The Steel Drum Movement – Part II

Many localities in the United States and elsewhere around the world have small steel pan performing ensembles, which are typically two to six members. These small steel drum bands often play for weddings, barbecues, private parties, corporate events, and other occasions that require steel band entertainment. Their repertoire focuses mainly on more recognizable songs in the styles of calypso, soca, and reggae. In the United States, some of these small steel drum bands also include American beach music and other types of popular music that they restyle into calypso or reggae. A six piece band of this sort might have two or three steel drum performers plus a rhythm section of a drum set player, conga or percussion player, and usually electric bass. The steel pan bass instrument, called a six bass, has six full size barrels and it’s often too difficult to transport and could take up too much space in small performing situations. Hence, the electric bass is a good musical substitute for the six bass in a small steel drum band. If there were three steel drum performers in this sextet, the most common configuration would be: lead pan (also known as tenor pan or soprano pan), a double second or double tenor, and any of the cello or guitar pans. This gives the small ensemble three distinct ranges of steel pan sound. The lead pan is in the soprano range. The double second, or double tenor, is in the alto range. The cello or guitar steel drums occupy the range between the bass and alto. These three ranges are similar to a string quartet with violin, viola, and cello and the bass range being played by the electric bass in this case. It’s also similar to a horn section of trumpet, sax, and trombone with the lead steel drum range similar to the trumpet, the double second similar to the saxophone, and the cello steel pan similar to the trombone.

In the United States, these small steel bands owe much of their success to the steel drum bands in the Caribbean who perform for tourists. Before long, these visitors to the islands begin to associate the pleasant sounds of steel pan bands with their vacation experience. This has lead many people to have island theme parties, events, and weddings. The perfect musical compliment for these occasions is a steel drum band. When guests hear the sound of the steel pan, it reminds them of their own vacations and it often puts them in the happy, carefree mood that they now associate with steel drum music.

There are many even smaller steel pans that often use a rhythm backing device or recording to provide the percussion and rhythm necessary for these island music styles. A steel drum duo can be two steel drum performers and the rhythm-backing device. For small events, a solo steel drum performer performs with the rhythm backing. He will play one of the steel pan instruments that are capable of melody, such as the lead, double second, or double tenor. With a duo, the broadest range of sound can be achieved by utilizing a lead steel pan player with a player of any of the guitar or cello steel drum instruments, but any two instruments in different ranges will make for a good steel pan sound. These small bands are a low cost alternative for people seeking to create a Caribbean atmosphere for their events.