Have you ever heard a steel drum? The sound is amazing. Steel drums can create beautiful melodies with a hint of metallic sound. Since these unique instruments originated in the Caribbean, most people associate their sound with the beautiful islands from this part of the world. And although finely crafted professional steel drums can cost in the hundreds or even thousand of dollars, it isn’t hard to create the same kind of musical exploration at home by making a homemade version of a steel pan. It just takes some of the same creativity that was used when steel drums were first invented.
Steel drums (or steelpan drums) originated on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago with the people from West Africa who had been brought there as slaves. These people wanted to celebrate their customs and holidays as they had in Africa but the French slave owners banned most of their traditional percussion and holiday customs. Year after year, the enslaved people came up with new versions of their percussion ensembles and traditional dances, but found that the slave owners banned them. Finally, the holiday celebration reorganized with music created on an orchestra of frying pans, trash can lids and steel drums and this was allowed. Later these basic but functional everyday items were refined into the amazing instruments that we might recognize today. Now, steel drums of various sizes and shapes are often played in a group called a steel band or orchestra and an individual player is called a “pannist”.
Creating Your Improvised Steel Drum At Home
You’ll need two things to create a steel drum jam at home. First, a metal object that has the potential to make a variety of sounds. And, second, a mallet to play the improvised drum.
Three great choices for the drum itself are metal trash can lid, a hubcap or an overturned metal cupcake tray. For your mallet (the stick that will strike the drum) you can use an unsharpened pencil, a stick, a recycled chopstick or a wooden dowel. But if you look closely at any steel drum player, you’ll notice one thing about their mallets. They are not simply sticks hitting metal. Instead they are sticks with a rubber or soft fabric “head” that helps create a more pleasing sound when the metal object is played.
Make Your Own Mallet
To make your own mallet, start with your unsharpened pencil, a chopstick or dowel. Then you have several choices. You can wrap the end or ends of the stick with rubber bands or electrical tape. You can also use electrical tape to secure a rubber eraser to a pencil. For the softest sound, you can tape a group of Q-tips to a stick and you’ll be rewarded with a really subtle tone that sounds almost like an authentic steel drum.
If you make several mallets, you’ll notice how each one produces a different kind of sound when playing your drum.
Play Your Steel Drum
Once you have your drum and your mallets, let your child explore the sounds that it can make. I often challenge kids and adults to find how many different sounds their metal object can create. And the results have been surprising as people have come up with new and innovative ways of discovering what their improvised instrument can do. For the basics, you can easily tap at different areas of the surface, hit the handle of the trash can lid, hit the side of the lid, tap the surface of the cupcake tins and play a “trill” by
Keywords, running your mallets over the open areas of the hubcap. You can play louder or softer for slightly different tones and you can exchange mallets to see what is most pleasing to your ear.
Since most rhythms are made of patterns, you can start putting together the sounds that you like. With a trash can lid, a rhythm might be something like this:
Surface, surface, handle
Surface, surface, handle
Surface, surface, handle
Surface, surface, rim!
Let your child mix and match sounds and make up patterns that fit their favorite songs or just jam. Slowly they’ll start to get their own idea of how to make the instrument play what they want to hear.
Some Playing Tips
If working with trash can lids or hubcaps, it can help to put them on top of a plastic bucket, a small pot or a colander. The lid or hubcap will ring out more and will sit at a better height for most children to reach. If working with cupcake tins, turn them over and fill a few with different amounts of paper towel. Then each “cup” will ring out with a slightly different tone in the same way that different areas on a real steel drum will produce different tones.
Play Along With A Song
Check out my limbo song and video here. I was able to work with an awesome steel drum player when recording the song, so it can be fun to play along with this tune and add your own parts as well.
If you want to hear authentic steel pan orchestras, check out the cd section of the Steel Drum Shop website below and explore their selection of dynamic players and groups that have created and evolved this type of traditional music.
The Steel Drum Store – Steel Drum CD’s
Discover A World Of Music
Exploring the steel drum can be a great way to learn about geography and history as well as arts and culture. Where are Trinidad and Tobago? Who were the slaves brought to these islands? What traditions did they bring from their homeland? What other music evolved in this area? What are these countries like today?
You can check out the sites below to find out more about these islands and their many wonderful contributions to music and world culture.
Trinidad and Tobago – Travel and Tourism site
US State Government Guide to the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago