Jamaican steel drums play the background soundtrack of easy-living in the Caribbean. Their tropical, upbeat tunes send out an optimistic call to leave worries aside and enjoy the simple things in life.
Should you ever holiday on one of the exotic islands in the Caribbean, you will hear Jamaican steel drum music day-and-night. However, you can get a gist of that cheerful steel drum melody even if you are a world apart from that sunny paradise.
This complete guide to Jamaican steel drums should teach you everything there is to know about them. Read on to discover how they sound like, where they come from and how can you buy and learn to play one today!
What are Jamaican Steel Drums?
Also known as steel pans, Jamaican steel drums are percussion instruments that follow a chromatic pitch ranging from G1 toF6. The musician who plays it is called a pannist, and a group of pannists is referred to as a steel band.
The name “drum” may confuse many neophytes in panning. Drums use a membrane to produce sounds, which makes them membranophones. They have a flat surface, which drum players can hit with their hands or with percussion mallets to make noise.
On the other hand, steel drums look more like large, deep frying pans. They are an idiophone instrument, which means that they rely only on their bodies’ vibrations to produce sounds. The concave surface can turn noise into melody when the pannist hits it with wooden or bamboo sticks that have rubber heads.
The confusion appears from the origin of Jamaican steel drums, which were initially made from the bottoms of 55-gallon industrial barrels, also known as “drums.”
Who Invented the Steel Drum?
If you ask them, most Jamaicans will cheekily say that they invented steel drums. However, historic facts tend to disagree.
The pan-like instruments originate from Jamaica’s neighbouring island of Trinidad. Back in the 19th century, the slaves of African descent on the island used to celebrate Canboulay, which was their version of a French carnival. During these celebrations, they would chant and dance in the streets as percussionist musicians would accompany the crowds.
Sometimes Canboulay would turn into gruesome fights and riots among the participants. So, in 1880 the island’s government banned all music instruments from the celebration. The harsh punishment did not stop the party though. Instead, people started playing on anything they could find around the house including pans and pots.
It wasn’t long until some of the most creative percussionists in Trinidad came up with catchy tunes played on kitchen apparel. Some even modified them to produce deeper or higher notes. Songs with lyrics appeared to accompany the sounds. And, just like that, a new musical style was born.
The instrument evolved into what we know today as steel drums during the 20th century. Large, cargo ships from all over the world would transport chemicals in and out of the Caribbean. Quite often, they would leave behind obsolete oil barrels (drums). The pannists found that the steel bottoms of these drums suited their style even better than the pans they used for cooking.
Steelpan music expanded to almost all of the islands in the Caribbean Sea and found a welcoming home in Jamaica. Here, it quickly found its way in well-established musical styles like ska and reggae. Local percussionists found new ways to play them and even modified them to become what we now call Jamaican steel drums.
Types of Jamaican Steel Drums
Today, steel pans are no longer made from the remains of discarded oil drums. Instead, they are made from sheet metal with a thickness between 0.8 and 1.5 mm. Chrome and nickel plating is the most common form of finishing.
Manufacturers use strobe tuners or electronic ones to ensure that the drum will emit a clear vibration for every note in its ability range.
In time, Jamaican Steel Drums evolved massively. Seemingly identical instruments bear small adjustments that change the way they sound. Musicians imposed their playing styles to come up with new modifications and increase the classification of steel pans even more.
Nowadays, a steel band of Jamaican steel drums music can include more than a dozen percussionists, and each of them playing on one or up to twelve pans at the same time. Here are some of the instruments that they might use:
- Single Tenor
- Spiderweb Lead
- Invader Lead
- Double Tenor
- Double Second
- Double Guitar
- Quadrophonic (also known as four pans)
- Triple Guitar
- Tenor Bass
- Six Bass
- Nine Bass
- Twelve Bass
How Does Jamaican Steel Drum Music Sound Like?
Here’s a band playing on the Jamaican drums below:
The vibrations of a steel drum are full, fluid and bare a short decay. This combination of rich shimmering forces the percussionist to beat it quickly and with a certain feeling of excitement.
Jamaican steel drum music is soothing and satisfying. Its carefree mood makes it great for beach celebrations, cocktail parties and summer barbecues in the backyard.
How to Play Jamaican Steel Drums
You can easily learn to play Jamaican steel drums even if you have little or no experience in playing musical instruments.
With percussion steel pans, you need to let your creativity dictate the rhythm. Experiment with the hits to combine notes and vibrations. Try your hand at different steel drums to discover the one that suits your style best.
Follow the enthusiasm that comes with every touch of the metal drum and expand your style until it becomes a recognizable tonal palette.
Where to Buy Steel Drums
If you are looking for Jamaican steel drums for sale, you should opt for online shops that sell original instruments, but I’ll add a few sponsored links below for you to be able to check the prices online.
You should purchase a new steel drum even if it’s the first pan of its kind that you see or touch. Avoid buying second-hand Jamaican steel drums. They may be out-of-tune, damaged or modified to suit the style of its previous owner.
When you buy steel pans from a trusted seller, make sure to add a pair of bamboo sticks and an electronic tuner to your shopping cart. This way, you will have the complete set of Jamaican steel drums that will play that exotic, carefree sound wherever you are.