Steve van Onselen
The steelpan may have first come from Trinidad but its true roots lie in
Africa since it was created to replace traditional african drums like the
When Africans from Ghana and Nigeria were taken to Trinidad and Tobago to
work on sugar plantations they weren't allowed to take their drums with them.
This presented a problem because music and their drumming was a huge part of
their culture. Other objects became used as percussion instruments and the first
widely available resource was bamboo.
Street bands called Tamboo Bamboo bands were formed. A large piece of bamboo
can be stomped on the ground to make a bass rhythm and smaller sticks rapping
together for a more energetic rhythm. Being a shanty town environment these
street bands leaned towards gang behaviour and a good piece of bamboo caused a
high volume of bloodshed when rival bands met in the street. Tamboo Bamboo bands
were eventually banned due to this. The people moved on to whatever they could
find ranging from biscuit tins to cheese graters.
Biscuit tins to musical instruments
One regular day in the 1940's a man was playing in a percussion street band.
His instrument was a large tin and a stick with which he beat a low bass rhythm.
As he played he beat the level bottom of the tin in and stretched the metal
thinner and tighter. He soon lost his bass note and found himself playing way
too high pitched a note. This was not what he wanted and he bashed the bottom
back out with a rock. He was very surprised to find that there were now three
different notes that he could play on one surface. His idea became very popular
and as interest grew the people moved onto using oil drums instead of tins.
Thanks to this we now have instruments made out of oil drums that have the full
range and versatilaty of a concert band.
Making Steelpans is regarded among Panmakers as more art than science but
mainly because it is a hand crafted instrument and is a skill that takes years
A steelpan is made by shaping a flat, 44 gallon oil drum bottom into a bowl
with the notes each forming almost flat panels. The drums that we use are
dependent on various things like what thickness their tops and sides are and
types of drums with a good reputation.
The first stage for the steelpan is to sink the drum into a bowl with a 4
pound hammer. The metal must be stretched evenly at all times to ensure that
each note panel will be one thickness. After marking where the notes are
positioned we shape the notes into place with the hammer. Moving around the drum
we beat the area between the notes which stretches each one flat. We need to
mark each note in some way so that they can easily be seen from the other side
for tuning purposes. To do this we either make a groove, with a punch, or drill
a few small holes on the border of the note. The finished tightness of the metal
is essential to a good instrument. It works on the same principle as an elastic
band. When pulled tight you can twang it with ease but the looser you let it the
shorter amount of time it vibrates for.
This pan as it stands will need to be burned in a furnace to burn out some of
the carbon and to clean off the paint. This makes the pan harder and tighter
still so that we can now tune each note without putting the drum out of shape.
Since we can compare steel to an elastic band the best comparison for a note
would be with a drum velom. A drum is a piece of material stretched over a round
hole and the tighter we pull it over the hole the higher the pitch of the drum.
We treat the steelpan note the same but since it is metal we use it to tighten
itself. By working around the note with a small hammer we can higher the pitch
or work in the middle to lower the pitch.
These panels have various frequencies vibrating when struck this allows us to
tune in not only the note but an octave up and typically a fifth up all on the
same panel. To achieve this the note must have the correct shape allowing each
frequency it's own position on the panel. The fact that it is rigid steel allows
you to manipulate these frequencies in relative independance of each other. This
method of tuning the pan is what gives it it's ringing quality as oppossed to a
Steelpans are played with rubber tipped sticks. The size of the stick and
rubber is dependant on the size of the notes on the instrument that the sticks
are for. A big note needs a big stick to create the correct effect and the sizes
go down in proportion with the notes.
The Length of the side of the pan is used to amplify the sound and is
therefore dependant on what range the pan has. A Tenor pan has the most notes on
it and goes from the D above Middle C up two and a half octaves. It has very
short sides typically being 15 cm's long. As the range of the pan is lowered the
notes become larger and the sides lenghthen to best amplify them. The basses are
full length with three or four notes on each pan. The way the notes are arranged
on the steelpan ensure that notes a semitone appart are never next to each
other. The reason being that interference would occur due to the frequencies
being so close together. Knowing the way not to arrange the notes doesn't mean
that a correct layout presents itself.
For sixty years Trinidadians have been making steelpans and since everyone
had their own idea's to begin with many different layouts have been formed. At
the moment there is still no layout regarded by everyone in the steelpan world
as superior. There are a few that are relatively standard and used the most. One
of these is the 4th and 5th Tenor pan given it's name because every note has the
4th from it on it's left and it's 5th on it's right. This pan is not only easier
to play because of this but the pattern can also aid high school music students.
By remembering a simple pattern one can determine the amount of sharps and flats
in a major chord.
Steelpans are steadily growing more popular all over the world and we owe it
all to a man who probably had no idea that his biscuit tin would become such an
For queries or sales information phone Steve van Onselen at (South Africa)