History of the Steelpan in Switzerland

The steel pan has been spreading outside its homeland Trinidad mainly through Caribbean expatriates. Switzerland has had an independent history of the evolution of steel pan and steel bands. This article explains the growth of the steel pan in Switzerland.

Steve Berg, an Englishman, was (most likely) the first person to actually build and tune a steel pan instrument in Switzerland (picture left). In 1962 after visiting the Carnival in Trinidad, Berg settled in Freiburg (Switzerland) in 1964. After a steel pan gig at the Comptoir Suisse in Lausanne in 1972, Berg began to build a few instruments guided by the book “Steel drums, how to play them and make them”, by Kim Loy Wong (Peter Seeger, Oak Publ. New York, 1964). Berg interestingly came up with the idea, to place the notes on a Soprano Pan according to the circle of fifths, without knowing that this layout has been in use since several years.

In the seventies, the steel pan was basically unknown in Switzerland. Only small steel bands from England played sporadically in renowned hotels. Larger orchestras were seldom to be enjoyed at festivals or city celebrations (Bern-Fest 1976).

In the mid seventies a rapid growth could be observed in Switzerland. In Zurich, this growth happened with the support of the carnival culture. Sterling Betancourt, a Trinidadian, living in England who often played in Zurich hotels, can be mentioned as the initiator. In Bern in 1976, during the city celebration, Alex Santschi and Felix Rohner, were marvelled by the “pan-jumbie” after a performance by a Trinidadian steel orchestra. This experience literally drove them in to the forest, trying to build instruments. In 1978, in another major Swiss city, Basel, a Trinidadian by name Mike Cauzabon, founded the oldest still playing group called Steel Harmonites.

The 80’s witnessed the rapid growth and popularity of the steel pan. In 1983, 17 steel bands which existed at this time, formed a community of interests with the major aim of increasing the exchange of information amongst the pan movement. Felix Rohner developed his skills in Bern while Matthias Kauer launched the first retail shop of its kind for steel pan instruments in Europe in 1984. A Trinidadian, Ralph Richardson, founded the group Evolution in Zurich and established himself, this band was unmatched for several years. A lot of pan players like Samuel Graf, left their “motherbands” to form new groups. In this case, Graf left the Bernese Oil Company and built up a formation in Lyss the biggest steel band till date.

In 1985 Switzerland’s first all children steel band “Nägeligass” was created. This band has produced well known musicians like Claudio Pini (Pans), Samuel Baur (Drums), Gawan Seiler (Reggae-Singer). Sabina Schärer, an instrument maker, was also a member of this group. During the 80’s around seventy steel bands were created in the German part of Switzerland.

In 1987, Bern, hosted the first steel band festival, which saw 27 bands from all over Switzerland attend. The motto of the festival was: “Thank you Trinidad”. In this festival, Dr. Peter Zünd, who was also the chairman, said: “It is one of the few non commercial events in Switzerland.”

Swiss steel bands started looking over the boarder of their small country, with “Karibikschwärmer” performing in Denmark in 1986 and the “Steel Harmonites” visiting the USA the same year. Swiss bands also later on invited foreign bands like Latchmere Youth (London), Steel Tempo (Manchester), Trinidad Casablanca (Port of Spain).

With the availability of instruments from local manufacturers and shops, the number of steel bands doubled in the 90’s. Some bands took part in international events like the Trinidadian panorama competition of 1992, which had the “Bernese Oil Company” in attendance. The “Pan Network”, also travelled to Barbados the same year. With increasing performances in Restaurants and Hotels like the “Bagages” in 1994, this led to a Swiss orchestra (SNSO) playing at the Pan is Beautiful competition of 1996 in Trinidad. With this growing popularity, Swiss bands travelled through Europe and were featured in Swiss television programmes like “Benissimo”.

Pan making in Switzerland
The lead pioneer in Swiss pan making, is Felix Rohner from Berne, having been making pans since 1976. He founded the steelpan factory in 1985 in Berne and finally settled in to steel pan making. There were also a few musicians who built their own instruments or for their bands like Graf (Lyss), Cauzabon (Basel), Gränicher (Langenthal). Rohner was the one who provided more instruments to bands, a few dozen, between 1985 and 1993. He also offered services like tuning of instruments, and could be credited with the formation of more than 40 school and youth orchestras. Furthermore his exchange of experiences with fellow European tuners and studying of masterpieces (Ellie Mannette) helped him develop his skills of pan making. The “PanArt Steelpanfactory Inc.” was founded in 1993, under the guidance of Felix Rohner. Having attained the level of working with high quality materials, and the differences of the results depending on the material being used, led to the formation of the factory. Since 1993, PanArt has intensively researched diverse materials (deep drawing steel, fine corn steel, DP-steel). Additionally, PanArt looked into the subject of acoustics, made sound spectrum analysis and studied the phenomenon of non-linear sound developments. These researches took place with the help of the German steel industry (Hoesch) and the ETH Zürich, as well as acousticians and physicists from America.

Of a specific process to harden steel sheets for the production of steel instruments, this process was patented by PanArt in 1998. Furthermore PanArts developed a process to deep-draw forms for pan making. In 2000 PanArt developed a new musical instrument called “Hang”. The work of the PanArt Company has been variously recognized internationally, like winning the Bavarian state award for innovative hand-work in 2000, but the peak of Rohners work was the Hang. Because of the increasing demand of the HangHang (Plural), PanArt has discontinued to build steel pans and has since changed its name to PanArt Hangbau Inc. The two pan tuners currently (2008) living and working in Switzerland are Werner Egger (Swiss) and Esa Tervala (Finn). Esa has been living in Switzerland since 1994.

Importers and dealers
In addition to Swiss production there are importers of steel pans from England or Trinidad, like Matthias Kauer (Panorama Steeldrums, Zürich) Walter Streuli (Steel Connexion, Birmensdorf), as well as Martin Grah (Happy Drums, Winterthur). Ralph Richardson (Richardson Steeldrums, Zürich) originally made instruments himself, and started to import pans from Trinidad as he got older. These importers frequently fly in a pan tuner to service the instruments they sell.

The last decade
Compared to the old days, steel pan and bands have lost some of its exoticism. With over saturation, bands fight to find their proper place, while the typical “beach-feeling” used to be enough. The audience have increased their demand for good quality music. In 2000, Swiss steel bands took part in the European steel band festival in Paris. One of the groups (Panch 2000) was fourth and qualified for the world steel band festival taking place in Trinidad the same year. Around this same time, the online platform “Pan Jumbie” emerged with information on anything relating to steel pan. “Pan Jumbie” is one of the most visited sites today on the internet concerning pan. In 2004 “PANCH” (Swiss steel band association) was formed to ensure contact within the Swiss pan movement and internationally.

Written by Werner Egger