. Ellie Manette (who now teaches at the University of West Virginia in Morgantown) was the first man to dish the pans instead of doming them. This made the addition of more notes possible. Today the steel pans are still not fully standardized.
The gangs met in "panyards" which were the junkyards of their villages. Over time, they evolved into proper bands. Even now names like Desperados, Renegades and Invaders reflect the bands' rough beginnings. These bands still compete today in the annual Panorama, which takes place the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. There is also an October Festival called Pan Beautiful where the bands play arrangements of classical music.