The Illustrated Story of Pan

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The Illustrated Story of Pan

Postby Joseph » Sat Apr 28, 2012 6:09 pm

African diasporic percussive traditions in the Americas and the Caribbean have developed in many diverse, yet related ways. This thread is meant to highlight the modern and rapid development of a percussion tradition in Trinidad…notably the Steel Drum, or Pan as it is locally known, and a new book which traces its development.

I’ve been visiting Trinidad semi-regularly in the past 5 years. Last summer while down there I became aware of a newly published book titled “The Illustrated Story of Pan” by Kim Johnson (ISBN 978-976-651-004-6). Recently I was there again and purchased the book .
It is a big coffee-table book filled with great old black & white photos documenting the development of the instrument and its influence on music and society in general.

The major accomplishment of the author is the collecting of all the old photos from multitudinous sources, (many of them moldering away in boxes in the old houses of the old folks who were there in the 1930’s to 50’s), as well as interviewing and many of the seminal figures of the movement, many of them in advanced age. Many of the quotes are in West Indian dialect. The author also provides an underlying narrative that adds a coherent timeline to the evolution of the instrument as well as the great societal and political changes that came as a result.

In a nutshell, the story is a classic case study of the irrepressible rhythmic traditions of African descendants in the Caribbean (Trinidad is actually geologically part of South America), as well as the ability of the underclasses to develop their own art forms in spite of authoritarian opposition.

Skinned drums were made illegal in Trinidad in the 1880’s, and the law strictly enforced. To circumvent this the locals developed a tradition called Tamboo Bamboo, which consisted of cut lengths of bamboo cut at various lengths to achieve different timbres. These lengths of bamboo were then pounded on the street in a marching ensemble.
Here is a modern Tamboo Bamboo:
Notice Moko-Jumbie dancers proceeding Tamboo Bamboo.

Here is some Tamboo Bamboo Notation.

The Tamboo Bamboo had disadvantages though; It wore out quickly on the road, it damaged the road, or maybe even the feet of a drunken beater, and caused the band to march slowly. Along with Tamboo Bamboo came the Jab-Molassie bands, the first documented beating on metal cans.

The “biscuit drum” was a development based on the Jab-Molassie: a large round metal tin with a single circular hole cut in the middle, it was being used as a bass drum in the marching groups. In short time not a single metal container in Trinidad was safe from thievery, as the poorest classes appropriated them to make various size metal drums. These drums had none of the disadvantages of Tamboo Bamboo.

Most of these rudimentary drums were of single pitch, and again in short time it was discovered that it was possible to achieve multiple pitches on one surface. However the focus of the instrument was rhythmic, not melodic. Marching groups formed in every neighborhood, almost all of them with no musical training. It was a nation wide phenomenon.

In 1939 a group calling itself “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” introduced the idea of drums tuned to each other to present melodic as well as rhythmic productions. A storm of indigeneous creativity ensued when they realized the possibilities of the instrument. All this was done at the local level by those with no schooling in music.

The next 15 years (late 30’s to early 50’s) saw the rapid development of the Pan from a single pitch primitive local creation, to a fully realized chromatic instrument, assembled into orchestras, with directors and arrangers interpreting the music of classic composers such as Schubert and Strauss, as well as performing some of the most powerful hip-shakin’ street music you can imagine.

The history and development of this sophisticated instrument occurred during a very short period of the 20th century. Its evolution flew well under the radar of the established authorities, and without much help from the musical elites to become the national instrument of Trinidad.

It is to Kim Johnson’s great credit and accomplishment that he was able to piece together a photo history of this evolution. It really is a story of human triumph.

Here’s a quote from a review of the book:
“Most of the participants in this book came from communities and homes in the lower-income bracket of Trinidad society. Most had limited opportunity for further education; unemployment was high and, for them, upward social mobility was almost impossible. In that environment, the steelband emerged as an expression of self-assertion, self-pride and creativity. They guarded and defended the source of this selfhood fiercely; some gave their lives, others their limbs, and in so doing, created the space for the development of what is today the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.
For me, this book presents the visual evidence that the people of Trinidad and Tobago have, on their own, created a family of instruments against a backdrop of poverty, unemployment, hard times, disinterest by authorities and ostracism from mainstream society. In spite of these apparent deficits, these young men and their communities have created institutions that still exist after five, six and seven decades. This is a story of “creativity, daring, adventure and plenty love” as stated by Dr Johnson himself. “

Ever since reading “Divine Utterances” by Katherine J. Hagedorn, I’ve been aware of the concept of the “competent audience”, i.e. the abstract knowledge on the part of the listener, of the structures of the traditions that inform the performances of any given tradition. The “Illustrated Story of Pan” goes a long way towards making those of us who may like Steel Drums a more “competent audience”.

I would end this with a video clip of Steel Band music, however…recordings of it (of which I have numerous) just CANNOT (to me) capture the essence of it.The power and all encompassing harmonic resonance of LIVE steel band music is something to behold.
If you ever have the chance to experience it… so!… da ting!

If you have any interest in this subject, I highly recommend this book...if you can find it.

Following are my photo shot examples from the many (MANY!) great old photos in the book.
Apologies for cropped images and images across binder in book.
Click on images for better view and to read text.
Primitive Pans and brakedrums
Notice Clave (Tic-Tocs they are called) and marimbula like invention.
1957 A young Sarah Vaughn wants to see what all the excitement is about.
Jab Molassie. One of the earliest photos of a metal container used as an instrument in Trinidad.
The circle of 5ths concept really allowed the drums to sing with full harmonics.
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