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The Beauty Of Steel Pan Music

By Dennis Wright

In every part of the world, there is a particular set of factors that can be attributed to one country or culture. Though steel pan music is now heard worldwide, it is known as a sound that is unique to the Caribbean. After all, the birth of this instrument, also called a steel drum, happened in the Caribbean's most southern island of Trinidad.

Commonly known as simply 'pan', it was created during the '30s, after over half a century of experimentation and development of metal objects as percussion instruments. When slaves came from Africa, they brought with them the hand drum, and this was banned in the 1870s. This was a feeble attempt by the then British rule to try and quell celebrations around Carnival time.

In the beginning, huge oil drums were used to created the instrument. These oil drums were pounded into shape and then polished to get the result of the steel drum we know today. This handmade method is still the most popular when it comes to the art of making the steel pan. Another method is to start with sheet metal. The instrument holds the title of being the only instrument invented in the twentieth century.

This is an instrument that can be played by itself or in groups to create a steel band. The music is celebrated particularly at Carnival time, when special competitions and events are held to determine the greatest band of them all. Spectators are able to join in the vibe and feel the energy of the sound live at these events.

Even though the instrument is primarily used to celebrate Trinidad's own musical genres of calypso and soca, it has been used across the board in music. Pop music, jazz, reggae and Latin have all been subjected to the influence of the pan. Even rapper 50 Cent has used a sample of the instrument in his billboard hit "P. I. M. P.". Because of its global reach, there has been much debate about which country can really claim the instrument.

Like string instruments, there are different tones or levels of pan. Frontline pans are those used for melodies and counter melodies. They have the highest pitch of all; the tenor and double-tenor belong to this family. In the mid-range section, the cello pan, guitar pan and quadrophonic pan provide counter melodies as well as harmonies.

The background section of a steel band is where one will find the pans with the lowest tones. These are responsible for the bass line that drives the entire band. Pans include the dudup, as well as the four-note bass. In the engine room, other instruments of a percussive nature are found, accompanying the pan in various ways.

Individuals credited with the development of the pan as we know it include Ellie Mannette, Winston Simon and Anthony Williams. Williams was the first person to begin creating instruments out of huge oil drums, and he also created the pan layout known as the 'spider web', which is conducive to a better-sounding quality. Simon is the creator for the 8-pitch melody pan, while Mannette was the first to wrap sticks used to play pan in rubber, thereby creating a more refined sound.

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