Article: Arranging for Steelpan

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By Orane Shaw

In the 1870s, drum playing was banned by the ruling British Government to suppress aspects of Carnival which were deemed offensive. The drums were replaced by bamboo tubes which, when stuck on the ground, formed a sound similar to that of hand drums. This lead to the formation of "tamboo bamboo bands".

Tamboo Bamboo bands incorporated non-traditional "instruments" such as graters, scrap metal and metal containers but by the 1930s, the bamboo became obsolete as the non-traditional instruments became the highlights of the ensembles. The bamboo was replaced by metal pans. The players of the pans soon discovered that changing the playing surface of the pans will change the pitch of the instrument. It was discovered that the raised surface of the pans gave a different sound to that of the flat surfaces and through experimentation and a lot of trial and error, these metal pans evolved into the steel pan instrument.

Many competent sources (including the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards) regard the steel pan as an idiophone. However, in North America and Europe, it was considered a Membranophone because of its percussive nature. The truth is that the steel pan is a bit of both. It is struck on the surface (membranes) like a membranophone but it has defined pitched like an idiophone. The amalgamation of the two classifications leads this instrument to be a "hybrid instrument" and is believed to be the first hybrid instrument invented by man.

The typical steel band is made up of different pans of varied pitches. Pans with high, mid and low ranges, along with supporting percussion instruments are used to create the full sound.

If the question, “What kinds of music do steel band play?” is asked all over the world, most of the responses would be “calypso” and “soca”. Many persons believe that because of its origins in Trinidad and Tobago, steel bands limit themselves to the native popular music, but this is not the case. Because of the variety of pans with different pitches, the steel pan has the ability to play most genres. International influences along with the popularity of the instrument have caused the production of music from all ends of the earth.

As a player of this amazing instrument, one often sees audiences marvel not only at the instrument, but also the full rich sound that is produced. Contrary to the belief of some, any type of genre can be played on the steel pan as long as it is arranged for it. Music can be arranged for any configuration of steel pans for a performance, whether it be a solo or an entire orchestra. In order to arrange for steel pan, the range of the types of pans to be utilized must be considered. Additionally, the melodic structure of a piece ought to be considered to avoid repetition and monotony, and so that the piece does not come across as a fully percussive piece.

The arranger of music for the steel pan can approach the music from several vantage points. Often times, the intention of the arranger is to replicate traditional instruments like piano, guitar, double bass, etc. and have it translated to pan by having the player play similar rudiments to that of the instruments mentioned. The arranger can also approach the pans by trying to replicate vocal textures such as soprano, alto, tenor and bass.

The physical limitations to an arrangement are the amount of pans, the range of pans, and the skill level of the players. The more variety of pans there are, the more possibilities for complexity of the arrangement. A good appreciation of music theory is possibly one of the biggest assets. This allows for the varied musical elements to be employed into the arrangement. This also allows for acceptable harmonies to be produced and translated to pan.

In order for the arranger to conceptualize an arrangement, inspiration must be drawn from some source, whether it is music, nature, experiences or just a play on a vibe or an expression. The arrangement of music for the steel pan(s) can span from the replication of music that already exists, to the composition of new material or a combination of both. A good arrangement takes into consideration and makes provision for other percussive elements. This is to ensure that there is a high level of cohesion between what is conceptualized, what is translated to the pans and the instruments that keeps the pulse of the piece going (the percussive elements).

Another approach to steel pan arrangements for bands is treating each pan section like an instrument in an orchestra or a band. This allows for seemingly varied textures and lessens the likelihood of a cluttered sound in the same range of notes. The thought really, is that higher pitched pans would represent “traditional” instruments that have a higher pitch for example the violin or the trumpet. Mid-
range pitched pans would have a fuller sound and could cover a bit of fills to not leave any lulls in the arrangement (if that is the intention of the arranger). Finally, the lower pitched pans like the sets of bass pans would represent lower pitched instruments like the bass guitar.

As the world changes, the music does likewise, and what was once considered noise, because of the lack of a solid melodic structure, is now accepted as music by some. This now allows for more possibilities for the arranger as now, the melodic pieces can become more complex and also, the percussive elements can now be employed by the pan. Arrangers can now use portions of the steel pan that does not have notes or use the non-playing side of the sticks on the notes to create desired effects.

The fact that this amazing instrument is one of the latest musical inventions, and that fact that music changes everyday, means that not everything has yet been discovered about the steel pan and its capabilities. For arrangers, the sky is the limit!