Iron Love:
Steel Pan music explained

In Carnival by Sarah Brooks

“Iron man, oh, he sweeter than honey. Lick de pan, jam iron!” In her song “Iron Love,” Nailah Blackman sings of her love for the Iron Man — whose quick hands and rhythmic prowess bless us with the brassy ‘pang’ of the steel pan. “Nothing sweeter than hearing the sound of old iron beating whole day, whole day.”

In order to understand this love, you need to understand the history of the Iron Man, and the spirit of Steel Pan. 

Before Carnival and Panorama competitions, before the sexy cascade of brass arrangements brought us soca, there were drums — sacrificed skins stretched across carved wood to animate the history of our ancestors.  These drums where the voices of our ancestors after colonial governors banned them from speaking in their native tongues. When street festivals were popularized, the drums became an important part of these celebrations. They sent newly freed bodies gyrating down crowded streets in joyful exuberance and when oppression continued, they became the sound of loud rebellion.   

Fearing organized rebellion, governors banned the playing of drums. And as a result, the Tamboo Bamboo movement was formed. Musicians cut lengths of bamboo and stomped them on the ground to produce the new sound of musical and political expression. This too was banned. 

Governors took away our language, they took away our drums, but they still could not break our spirits. Searching for new means of community and rhythmic expression, youth (thought of as ‘rude boys’) began to beat on metal tins, garbage lids, and soapboxes. Little did they know their yard sessions were the beginnings of something great.

One such yardie would be the first to hit the top of an oil drum into a dome shape to create a steel drum — he would be the first Iron Man. Winston ‘Spree’ Simon is credited for being the first person to play a melody on this steel drum. Almost by mistake, it was discovered that hitting the ridges formed in the drum produced different tones. Ellie Mannette then designed a basin-shaped drum to give greater control of the melody, creating the first modern steel pan.

“Any time you limit somebody or something or a culture, they will always find another way. Anytime you limit life it will find another way to flourish. And so the steel pan came out of a time of oppression, and it became a beacon for resilience and survival.”

Andre Rouse, Iron Man

The steel pan has not only become a beacon of Trinidadian culture, but has also spread internationally. Here in Canada, it thrives, lifting spirits, building communities, and preserving culture. In order to understand more of steel pan culture here in Canada, we spoke to Andre Rouse, Torontonian, Creative Director of Souls of Steel Orchestra, and Iron Man.

What is pan music? What makes it distinct as an art form?

Pan music is music in general. I think there is a misconception that the steel pan, as weird as it may sound is not viewed as an instrument. Steelpan was originally played in Trinidad, so the music would be influenced by that culture. But, I believe that the steel pan now, in 2020, has come on to the world stage. In that, it is used in education facilities around the world, including universities, elementary schools, and high schools.

I think what people are maybe confused about is the orchestration. You see a steel band and you don’t know who is doing what. And I think that is the education that needs to come through. Each instrument in the steel band has a role to play and that is the most interesting part about it, and that’s what a lot of people flock to Trinidad to learn and to see. It is one thing to press play and listen to steel pan music, it is another thing to see it made organically. It is a totally different experience than that of an orchestra or your conventional instruments, where the music is usually documented: you put it in front of you and people play. But there is a limitation to that, in that you are confined to the 8 ½ by 11 paper that you see there. There is so much more expression and so many things that you can experience when you are not confined to that 8 ½ by 11 pieces of paper in front of you. 

Can one say, then, that there is more freedom in pan music? 

Absolutely! There is music specifically composed and noted for steel pan music. There are many different situations that a steel pan band would play and it is done for the orchestra on the fly, in the yard. If it’s, for instance, panorama, which is probably the most popular performance for a steel ban, the music is usually interpreted by an arranger, sometimes composed.

If you are talking about playing at a wedding, or in a different setting, the music that is being played is usually music that has already been documented and is already known. So you have different ways that the music, that the steel pan specifically, can be expressed.

Pan music is central to carnival culture, although some places rely more on boom boxes and stereos. Have you seen any notable difference in pan music from the Caribbean in contrast to Canada or other parts of the world?

Yes and no. Trinidad is the mecca of steel pan and steel pan music, as well as its arrangers and composers. I am a descendant of a Trinidadian. So … I am familiar with soca and calypso, chutney music, and all the different genres that have come out of Trinidad and the Caribbean. When I express that musicality, it is through my own filter, as a Canadian-born Black individual. So there are definitely similarities because when it comes to music you have to have certain constants, for instance, percussion. Certain vibes, as they call it, or certain rhythms that are synonymous with Trinidad may have been as a result of our ancestors from Africa; that resonates in the music. However, everybody is an individual. That being said, people interpret music differently and therefore their expression of it would be different with some similarities. You have to have some sort of constant to make a connection with the people who are listening to your music… then the creativity comes in. 

How would you describe pan culture?

 Community! Family! There are many times where someone would say “I was born in the panyard.” That basically means they have been a part of an organization or community since they were small and they have grown up in it. And once you are a part of a community band, you are almost there forever, even in spirit. You invite your friends and family. Maybe by then you have had children. Your partner, your mate, will come and encourage the band, and support the band in any other way. It is like a magnet, the steel band culture. You get to play alongside people who you may not have otherwise met. You get to play with people who are accomplished musicians, as well as those who are now learning the instrument. There is always a balance of teaching and learning, constantly going on. And I think because you are having so much fun, you don’t realize the number of experiences you are having until you sit down and really take in the atmosphere of the band. Hopefully, sometimes, you will have maybe a kitchen, and we all know good things come out of the kitchen! 

A lot of people who support steel pan music have never even played the instrument. But the love of it, and the love of the people that they are supporting is what keeps them coming back for more and more.  When I think steel band I think of community! 

Pan music is born out of a Caribbean tradition, and with this comes a mix of so many cultures. Is there something distinct about this musical tradition that allows it to connect different cultures?

Well, we have to remember that the steel pan was a defiant instrument. At the time it was invented, the people of Trinidad were exposed to and under the rule of the powers-that-be at that time. When the slaves originally came to Trinidad against their will, they took away their native instruments including the drums, so they found another way to flourish. The steel pan came out of a time of oppression, and it became a beacon of resilience and survival. It is loud, it is an outdoor instrument, and it is almost the lifeblood and heartbeat of a people who were yearning to be heard. The cross-cultural communication, in my opinion, happens because many people can relate to being oppressed or silenced or limited in some way. Steelpan music, for many of the people I have had the pleasure of playing with, has saved their lives. It has given them a focus…  in a situation in which other things have been taken away from them. 

Specifically, with Souls of Steel, we encourage fusion. And within that, when you are fusing something it is usually (in our band) either a people or a different type of people or different instruments. And different instruments come from different cultures and ways of communicating. So we love to do music and include different types of instruments within our composition and it is another way to communicate with people who may not know steel pan music. By including different instruments and different people from different socioeconomic conditions, ages, and cultures, you end up having a unique experience within the band. One of my goals is actually to work with an indigenous community in Toronto and see what we can do to help promote their voices, as well as learn about their experiences through their music. So that has always been my interest, to do more than what the steel pan has been made to do.

How does pan performance help people stay connected to their history and culture?

Everyone wants to belong, everyone wants to be heard, and everyone wants to be validated. And I think when you are with people who sometimes look and sound like you, you may feel a little more comfortable to open up. And then you may have a little more confidence to leave the group and speak to others who may not look and may not sound like you. But having that connection, or having a place that you can go to where everybody knows your name is always a good thing. As a Black individual, there is something in our culture that has to do with rhythm. Your life has to have a rhythm. And we, in my opinion, have a rhythm, and the steel ban has a rhythm and a vibe that is alluring. It connects with those who have it and it attracts those who may not. Having a place that you can go to feel connected, not only to your past but to the people that are around you is beneficial in any community. Especially in a place like Toronto; it’s such a multicultural city.

The steel band, although it was invented and popularized by Trinidadians, it has almost become the sound of the Caribbean. And so it draws not only Trinidadians but many people from the Caribbean because they feel a connection with that rhythm and that sound. If I hear the ‘ping’ of a steel pan on the subway, I am running to see who is playing that, what’s going on. And I experience that around the world! I want to see the connection that I am hearing. I want to see it manifested. 

How did Souls of Steel start?

I was asked by the principal of Holy Name to conduct/ hold rehearsals for adults after school, not knowing that the adults I was teaching were the teachers at the school. I was then asked to join on a part-time basis. I said, “Teaching people about sound? I would love to do that!”

Eventually, the program became so good and it was so accepted within our community that myself and two other people decided to incorporate. We became a community organization, highly involved in music education, and steel band music. That was back in 2007. Now, in 2020 we are one of the top playing steel bands … in the city. It has been quite a journey!

We have done an array of events, not only in the Danford community. We also hold an annual walkathon called “Do Something for Pan” and last year we were paired with zero gun violence because of the rise of gun violence that was happening in Toronto. We needed to respond to that, so we did. 

Our goal is to make a difference in society and we welcome people who have the same mindset. To have a lasting effect on society is the plight of so many, and to have that as one of our main goals as a community – you could only succeed. 

What is next for souls of steel? How can we support it?

I am an artist and I get bored pretty quickly. I try to keep things light and fun. We have a concert series, we just finished one of the installations in the series where we highlighted up-and-coming soloists in Toronto. The next will include different arrangers who will be invited to arrange for the band, and it will be adjudicated and the audience will be made up of members of different steel bands. So we are bringing together the steel band community. My goal is to eventually have a movement in the steel band community for us to be heard more than once a year, in August, for Carnival. There is so much untapped talent and so many untapped resources in Toronto, that I think if we bring both of those together, we will be able to enter into a new phase of steel pan music, steel pan community, and steel pan players.

You can follow us on facebook or visit our website. We have lots of great pan music that you can buy or listen to.