Steel Drum Band

Steel Drum Band Tropical Beat Steel Band | Steel Band | Caribbean Band | Steel Drum Band

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Tropical Beat Steel Drum Band performs in the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and for major events nationwide.

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The Steel Drum Band Movement

A steel band, commonly referred to as a “steel drum band,” plays instruments that are recognized worldwide as the most important acoustic instruments to be developed since the 1800’s and the only family of instruments to be invented since then. The origin of the steel band dates back to 1940’s Trinidad. Today there are thousands of steel drum bands worldwide, many of which comprise over 100 players performing full symphonic works, jazz, calypso, and other music from around the world.  In the United States, a recent phenomenon has been the formation of many large steel bands that serve as not-for-profit community institutions that are also dedicated to serving and uplifting economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. While the strikingly beautiful sound of a steel drum band draws participants from all ages and races, the core of most of these steel bands are youth and teenagers who feel cultural pride in being able to express music on steel drum band instruments which were recently developed by peoples whose heritage they are closely related to.  Consistent hard work is required to produce the professional sounding results necessary for them to compete in steel band competitions, yet this type of steel drum band often also provides academic, cultural, mentoring, and social activities to their youthful members. The steel drum band movement has been vital to transforming the lives of many of these youth by offering a positive, disciplined, drug-free environment on a daily basis to its participants.

In the United States, many people have begun to develop an appreciation for steel drum bands. For these people, there are not-for-profit community steel bands.  It is common to see young adults to older adults, as opposed to teenagers and youth, in community steel band orchestras. This is an opportunity for steel band enthusiasts to gather on a weekly basis, not for competition, but simply for the love of playing in a steel drum band.  Many participants in the community steel band orchestras comment on the sheer joy they get from playing steel drum band music in a large group of twenty to forty people. Though these steel band groups often have many members, there may be one experienced steel pan player that leads and rehearses the community steel drum band.  There are also community steel bands that grow out of smaller individual groups. It is also common for community steel bands to host regional steel drum band festivals. Orchestras from all around the region get together in a non-competitive, festive atmosphere and play steel band music for each other. 

Music programs in schools from elementary to university level are also embracing steel band orchestras.  While any well-trained school music teacher can rehearse and direct a steel band, often the school will employ an experienced professional steel drum band player to work with the teacher and students. There is a unique set of knowledge for steel drum band maintenance and care as well as mallet techniques and other considerations that are specific for steel band playing.  New school steel band programs are often very surprised at how quickly they can achieve an acceptable concert performance result. While there are techniques such as rolling and dynamics, which are central to fine steel band performances, an acceptable sound can be achieved almost instantly since there are no embouchure requirements as with brass and reed instruments and no steep learning curve to create good sound as with most orchestral instruments.  Players learn almost intuitively to play on the sweet spot of each note. Because the sound of a steel drum band is so resonant and rich in tone, even a smaller steel band group that is just beginning will produce results that will thrill audiences.

The Steel Drum Band Movement - Part II

Many localities in the United States and elsewhere around the world have small steel band performing ensembles, which are typically two to six members. A small steel drum band of this type will 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 band performers plus a rhythm section of a drum set player, conga or percussion player, and usually electric bass. The steel band 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 pan performers in this steel band 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 band 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 in a steel drum band are similar to a string quartet with violin, viola, and cello and the bass range being played by the electric bass in this case.  This steel band would also be similar to a horn section of trumpet, sax, and trombone with the lead steel pan 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 sound of a steel drum band 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 band, it reminds them of their own vacations and it often puts them in the happy, carefree mood that they now associate with steel drum band music.

There are many even smaller steel bands that often use a rhythm backing device or recording to provide the percussion and rhythm necessary for these island music styles. A steel band duo can be two steel pan performers and the rhythm-backing device. For small events, a solo steel drum band performer performs with the rhythm backing. He will play one of the steel band  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 band instruments, but any two instruments in different ranges will make for a good steel drum band sound. These small steel bands are a low cost alternative for people seeking to create a Caribbean atmosphere for their events.

The Steel Drum Band Movement – Part III

There are many individuals in the steel drum band movement that play mostly for their own enjoyment, much like a pianist or guitarist who makes music mostly in their own home. Some use “music minus one” backing tracks while they perform the melody on their steel band instrument. Others might play classical pieces, gospel music, as well as jazz and popular tunes in a solo style.   While they may not experience the thrill of performing in a steel drum band ensemble, they derive enjoyment and relaxation from playing alone on the steel pan. For many younger players, the purchase of their own steel band instrument gives them a learning advantage over players who perform in steel drum bands and who can only access the instrument during rehearsal. Also, these players sometimes do not play at all when school is out of session or when a steel band is not preparing for carnival. This could interrupt the musical development of the student. The newer generation of steel drum band players in Trinidad, the US, and Europe learn music notation as a student would with any other musical instrument. However, many older steel band players learn and play by ear and many individuals who learn to play steel pan also play by ear. This is similar to someone who plays guitar and can play songs and chords without learning to read music notation. This can work well especially for people who only want to play for their own enjoyment and not with a steel drum band ensemble that may require the ability to read and learn new music rapidly. 

In the steel drum band movement today, there are several key players that facilitate a successful steel band program. Among these key individuals are tuners, bandleaders, arrangers and promoters.  Steel band tuning is a specialized craft that requires years of training by an individual who develops the unique talent to hear multiple pitches within one note. Tuning a steel band instrument is many times more difficult than tuning a piano or any other pitched instrument and it requires a good deal of time to tune each steel drum band  instrument in an orchestra. Steel bands often hire tuners on a yearly basis to retune their instruments at a set price per instrument. Because there are so few tuners in places like the US, they often travel to the location of the steel bands. Often, individuals who have their own pans will arrange to have them tuned when the steel band tuner is in town. Large steel drum bands sometimes have their tuner make a certain number of new steel band instruments each year as they retire older instruments from use. The bandleader is normally the key person who starts and keeps a steel drum band functioning. They arrange for the purchase of the steel band instruments, which can be quite a financial undertaking. They locate, train, and encourage players to join the steel band. They call the rehearsals and arrange for performances. The rewards are many but it takes a dedicated individual to be a steel drum band leader.  Steel band arrangers provide the music that steel bands use in competitions and performances. For large panorama and festival events, these will be custom arrangements suited to the instrumentation of a specific steel drum band. In Trinidad, the arranger is paid for this work and may also receive a large cash award if his steel band wins the competition. Many arrangers also make “stock” arrangements that schools and community steel drum bands can purchase.  The bandleaders, tuners, arrangers, and the promoters of the various events and festivals work together to present steel band music to audiences worldwide.