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The Steel Drum Shop
1508 East 33rd Street, Signal Hill, CA 90755


by Michael Leppert

Certain musical instruments have a powerful ability to call to mind a particular word picture or setting. A Bluegrass fiddle conjures up images of quiet, simple, rural living; a full-throttle pipe organ reminds one of austere, church services in huge cathedrals or scary Saturday night movies on Monster-Chiller-Horror Theatre; bagpipes often bring to mind graveside rites for fallen military or law enforcement people; steel drums conjure up visions of laid-back island people playing their homemade drums while gentle Caribbean breezes waft through palm trees, exotic drinks tinkle with the promise of cool refreshment and stress takes a fade on white beaches beside amazing blue water.

That may have been, but recently, this “exotic” homemade instrument of folky entertainment has become a strong presence in "serious" musical settings of all sorts and steel drums are considered for serious study by players all over the world.

For most of their developmental period (pre ‘50’s), steel drums were a Caribbean folk instrument, made from 50-gallon oil drums, abandoned by US military after WWII, typically hand-fashioned by the players themselves.  The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago (primarily Trinidad) is where the original “steel pans” were developed. Trinidad shared the instrument with the world and the world accepted it.

 In today’s modern era, steel drums -- while still made in Trinidad as well as in small shops worldwide -- are referred to as steel pans and they are made from high-quality steel, not old oil drums, anymore. What is more, the entire steel pan family covers a wide musical range of pitches, with pans in Bass, Baritone, Cello, Guitar Alto and Soprano ranges.  The Soprano (“Lead”) Pan is actually called a “Tenor” pan but that’s another story. They are the first New World chromatic orchestral instrument family ever and the most recent instrument family since Rudolph Sax developed his family of saxophones in Europe in the 1800s.

On the other side of the continent, in an exotic setting of its own – Pacific instead of Caribbean, Larry and Janet Mebust, owners of The Steel Drum Shop (and Hopetown Music) in a suburb of Long Beach, California, have been pan performers for over fourteen years. Larry has made steel pans his life by selling pans, contracting with professional arrangers to develop special arrangements for the ensembles and offering “turnkey” steel band packages to K-12 and college music departments that allow the instructors to set up the drums, copy the music and start filling the air with the sound of the Caribbean.

Larry offers a wide variety of instructional resources as well, with books and videos for sale in the shop, as well as a network of instructors nationwide, to assist interested students in mastering such a unique and compelling melodic percussion instrument. The melodic quality of steel pans is one of its most attractive assets – especially to those who already play drums or percussion.

Many drummer/percussionists enjoy moving beyond strictly time-keeping and venturing into the solo or lead limelight usually occupied by the guitar, sax, trumpet and piano. Besides the vibes, xylophone or marimbas, steel drums are the only viable melodic percussion instruments that fit well in virtually any musical setting – orchestral, pop, jazz . . . the player’s imagination and ability (aka “chops”) determine the limits the drum can fulfill! Larry Mebust understands this and can offer a great deal of assistance to any player who is keen on exploring the incredible sonic world of the steel pans.

The “lead” steel pan makes an excellent instrument for the study of basic music theory as its notes are arranged in a “circle of fifths” covering over 2 complete octaves beginning at C4.  Most theory books contain this diagram; here the diagram is the instrument itself.

As mentioned already, many schools and universities around the world have added steel bands to their music departments. This creates a very exciting future for the official instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. As steel bands gain more acceptance as “legitimate” instruments, composers and arrangers will develop a fresh repertoire to fit and push the envelope of players’ skills and the sonic possibilities of the instrument itself. This sort of activity with other instruments in the past created the memorable and often astonishing musical pyrotechnics like the difficult Rachmaninoff piano compositions, Paganini’s concerti for violin and Bach’s pieces for organ. Larry advises that one can play “Bach to Rock” on the steel pan, so one can surmise that the original repertoire will ultimately be huge.

To get acquainted with the entrancing, exploding world of steel bands, please visit The Steel Drum Shop itself or its website; listen to some great wav files of world-class steel bands, sign up for the free newsletter, and spend an hour or two just exploring all of the resources and information offered by Larry and his staff at the Steel Drum Shop. MjL


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