The Unlikely Invention


by Kim Johnson

“Steel drum” is what Americans call it, and that’s as accurate a description as you can get. It is, after all, an instrument fabricated from a steel barrel. But the Trinidadian name, “pan,” differing in description from the object, is more evocative. Because pan is not just the steel drum: It’s also the music played by orchestras made up of these (and other) percussion instruments. And it’s these steel orchestras that created a Trinidadian movement akin to the labor and civil rights movements in the United States.

So the pan, invented in Trinidad and Tobago, is an instrument, a musical genre, and a cultural force.

It was an unlikely invention. First, the instrument: Scientists thought it impossible to get distinct tones from a single piece of metal. Fortunately, the men who invented the pan weren’t scientists. They barely had a secondary education. What they did have was a wild imagination and a passionate will to outdo the next man.

Dudley Smith, a member of a steel band from the West Indian island of Trinidad, tunes his boom and listens to check on the pitch. It is made from a large dustbin welded into several different parts. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Dudley Smith, a member of a steel band from the West Indian island of Trinidad, tunes his boom and listens to check on the pitch. It is made from a large dustbin welded into several different parts. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

They were beating scraps of metal, tin cans, parts of derelict cars. And one day in the late 1930s, someone realized that a day of drumming dented your can so that it produced different tones in different sections. Immediately, a generation of young men focused on that discovery, each trying to outdo the other by pounding three, five, nine, fourteen different notes on that can.

By 1950 ensembles were pounding out musical styles from calypso to classics. Today a steel band’s tonal range is about three-quarters that of a piano’s 88 keys. A single steelpan can have up to 32 distinct tones tuned to concert pitch.

How unlikely is that? Imagine a trampoline on which you can jump without causing ripples in a glass of water that stands on the opposite side. That is how a pan works.

Once the genie was out of the bottle, it unleashed passions and blind loyalties. Rhythm making fueled rivalries between neighborhoods in Port of Spain, Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, and other centers of African-Creole culture. Initially, when two steelbands met, each tried to drown out and disorient the other’s players, then take away its revelers. This often caused fights. The panmen themselves didn’t understand what was going on. But many of those early steel bands were also street gangs, and they fought like lions—for turf, for musical ascendance, for women, or just for the fun of it.

Respectable society recoiled in fear and loathing. The police came down hard on them. Flogging was reintroduced into the law. One pastor argued, “Only shortsighted sentimentalists would oppose the return of the ‘cat’ [flogging]—the only remedy that could assist in checking the current evil wave and rising tide of local communism, steelbandism, and hooliganism in Trinidad.”

Those young men continued fighting, though, while making beautiful music and seducing their society, much as rock ’n’ roll was doing in another society.

As a musical genre, pan was also unlikely for other reasons.

All the beautiful music created in the Americas and the Caribbean by the descendants of enslaved Africans—samba, blues, rhythm and blues, and jazz, salsa and merengue, calypso and bossa nova, funk, rumba, reggae, hip-hop, dancehall—all gathered melodies and harmonies and muscled them into a heady, sensuous, rhythmic drive. Those black musicians—and those who followed their lead—took European instruments invented for playing lush melodies and harmonies and pounded them into rhythm makers. The greatest example is James Brown, who shaped his entire orchestra, including his own voice, into one powerful, irresistible rhythm-making machine.

The newsletter you needGet more Bourdain in your inbox.

Thanks! You’re now subscribed to the newsletter.

The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, gives its first public performance in London at the South Bank under the leadership of their Manager, Joseph Griffith, a Lieutenant in the St. Lucia Police. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, gives its first public performance in London at the South Bank under the leadership of their Manager, Joseph Griffith, a Lieutenant in the St. Lucia Police. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Panmen swam against that current by transforming the drum into a melody maker, but without abandoning its rhythmic power. They transformed the ensemble into a generator of lush harmonies.

Sweeping changes throughout the Western world in the 20th century transformed music making from what it had remained since the first cavemen huddled and chanted around a fire. Before recorded music everyone was an amateur musician, performing at home, singing in social gatherings or even at work. By midcentury we were all consumers, buying the recordings of professional musicians.

Pan remains an amateur activity, however, in the original sense of the Latin word “amator,” or “lover.” It offers everyone the ancient pleasure of making music with other pan lovers of every race, class, creed, nationality, and age. A Japanese woman plays alongside an Indian-Trinidadian teenager, an African-American girl, a white Trini teenager, a 75-year-old black Trini man. After rehearsal they all chat and joke. No other institution has so thoroughly dismantled the barriers of identity. Even the homeless madman can be a part, not necessarily by playing, but possibly by waving a flag or stacking the instruments after a practice session or sweeping the panyard.

A steel band is much more than its 120 players. It includes a wide range of other functioning members as well as active supporters and well-wishers. In the early, combative days, some bands had a military wing that specialized in fighting.

This all evolved from street gangs that used to beat on old cans at Carnival and fight one another. How likely was that?

The Steel Band Game Plan

Chris Tanner is the founder and director of the Miami University Steel Band. He is the author of The Steel Band Game Plan: Strategies for Starting, Building and Maintaining Your Pan Program, a comprehensive resource covering all fundamental topics relating to the development of a steel band program, and the first of its kind to be published through a major firm. In 2011 he released his debut recording of original music for steel band and jazz soloists, titled First Impression. He has served as a guest clinician or performing artist at numerous festivals, workshops, high schools and universities. He is a frequently commissioned composer/arranger, and his works are published through Pan Ramajay Productions, Engine Room Publishing, and Panyard, Inc.

The Miami University Steel Band has appeared on three occasions at the prestigious Percussive Arts Society International Convention (2011, 2005, 2002), and have also twice headlined the annual PANorama Music Festival in Virginia Beach, VA. The ensemble has released five studio recordings since 2001, all produced and distributed by Pan Ramajay Productions.

Tanner serves as President and is a founding member of the National Society of Steel Band Educators (NSSBE), a non-profit organization created in 2016, dedicated to advancing steel band education in the United States.


The name says a lot.  You need a plan to create a steelband and Tanner lays it out. He takes you from the question, “What is Pan?” to coordinating rehearsals, performances and developing the engine room.  At just 112 pages I was impressed at how insightful and concise it was. Topics include how beginners may react, understanding the wide range of costs, manufactured vs. hand made instruments, assigning parts to people, arranging, tips on describing the mallet grip, preparing for performances, running rehearsals, choosing repertoire, teaching repertoire and the benefits of note vs. rote, to name just a few. There is a whole chapter dedicated to the engine room complete with notated examples of different “need to know” groove patterns.  Tanner even suggests taking an extra set of mallets on gigs in case of emergency.  I remember one of my first gigs when I played in a youth band where the stick box was left in the rehearsal and the gig was over an hour away.  An adult bought some timpani and marimba mallets at a local music store, while the tenor players made do with rubber-band-tipped pencils. Not a good look.   

Let’s dig in.

What I liked and Wondered

First thing is that many scholars conclude Steel Band is one word, and I will use that for the remainder of the review.  In the “Personnel” chapter Tanner points out the pros and cons of an inclusive vs exclusive recruiting approach.  What interests me hear is that on one hand many band directors choose to choose steelband route because of the fact that it looks fun and can be very inclusive. On the other hand  he states that the idea of “community building” can be essential for some directors focused on inclusion and therefore in some situations is more important than the music making. “Playing music is a mere by-product” he writes.

Community building is essential with music-making period.  What the community looks like is different for each ensemble.  This idea of community building is often questioned when we look at some European practices (or Euro-American) practices, as Patricia Campbell points out in Teaching Music Globally.  Making music is an essential part of society in general. The steelband  develops the community vibe immediately. With all of the learning, practicing and creating as a group, it is inevitable.  Now, his view does not kill the book. Seeing that this was published in 2007 I am sure that he would update some sections with new ideas if there were to be a second edition.  I wonder how it would be different.

He does a great job of stating what to do, and some best practices. I wish he listed absolute “no-nos”.  For example he discusses different instrumentation and classroom setups, including managing an over-enrolled band. Tanner suggests having students rotate through the rhythm section parts, creating a band A and B (with different rep) or the simple instrument rotation approach where students watch while another person plays before rotating.  

But there is still room for interpretation on how to accomplish any of these ideas.  It would have been useful to state categorically:


  • Disassemble an instruments configuration to create a “1 person, 1 Pan/drum” situation.
  • Have students split up sets of sticks so that “everyone can play”.
  • Allow students to play on instruments with the wrong mallets due to a shortage.

He is particularly stern when it comes to tuning:  “Thus, directors or players with no tuning experience should never attempt to take a hammer to their instrument”.  Yes! Tell dem’.

Most experienced pannists can list the different “creative approaches” inexperienced directors have employed. The resulting bad habits and deficient technique are difficult to undo.  Something a little more stern throughout could have a different effect. It’s as if he needed an anger translator. “When a pan is purchased, a stand should come with it” means, “tables are not stands, nor are chairs, couches, vibraphone stands or anything else that is not a pan stand.”  And then list the reasons why.

There were definitely a few minor things that I did not agree with,  such as the suggestions on the voices of a beginner ensemble, or the statement that the layout of notes “defies logic”.  Yes the layout of notes defy logic in a linear sense but there is a pattern that exists, especially those instruments that have configurations based on Western Music theory.

Most of his suggestions on instrumentation state 2 basses, and make a lot of sense from a teaching stand point. Students in pairs can work together. Although it is scary to have one student on that part in the beginning the arrangements can be created where the bass is doubled rhythmically in a middle part.  The only reason I bring it up is because cost and space are always a factor and the bass, especially the 6-bass is a hard sell for any administrator who has to sign a check, and isn’t past the “What is Pan?” stage.  Also it is stated that the tenor bass is not a substitute for the 6-bass which is true. It is still something to consider strongly for young students, and again, limited space. You can also fit two tenor basses where only one 6 bass may fit. All details that instructors will have to sort out on their own!  

The other issue shows up in the repertoire section: “All soca and calypso makes Jack a dull boy.”

The steelband tradition is to perform. ALL music. He uses the analogy “a piano teacher would never allow his students to study and perform only Bach Fugues” to support his point.  He goes on to say that teachers of piano would have their students perform music of different periods and composers. In my experience and that of my colleagues, learning popular instruments (piano, strings, woodwinds, brass), being pigeon-holed within a style is the norm.  Another approach to the analogy would be: a well-rounded pianist should study all music, not just music written for the piano. Yet, that still isn’t relatable. Musicians playing conventional instruments typically DO focus on a specific style.  The variety of repertoire experienced in a steelband is unique. Here is my question: if we can attend an orchestra concert without saying “Can’t they play more than classical music?” then a steelband CAN solely perform calypso. Instead of trying to compare, state that unlike many other conventional ensembles, the steelband can, and has traditionally performed, a variety of styles, even if they are all Caribbean. After all it is one of the main selling points.  He also states that a band can “mature” faster playing different styles. Maturity (musicianship?) has to do with the instruction and the types of arrangements, available. A calypso can still develop techniques such as rolling. Directors will need to decide early on what the focus is for the ensemble and type of repertoire. These are useful and interesting discussions to bring up with colleagues.

He later describes different striking techniques named “Above the rim and below the rim”, whether to learn a Panorama-style arrangement or not, and dedicates a chapter to the engine room including notated groove samples.  Finally at the end he offers a list of the other resources that were available at the time.

Many years later this is still a valuable resource for the non-specialist steelband director.

It’s short (read it in a day) and available used on Amazon starting at $25. AMAZON. Every person new to pan should have this in their toolbox

The can of worms

I will restate that there is a ton of useful information in Tanner’s book.  Some I would have thought useful when I was first starting to teach. Unfortunately there is one major issue: “What is Pan”? – Chapter 1.  At the end of this chapter I had to start again. My second time through I looked for specific words. It hit me. A book about the steelband had been written that did not include the following descriptive words:






Words he does use, however, include:





Elite class


The omission of race, nationality or ethnicity in history that is directly related to interactions between races, is also its oppression. An explanation of Afro-diasporic music is not complete without mentioning Africa. In addition there are no images in the book to even suggest what Trinidadians might look like.  Not even of the icons mentioned such as Ellie Mannette, Lord Kitchener, Anthony Williams or Ray Holman. Three years prior to this publication, Shannon Dudley published Carnival Music in Trinidad, where history and music is described in terms such as:Afro- Trinidadian, Indo – Trinidadian, Poor blacks, White, African descent.

Now you can envision this world. This was one of the aspects of history that I began to focus my ideas on as far as curriculum.  How do I instill in my students an understanding of different cultures, not just the music and the lifestyle but what the people look like, dress, eat, dialect and how all of this impacts their politics, education social status, culture and music.  When teaching music of a cultural minority, imparting knowledge about races and cultures is also an important of being an ally, in the struggles of those same people.

Hear, Listen, Play!

Hear, Listen ,Play: How to free your students aural improvisation, and performance skills by Lucy Green,Oxford.
Hear Listen Play is an accessible handbook for teachers who are positioned to introduce their music students to “ear-playing”.  It also expands on her research in informal music education, which grew out of her interests in how popular musicians learned music.

The Introduction

Lucy Green tackles the important questions first:“How could formal learning practices relate to informal music education?”  Green introduces the reader to her exciting and groundbreaking research into popular musicians’ learning habits and what they can do for students who are just starting out.  She describes informal learning by first breaking down formal learning. Formal is when the education is tied to a system, an institution, assessment mechanism, a specific body of literature, includes the Western classical music notation system and often involves a master or specialist.  Green reminds us that in every society there is a transmission of music that happens outside of a predetermined curriculum or sequence. It is rooted in aural tradition, learned in friendship or community groups, not practiced in an particular setting and involves both amateurs or masters.  At the same time, most professional musicians live in both worlds and speak the formal language yet play by ear and improvise with the same fluency. Hear, Listen, Play is the music teacher’s guide to introducing their students to “ear-playing” in the private lesson, the ensemble setting and the band or orchestra class. In this method students quickly gain confidence in this skill.   

The Body

Green separates her handbook into three Parts – (1) HeLP (Hear, Listen, Play) in Instrumental settings [ie private lessons or specialists group lessons with a singular instrument family or instrument] (2)HeLP in ensemble settings: Bands Orchestras and other groups and (3) HeLP in Classroom Settings.

Each Part includes an introduction with aims and outcomes for the students, followed by preliminary practicalities, basics steps, how students are likely to respond, teachers strategies or the role of the teachers and what were the overall views of participants.  There are only three stages: Student choice, teacher choice or classical and then deepened student choice again. The book offers teachers detailed examples of how to introduce each stage, suggestions on extensions or alternate approaches and even addresses how students may respond  to a specific directive or task. I can not see how a teacher would feel left in the dark. The handbook even reminds teachers that although they are not required to be experts on all the different instruments that are present in their music class, they should take time to practice the different riffs or hooks or melodies that they plan to share with their students.  

What is really refreshing is the more informal, less academic terms used to describe specific ideas or practices.  For example when describing different learning styles Green uses the terms, “impulsive”, “practical”, “shot-in-the-dark”, and “theoretical”.  An academician would probably opt terms like tactile, analytical, visual, verbal or solitary.

She also gives guidance to  teachers on how to respond to their own notions of “correctness” and “incorrectness”.  Instead of simply correcting students, they can be guided through modeling and questioning toward a sound that more closely resembles what they are hearing. Following this there are explanations on how and why student’s motivational levels may change at each stage and the importance of trust in each setting.   Overall this approach is focused on increasing students confidence in music making, and giving practical examples of different ways music is learned.

What I Loved

There are a few things. The book includes pages of great anecdotes and stats from over fifteen years of research. One of my favorite stats: Prior to the experience, 55% of Instrumental students thought the ear playing would be difficult or very difficult. After the experience only 12% of students thought the ear playing was difficult or very difficult.  

I also really like that layout and the fact that it is spiral bound makes it easy to read and use i during a class.  The flexibility of the approach, even down to the suggestions on how to rotate between traditional lesson plans that focus on technique or musicianship and the ear-playing sessions.  And this is for any type of music instruction. Finally, there is a track list which refers to music on the website, and a list of other resources and research that educators can refer to.

What I Wondered

With all the focus on popular music I wondered why the stage 2 of the instrumental setting specifically asked the teacher to select a classical piece of music.  This is a reminder that even with the progress in informal education, formal practices are still seen as the standard. Also if a teacher wants to prepare a piece for aural playing in the group setting, the attention to detail when it comes to keys and skill level of students on different instruments seems a bit daunting.  The issues of skill level can be a concern for the steelband as well but not when it comes to key signatures. Playing in one key over another does not require a notably different amount of physical or technical effort. Although the book discusses students increased confidence in performance, it does not specifically state activities to develop improvisational skills.  It mainly refers to teaching strategies that refer to mistakes as embellishments and as a bridge towards, composing or improvisation. I wonder if an addendum is needed.

This Book and PanGEA

The extensive research that inspired this handbook creates a foundation for new approaches like PanGEA. Where we seek to prioritize aural practices, improvising and composition Lucy Green encourages free choice, ear-play (playing the music that you hear) and teaching strategies that guide more than dictate. Another fundamental difference is that PanGEA seeks to increase the level of musicianship among pannists (using musical language, understanding musical patterns, developing technique), and this is not a focus for the method, although it encourages teachers to continue with lessons that do develop musicianship.   HeLP allows students who play conventional instruments the freedom to play songs, that they like even if is technically beyond what they know. Reason being that students stretch themselves in unexpected ways to reach a goal they have set.

Also several of the principles of the PanGEA approach are present in many steelband rehearsals, although not in a structured all encompassing way.  Lucy Green does state that her method is for classically trained educators or those who are not experienced in the area of ear-play, so this method may be something new for them.  Many steelband educators may have been introduced to either ear-play, or rote learning so the idea of informal training is not new. I do think the idea of creating tracks that students can learn off of during class, together with their peers is something to consider even for the steelband. The physical positioning of instruments may cause an issue as students are encouraged to learn with their friends.  But this can always be organized well with enough planning or motivated students. For example when I have asked students to compose in groups, those with more mobile pans move to be closer to the lower pans. There may also be groups that do not have all the voices or are just all the same pan voice, which is absolutely fine. As with Hear Listen Play the goal is not to create a band, or even to perform. In fact Green states that performance should be optional.   The goal is to develop confidence in your own musical intuition, and increase your ability to make music. The next big step for PanGEA is to create similar modules and collect research.

Would I recommend

I would highly recommend this book. Check out our other post featuring an interview of Lucy Green or visit the website Music Futures.

Musical Futures

Lucy Green, whose research into the pedagogy of popular music created a framework for the Musical Futures approach, which is now used in classrooms around the world, is an advocate for informal music education. Her research paves a way for approaches like PanGEA.

Hip-hop and Pan?

Ethan Hein, doctoral candidate at New York University, has been studying hip-hop pedagogy for years. In preparation for the his draft literature review he writes on race, identity, cultural literacy, musical value, cultural appropriation; many topics relevant to understanding the steelband movement. Give it a read and let us know what you think! On another note: have you included hip-hop in your steelband repertoire?