JM – If you are not familiar with steel pan music, all you may need to know is that the instrument, made from a 55-gallon metal drum, is played with rubber-tipped sticks, and the sound that is produced is monumental.
The steel pan is fairly new compared to other instruments, having travelled nearly 2,000 km to Jamaica from its birthplace in Trinidad and Tobago, to become the life work of one local group called the Silver Birds Steel Orchestra.
The history behind the construction of Silver Birds Steel Orchestra and their tools the steel pans speaks volumes to the resourcefulness of the group and its founder, Dean Barnett. For the better part of a decade, Barnett has been active in many areas in order to pilot the band in a direction that would make them noticeable on the global stage. Give him the title of steel pan maker, player, teacher, master tuner or producer, and he will accept but will add that it is not a unit that is managed by one person.
“When the Silver Birds was established, I had no experience in making the pans, only the know-how,” said Barnett. It was knowledge that the founding member accidentally happened upon while strolling through the streets of Connecticut when he migrated to the United States with his family; though Barnett had previously owned a steel band in Jamaica that broke up after a few gigs.
“There was a steel pan painted on the wall of a shop on Albany Avenue, and of course I was drawn inside, where I met a man and through our conversations he basically provided me with information on how to make this band a reality,” said Barnett.
The first persons he called were his friends, Mark Allison and Junior ‘Chambah’ Stevens, to share the good news just before the musician returned home, to let them know what they would be working towards.
“We started out with purchasing old drums from Berger for probably $150 cheap, but the process of cleaning out the adhesive, sometimes smelly chemicals and beating out the drums made it an invaluable project,” Stevens told The Sunday Gleaner.
Hammered into the shiny metal surface is a series of dents, each one creating a note subtly different from the ones around it, reliant on the position and size.
It could take Barnett and Allison up to three months to make one steel pan with a few mistakes here and there. The group started small with a few drums and approximately seven members in 2007, teaching and learning from one another.
The steel pan music even became the signature sound for the title record label created by Stevens and Barnett. Together they have produced singles such as Kim Kelly’s Alive featuring Vybz Kartel, Tommy Lee’s Grim Rave, Kalado’s Sex Slave, and most recently, Picture a collaboration with Silver Birds Records, Samantha J and Gyptian. It is the only Jamaican label that produces music adding its own touch of live steel pan compositions played by the musicians.
“It is not unique to Jamaica, it belongs to the Caribbean, but anything our nationals touch become gold,” said Stevens.
Speaking of gold, the group saved enough of their profits for two years after being established, to travel to California to enter the World Championship of Performing Arts, where they walked away with five winning medals, including ‘Best Original’, ‘Best Classical’, ‘Best Contemporary’ piece.
The senior members say Silver Birds is a diversion from the regular steel band. “We are not carved from a coconut tree-type thing, that is, our catalogue and sets are unusual stepping away from calypso and soca with modern choreographed movements and uniforms.”
Silver Birds now boasts a membership of about 53, the youngest being 14 years old. The powerful engine of the band is the drummer, and the rhythmic momentum is increased by dance choreographies that are done while playing the steel pan’s expressive harmonies.
According to Barnett, the steel pan group is representative of a normal band: the drummer helps with keeping time, big bass (the standing drum) represents the bass guitar, cello (half-drum) pans is the guitar, and the double tenor pans create the rhythms parallel to the keyboard, while the two in the middle would be the distinct vocals.
Merely a week before some of the members of the Silver Birds Steel Orchestra fly out to China, for more than two months, they are meeting at the ‘pan yard’ or home base in Richmond Park. Having spent long hours together both on stage and in the studio (located all in one place). The band is an impressively tight unit that seamlessly weaves together the vocabularies of dancehall-fusion, reggae, rhythm and blues, jazz, pop and classical music hence the appropriation of the word ‘orchestra’ in their name instead of ‘band’.
In addition to their strong presence on the north coast at hotels such as the Sandals Resorts, Grand Bahia, Couples and RIU Resorts, the band performs at an ever-expanding schedule of events and are split into groups islandwide. Sometimes practice happens mentally while travelling on the bus to and from performances. The group also manufactures pans on a small scale for schools such as Promise Learning Centre Advocates for Autism, and the Ardenne High School.