Take any movie with a scene set in the Caribbean and it’s pretty much guaranteed that the soundtrack will involve steel pans somewhere.
Whilst that’s as lazy a cultural reference as whacking some Bob Marley underneath a sunset beach scene, the steel pan certainly has made great strides in its 70-year history as an instrument.
That applies to Cayman as much as it does anywhere; the islands have a thriving scene with bands including Pandemix, Panoramers and many affiliated with local schools. Come to Pirates Week and you’ll hear the pan; Batabano has in the past hosted pan nights; name a festival and it’s pretty much guaranteed this melodic, percussive instrument will be there.
The steel pan developed from drumming traditions of slaves brought from Africa and India to Trinidad and Tobago. First, tamboo-bamboo bands used tuned sticks to create their sounds, later introducing metal percussion from discarded brake hubs and biscuit barrels.
It is recognised that some time in the late 1930s, Winston Spree Simon found that different sized dents in an oil barrel produced different musical tones. In around 1947 the first recognisable tuned oil drums began to appear – left behind by United States forces after the war. Trinidad is also an oil-producing nation so there was always a supply available, classically the 55-gallon barrel. The drums are tuned by hammering out certain areas to the desired pitch in the barrel head, which has been made concave.
The La Pierre effect
Glen Inanga of the University College of the Cayman Islands is a recent convert as a player of pan and explained that the origin of Cayman’s love affair with the instrument is down to one particular individual.
“The father of steel pan music making here is Earl La Pierre. Almost every Caymanian who plays the pan has passed through his hands at some point. He first came here to play at Pirates Week in the 1980s and fell in love with the island so made it his home.
“He loves the instrument and did everything he could to go to all the different schools to introduce it to the curriculum, getting them to take it on board. He is very generous with his time, constantly supportive and almost has an open-door policy. But he is a taskmaster; once you come in you are hooked and he does not have time for people with low commitment levels. He wants you to feel the way he does about the pan and if you do it makes him very happy,” said Inanga.
La Pierre’s mastery of the instrument and willingness to share his expertise is matched only by the willingness of hundreds – maybe thousands – of pupils from the Cayman Islands over the years. Bands continue to evolve as new generations discover the instrument and discover what their relationship with its sound can be.
“The reason it is easily accessible is that you almost get instant gratification. You hit a note and get a sound; it’s not like trying to play the clarinet or flute or trumpet where you struggle to get one note. You can play as a group or band very quickly so if you are trying to teach students the values and ethics of a band – listening to each other, trying to play in rhythm, not too fast – people can learn these things through playing in a group.
“After a while you realise it’s not just about hitting but how you hit and you begin to realise what the instrument can do, the more time you spend with it. You can play interesting classical music on it. It blew my mind; I am used to hearing the pans very loud and clangy but when you explore the other side of the instrument and play it very quietly it sounds extremely mellow. It can almost mimic the sound of string instruments playing legato. It is wonderful listening to a group playing musically and stretching the possibilities of the instrument,” Inanga said.
The instrument continues to evolve and in this largely-electronic era it was somewhat inevitable that there would be innovations in that area, explained Inanga.
“The e-pad is an electronic pad, like a normal pan but almost like a keyboard in the sense that you do not hit the pad with a stick, you use your fingers. So you can play it like a keyboard, four or five notes at the same time which is very difficult on a traditional pan when all you have is two sticks.
“Of course, some people do not like it and say you might as well just play a keyboard but it is interesting; some pan players find it quite helpful because they can play, make saxophone sounds and so on. In a sense it empowers them to realise they can do all the things a keyboard can do without having to be able to play one.”
An interface to the future based on the intuitive dexterity of times past – the pan has way more about it than the background musak in bad films, for sure.