How About a Steel Drum Band?

 Dan Shultz

Beginning in 2002, the Walla Walla College music department offered a steel band as one of its ensembles, a first at SDA Colleges in the United States. From its first performance at the annual Christmas concert, where it was a highlight of the evening, to its most recent appearance at the school's annual International Food Fair, where it added Caribbean-flavored musical spice to the festivities, the group has captured the imagination and hearts of many on campus. How about your school, or your church? Are you up to trying something a little different? If so, this article may interest you.

The band concert was over, the evening was young and free, and it was New York City. Now what? My friend, a fellow AUC band member and native of the area, suggested we check out Greenwich Village, the in-place of the early 1960's.

That evening is now a cherished memory, triggered every time I hear the distinctive ring of steel drums lightheartedly pinging away on calypso-style music. It was the night I met this instrument, the night I first heard its exotic and enchanting sound.

One of the newest of acoustic instruments, modern steel drums started in Trinidad, a happenstance creation then, now a refined instrument fashioned mostly out of old oil drums. Historically, it was a ban on all skin-headed drums in 1883 that led first to Tamboo Bamboo Bands, instruments made from burned and treated bamboo, and then to the first steel drum band.

That steel drum band, first heard publicly in a 1935 Carnival celebration parade, was known as Alexander's Ragtime Band. And it was a ragtag outfit, one that used steel garbage cans and lids, empty grease barrels, paint cans, and biscuit tins to create a cacophonous but glorious musical melee. Crude as it was, the sound captured the spirit of the event and was enthusiastically received. Experiments and modifications started immediately.

The discovery that one could get multiple pitches from a single head by creating indentations of various sizes was the first significant step in what would be a rapid evolution for the instrument. Refinements quickly followed, and by 1946 a single drum with fourteen notes was in use. By the early 1960's the instrument was a fixture in out-of-the-way places such as Greenwich Village, where I first encountered it.

Today, there are several types of steel drums or sets of multiple drums, classified by function and range. Single drums can have up to two-and-a half chromatic octaves, and multiple sets as many as three octaves. The 55-gallon oil drum is most often used, and all, regardless of size, are played with rubber-ended sticks or mallets.

The calypso sound, a free-style music with an upbeat, relaxed rhythm, is part of the steel drum mystique. Originally, calypso was developed by Caribbean slaves who, forbidden to talk, chanted in a sing-song 4/4 rhythmic way, expressing their views and the latest news. Over time that led to today's unique vocal and instrumental calypso musical style, a key ingredient in arrangements of music for steel drum soloists and groups.

Pans, pianists, engine rooms, strumming, and the circle of fifths - all are terms used by and defined unconventionally by steel drummers. The pan is the drum, a pianist is the player, the engine room is the accompanying percussion section, strumming is an ostinato playing of rhythms and chords, and the circle of fifths is the layout of the notes hammered into the head.

The national instrument of Trinidad, and an all-pervasive sound in that country, the steel drum is increasingly being heard not only at U.S. colleges and universities, but in schools at all levels where it is part of the music curriculum, and in larger churches.

How do you get started? There are workshops where you can get acquainted with the instrument and how to play it. Also, there may be a program near you where you can observe and actually get hands-on assistance in getting started.

Directors of such groups usually tend to be excited about what they are doing and want to share that experience with fellow teachers. Two SDA directors are listed in the resources listed at the end of this article.

What about cost? The price for a basic set of steel drums will be about $10,000. Since most school music budgets are limited, fund raising will likely be necessary. Once announced and underway, however, a campaign for a project like this will usually attract support from unlikely donors, usually persons who have either played or heard the instrument.

Actual purchase should be done carefully. Authentic sounding instruments are not usually bought off the shelf, but are custom made by a select group of artisans who both fashion and carefully tune them. A partial listing of those who do this can be found in the listing of resources at the end of this article.

And what about music for steel drum groups? There is an increasing amount of original and arranged music for steel drum groups of all sizes. Both sacred and secular titles are available. Of course, once you are familiar with the medium, there is always the possibility of creating your own arrangements.

Still not sure? Consider the fact that once in place, the group will broaden both your personal musical horizons and your school's musical experience. You have much to gain by adding this attractive, lighter kind of fare to your more serious musical offerings, something that will have great appeal both to those who play and those who listen.

Dan Shultz, now retired and living in College Place, Washington, is editor of IAMA publications and the IAMA website. He continues to teach a class in World Music and Introduction to Music at Walla Walla College where he was chair of the music department for 21 years. He previously taught at Union College and Adelphian and Forest Lake Academies.



General Information: Brandon Beck, / 509-527-2565

Leonard Cann, / 863-453-3131

Workshop Information:

Instruments: / /

Music: /


This article was printed in the 2003 Winter/Spring issue of Notes, a publication of the International Adventist Musicians Association