Originally crafted from repurposed Trinidadian oil drums, steel drums (also known as steel pans) are the core of calypso music. As a part of my black British music course, my classmates and I took a trip down to the Yaa Centre.
The space, which serves as a venue and learning facility, is a beacon of Carnival festivities in London. The goal of the Carnival Village Trust is to “encourage activities in Carnival arts and culture.”
Our class got the opportunity to participate in a steel pan workshop, led by a member of the Ebony Steel Band. Founded in 1969, this steel orchestra is a 21-time winner of the U.K.’s Panorama competition. The pannists have also placed in World Steel Band Festival in Trinidad + Tobago as well as the World Panorama competition. The collective was also given the Queen’s Award for the impact it had on the community.
At first, everyone was in awe of the drums and in awe of our teacher for the day. Not older than most of us, but clearly, far more accomplished and brilliant and musically gifted than we could hope to be at this point. That being said, our class fell easily into the groove. We got to play with a variety of pans: bass, double tenor, the triple guitar and cello drum sets.
For starters, we learned a C-major scale. That process got us comfortable with keeping rhythm (although our teacher told us we were better than most Brits at learning!). It also helped us get more accustomed to the movements and muscles needed for playing steel drums.
We then took it to the next level by learning how to play a song.
But the specialness had not worn off then, by far. Again, we were in awe. By ear and off the cuff, our workshop leader composed an arrangement for this piece across each of our drum sets.
(Can you guess which song this is? As it stands now, the lyrics have 5.3 million views on Genius. In its prime, it had been the longest running No. 1 single in the U.K. in the past 22 years.)
While steel drums are regularly cast in the Western imagination as indicative of sunshine and good times, getting to hear them up close + personal made me realize their spooky, ethereal quality. The sounds pans produce are very much comparable to harps. But something tells me Western, Euro-centric cultures don’t look to steel pans with the same reverence.
Getting back in touch with my musical side today was so freeing. As I was gently rolling the little rubberized drumsticks and distinguishing aptly between ♭’s and #’s, I realized how much I missed playing an instrument. I am definitely grateful we’re getting a chance to participate in music culture, beyond just listening.