What most of us call the steel drum is called a 'pan' by those in the know. It is a tuned percussion instrument that is strongly associated with Calypso and the music of the Caribbean islands. The authentic instrument is hand-crafted from the bottom end of a 55 gallon steel oil drum (barrel). It is often thought of as a drum by the uninformed, partly because it's round and you pound on it with sticks and partly from its historic development, but it is actually a melodic instrument that is cleverly designed to produce distinct notes. Pans have a very distinctive timbre that is rich in harmonics. They are played by striking specific raised areas of the surface with rubber-tipped sticks.

History and Development

The history of the steel drum is intertwined with the history of the island of Trinidad, a history of colonialism, slavery and racism, and is more specifically connected to political unrest and gang violence. Development of the steel drum is rooted in the African drums that the slave population used as a basis of festival dance and song in the late 18th century.

After emancipation in 1838, racial tension and unrest in the ex-slave population created a deepening social division. Whites celebrated Mardi Gras, but blacks held their own festival, Canboulay. The festivals and street parades became opportunities for flare-ups and riots, which led to the banning of the black festivals and, later, to the banning of the African drum by the white government. The size of bands was also restricted, indicating a close tie between musical bands and politically active gangs.

After African drums were banned in 1931, the musical groups or gangs adopted a bamboo tube called the tamboo bamboo to replace them. This instrument was struck against the ground as the group marched through the streets to produce a signature rhythm that identified the group. When opposing groups happened to meet, there was violence. One advantage of the tamboo bamboo was that a machete could be hidden inside.

In 1935, the tamboo bamboo was also banned. What the gangs adopted in its place was the earliest direct forerunner of the steel pan, a simple metal containers of different kinds that were beat with sticks to produce the rhythmic gang signatures. In 1936, the Alexander Ragtime Band was established and used metal containers as instruments. Other, 'all steel' bands then began to form.

The transition from the crude steel drums to the true steel pan occurred during World War II. It is all a cloud of fact, myth and legend, but the dominant story attributes the invention to a fellow named Winston Simon from Laventille, an ex-slave settlement near Port of Spain. A large drum he had lent to friends was returned with the top beat down into a bowl shape. When Winston tried to beat it back up from below, he noticed that the bulges that formed produced individual tones. That accidental discovery caused a great sensation in the neighborhood, and a lot of imitation and experimentation began. Development was rapid over the next few years. Soon pans that had two notes, four notes and more were made. Ellie Manette, a friend of Winston, improved the construction technique and made the 55-gallon steel drum the starting material of choice. Bare sticks were replaced with rubber-tipped sticks or mallets. Pans tuned to the chromatic scale evolved and sets of pans that covered certain tonal ranges developed.

With the growing sophistication of the steel pan and the positive attention that public approval of its music brought, the roving bands of hostile and violent young men developed towards becoming more disciplined bands of musicians. The rowdiness and predilection for rivalry and violence did not disappear, however, and the characteristic government response of banning parades and festivals also continued up to the 1960s. There were clashes between rival bands even into the 1970s.

How to Make a Steel Pan

(even though you almost certainly won't be able to)

The Procedure

It takes skill, experience and a musical ear to produce a playable steel pan instrument that is anything more than a toy. Professional-quality steel pans (aka steel drums) are hand-made by teams of master artisans, and apprenticeships in this trade might last ten years or more. It takes about two days for a pro team to make one. The techniques vary from craftsman to craftsman and are sometimes secret, but the basic steps are outlined below. The steps are described simply here, but many of them require deft hand work and continuous judging and adjusting. That's what makes this a master craft. Also, creating the real deal requires the use of specialized hammers of various sizes and shapes, as well as a few other tools.

  1. Selecting a drum
    Just about any old 55-gallon steel barrel will do. It doesn't have to be new or pretty, but deep rust or cuts are disqualifiers. Reject galvanized or reconditioned drums. Only the bottom end will be used, but the skirt (the sides) will be longer or shorter according to the tonal range. Bass pans have the longest skirts.
  2. Sinking the pan
    Remove the filling plug and turn your barrel upside down. It's the bottom that becomes the pan. Get a really big sledge hammer and pound the hell out of the bottom, but do so with great skill and care so as to leave a deep dish shape that is reasonably smooth and has no cuts or breaks in the surface. The metal should be stretched thinner in the middle area, where the highest notes will be formed. The desired profile (how deep and what shape) depends on the kind of pan you are making. The more notes you will have, the deeper the dish needs to be. You can cut off the top end of the barrel now, leaving the bottom part with a skirt of appropriate length. Dress up the cut part before it cuts you.
  3. Forming the notes
    Lay out the note pattern on the sunk drum head. The pattern depends on the type of pan you are making, how many notes there will be and the tonal range of the instrument. The large, low notes are arranged around the rim; they are usually measured and drawn by hand. A template is used to determine the shape of the other notes.
    Next, you form grooves along the outlines of the notes. This is done with a hammer and flat-tipped punch. Done properly, this operation leaves a continuous flat-bottomed trough that defines the roundish shape of each note on the pan surface. Now the space between notes is pounded down with a hammer into a fairly smooth surface that leaves the notes raised up above it. This step, called 'taking the fat out,' isolates the notes from each other by creating an acoustically dead area between them. That surface is further smoothed by pounding with a smaller hammer. These hammers, like those used for subsequent tuning, have short handles for better control.
  4. Tempering
    Put the dished-out drum over a fire for 15 minutes or so and then dunk it in a big vat of water. This is called 'quenching' in the terminology of metal working. It hardens the metal. In Trinidad this step is usually done on the beach and the hot pan is tossed into the ocean. Clean off the soot from the fire. This tempering process also helps isolate the notes, because the surface between the notes will remain hard while the raised note areas will harden even further from the hammering that is done next.
  5. Note shaping
    Begin by using a hammer to pound around the base of each note, just inside the groove that you formed earlier. This step changes the note profile from a kind of sunken plateau to more of a raised dome. Listen to how the hammering affects the sound. Each note is further domed by pounding from below (inside the drum). For the notes along the rim, where you can't reach with a hammer from below, use a board with a rounded side to pry against the wall of the drum or pound down on it with a mallet to get the raised shape you want. The surfaces of the notes are then made smooth by careful pounding with a small hammer or plastic mallet. At this point, each note should be distinct and fairly close to its intended tone.
  6. Tuning
    This difficult procedure is where your skillfully banged-up 55-gallon drum bottom becomes a musical instrument (or doesn't). Unless you are gifted with absolute pitch, you'll need a musical tuning aid of some sort. Use a small hammer or mallet to adjust each note to its intended pitch. There is no way to describe how to do this systematically; it's a matter of trial and error for the inexperienced. As you are working, you'll notice that two things are going on acoustically. One is that the primary tone (pitch) is changing and the other is that the harmonic overtones are also changing. You need to arrive at the right pitch for each note, but you also have to maximize the richness of the overtones that make the notes come alive with a bell-like resonance.
    OK, so you've actually got the first note in beautiful tune. Go on and do a few more. Then come back to the first note. Aghhh! The vibrant, ringing sound is gone, replaced by a dead, tinny klunk! Yep. Remember that all the notes are on the same surface, and working one note may affect others. This is particularly true if the tempering and 'fat removal' steps were not entirely successful. Badly made pans will never accept and keep proper tuning, regardless of the tuner's skill.
  7. Finishing and fine tuning
    Well, let's assume that you've got your pan tuned and it sounds great. You now need to drill a couple of holes on opposite sides near the rim for hanging your pan in playing position. Professional instruments are usually chrome plated and then retuned. Finished instruments can go out of tune over time, and so need to be retuned occasionally.

You're Nuts. I Can't Do All of That!

True. So make a toy instead.

If you're a natural-born tinker and feel the great urge to actually try this, you can. It's fun and therapeutic to pound and make a lot of noise, just don't expect too much from your first few efforts. You don't need (or really want) to work with a 55-gallon drum for your experiment. Just use the largest round can you can find. A big coffee can or a paint can will do.

Start by making a two-note pan called a dudup (pronounced 'dud-up'). This is a rhythm instrument so you don't have to be fussy about the pitches. The two notes should be about a fifth apart, that's all. Now 'be a fifth apart' doesn't mean you need to drink a fifth of booze between making the two notes. The fifth we mean here is an interval of musical pitches. C and G are a fifth apart, for example. Two notes of this interval will automatically sound good played together simultaneously or in any sequence. If you want to be fussy and have a strong personal need to be frustrated for no good reason, you can go for a perfect tune. Those of us who aren't gifted with perfect pitch, can buy a couple of tuning forks of the right pitches, use a pitch pipe or a well-tuned piano for reference, or use an electronic tuning aid. (And yes, there's a free smartphone app for that.) But be prepared to do it all over again after a short while of playing.

Now, to lay out the two notes, just lay a straight edge across the end of the can, separating it into two parts, one a little larger than the other. Draw a line with a marker pen, and then form your notes as described in the instructions above. You'll need a stick for the tuning. A new pencil with a hard eraser tip makes a quick-and-dirty playing stick.

Making your dudup is good practice in achieving good, resonant notes. You can go on from there to try a three-note or even a five-note pan, but you'll have to experiment with note sizes and shapes. But more likely you'll look at your achievement and think, "Well, that was fun." and then toss it into the trash. In any case, you'll certainly have a finer appreciation of the next steel pan you see or hear.