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steel pan

struck idiophone

The steelpan - also sometimes referred to as the steel drum - is the national musical instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, two islands off the coast of Venezuela, in the south-eastern Caribbean. In its current form the steelpan is a steel concave bowl comprising a series of hollows of different sizes and depths, each of which produces a specific note when struck with sticks tipped with rubber.

Instruments of different sizes are played together in steel bands. As one would expect, the repertoire features a good deal of calypso, a style of Caribbean festive music typically associated with Trinidad.  But the steel bands also play covers from other music genres, and even adaptations of classical music.

As a fully-fledged musical instrument, the steelpan is barely half a century old. It was born out of poverty. Descendants of black slaves, who could not afford a European musical instrument, celebrated carnival by drumming on metal receptacles, such as milk churns, paint tins, biscuit tins and dustbin lids. And 55-gallon oil drums(208 litres). These were in plentiful supply after the Second World War, when the American bases in Trinidad were firing on all cylinders.

It was Winston 'Spree' Simon (1930-1976), a drummer from the slums of Laventille, a ward of the capital Port of Spain, who first discovered that dents in the bottom of a tin could produce sounds of different pitches which could be tuned to perfection. His first ping pong had four notes; by 1946 there were fourteen. A pioneering model was the 'Spider Web Pan' by Tony Williams (°1931) dating from1953. Williams was the first to arrange the notes in concentric circles according to the circle of fifths. He produced a richer tone by surrounding each note with notes tuned a quarter, fifth or octave higher or lower.

The instrument gradually evolved into today's fully chromatic Tenor Pan, which plays the melody in the steel band. Often two Tenor Pans - a high and a low tenor pan - are played by one musician. The standard version of Tenor Pan has between 28 and 30 notes: on the outside edge, the twelve notes of the lowest octave; inside, the twelve notes of the higher octave, and right in the middle another four to six notes from the highest octave.

From its birthplace Laventille the steelpan quickly found its way to other deprived parts of Trinidad. Initially right-minded citizens didn't have a good word to say about it. They identified the instrument with the violent subculture of unemployed young black pannists seeking confrontation with rival steel bands. But in the early 1950s when musicians like Spree and Williams started to play music the better classes were also able to appreciate and even appeared on Broadway and in London, the steelpan was no longer discredited. From the late 1950s steel bands were formed on other Caribbean islands, and even as far afield as North America and Western Europe. In Trinidad alone there are currently more than a hundred steel bands. Elsewhere in the world there are hundreds more.

When Trinidad and Tobago gained independence from Great Britain in 1962, the new government made the steelpan the musical symbol of the new state. From then on pannists were regarded as cultural ambassadors. This explains why the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago was keen to give the mim a steelpan for the fiftieth anniversary of its independence. It is a new, chromed Low Tenor Pan with 29 notes by the firm Panland in Laventille, founded in 1993 under the name Trinidad & Tobago Instruments Ltd. Panland is the world market leader in steelpans. The Low Tenor Pan is also called the C-Lead, Soprano or Melody Pan.

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steel pan 2012.60
steel pan 2012.60
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