What are Steel Drums?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Often made from 55-gallon oil drums, steel drums are percussion instruments from Trinidad that were developed in the 1930s to 1940s. Technically, the instrument is called a steel pan or steelpan or just pan; steel drum is the material that the instrument is made from. Still, colloquially, the instrument is often referred to as a steel drum. They were originally used in Carnival celebrations that take place on the Tuesday before the beginning of Lent.

A steel drum ensemble may also include a standard drum kit.
A steel drum ensemble may also include a standard drum kit.

An ensemble of steel drums is called a steel band. The ensemble may also include rhythm instruments, such as drum kit, congas, and other percussion, some standard, and some &emdash; like irons, made from brake drums — also recycled.

Steel drums are pitched idiophones — instruments that produce sound through vibration. In general, idiophones may be played by striking, scraping, plucking, friction, or blowing. In the case of steel drums, they are struck with rubber-tipped mallets

To make steel drums, the bottom of the oil drums are formed into a bowl and then tuned. Each drum has a number of surfaces in the pan, which vary in pitch. The highest pitched drum, the tenor, has a range of about two and a half octaves. Conventional tuning is chromatic.

Winston “Spree” Simon, who played with the John John steel band, is said to be the first maker of a pan. Although the typical repertoire of steel drums includes calypsos and other Latin American forms, Simon developed arrangements of “Ave Maria” and “God Save the King” for steel drums.

Steel drums continue to be popular in Trinidad and Tobago, where they are the national instrument. Still associated with Carnival, the attention has turned to the Trinidad and Tobago National Panorama competition, in which steel bands vie with each other for prizes, with the contest culminating on the Saturday before Carnival. The maximum number of players in the largest band category is 120 players.

In the Panorama competition, the steel drums are judged in four categories: the arrangement of the music, general performance, tone, and rhythm, with 40 possible points in each of the first two categories and 10 possible points in the latter two categories. Panorama began in 1962, immediately following Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Britain. Since then, steel drums have spread through the Caribbean, and even become popular in communities worldwide, even those without a Caribbean population.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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