A short tale of the steel drum (steelpan)


A drum built from an oil barrel

The Steel drum (originally called steelpan, or just « pan ») is the result of an empirical evolution in Trinidad and Tobago during the 1930’s and 40’s. They’ve been invented by “Pioneers” like Winston “Spree” Simon, Bertie Marshall, Jonathan Francis or the famous Elie Manette.

The African people used traditionally drums with skin and all material that could be relevant to make music with and get interesting sounds. At the very beginings of the Steel drum the social situation in Trinidad was complicated and very tensed. The island, under the British Empire flag, was (and is still) the territory of several cultures and ethnies (mainly people from Africa, but also from Europe, India, Pakistan, China…) and the painful memory of slavery is still so present.

During the late 19th century…

During the late 19th century, a lot of riots have been put down by an overstrict repression and a ban of celebrating Carnival and of playing the traditionnal drums. During these hard times people had to use their imagination to by-pass the law, so they cut bamboos of different sizes to produce several sounds/notes. This is the genesis of the polyphonic percussions and of the steelpan of course. After the bamboos came objects made of steel like cans, buckets, trash bins (a huge success !) and finally the 55 gallon oil barrel in the late 40’s.

At this time, the very first panmakers built basic steel drums with 3 to 8 tones (dudup, ping-pong, iron, boom). Then, during the 50 following years, the number of notes increased (up to 30 on one single pan) and the panmakers tried to settle an agreement on the note layout (pattern). This is called the « pan standardization » and it’s still in progress… Indeed, the steel drum is still a young musical instrument and is considered as the one of the few genuinely novel acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century.

Traditionnal manufacturing


Tuning by hammering

The steel drum is sinked, crafted and tuned with hammers, in several stages. First the sinker does the sinking, marking, lowering, shaping, smoothing, backing, grooving, levelling and the tempering.

Then the tuner hammers each note until he gets an accurate tuning. Every note has three tones : the fundamental and two overtones (generally the fifth and the octave), that means roughly 90 different frequencies to tune for a tenor ! After the tuning comes the finishing (painting or chroming) and a last fine tuning, called « blending ».

Steel bands


Culture of the Port of Spain districts

Since the «pioneers» from Trinidad have developed many different kinds of steeldrums, these instruments are now played in the steel orchestras (steelbands) all over the world.

Despite this worldwide and growing interest for steeldrums, the particular manufacturing knowledge is shared by very few people and these instruments are still rare and sought after.

Steel bands are the orchestras that play steel drum. Like for any band, it goes from trios, playing on single pans, until huge orchestras gathering over one hundred musicians and up to 7 different voices. Most of the music styles can be played by a steel band, from classic music to jazz, and of course the Calypso music which is one of the typical sounds of the Caraïb Islands, particularly during Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago, the place to be, where the pan takes over !

As the steel drum is a popular musical instrument, every one can play it and the steel bands are very representative of the society regardless of age, sex or social origin matters.

Metal Sounds, from manufacturing to import

After decades of manufacturing and tuning steeldrums, the Metal Sounds team has finally decided to import them from Trinidad, the home of the steelpan.

We travelled there in 2014 to nd a reliable partner who could guarantee a high quality product range (steel drums and accessories): Gills is a well-known steeldrum manufacturing company operating in Trinidad for two generations (Merlin and his son Mazzini). Our customers are assured that they receive an instrument that bears the Gill Brand of Distinction:

Qualified Craftsmen with internationally recognized certification (University of Trinidad & Tobago)
Constructed Tuning Rooms to especially improve overtones, accurate harmonics and concentration for tuning in different concert pitches.

Steel tailored to Gill Quality Specifications.

Pans built, tuned and chromed to guarantee the Gill distinctive look and sound.

For more informations about steel bands around the world