Just a quick update on my previous post about steel pan music. Two nights ago (last Friday, Sept. 3) my friend Dexter, a great pan player I that I gig with often, and I went to see the final rehearsals of a couple of steelbands ahead of last night’s Panorama. The Panorama is a yearly steel band competition held outdoors behind the Brooklyn Museum here in New York. Dexter and I visited two rehearsals, Pan Sonatas, which won this year’s competition, and Despers USA, which came in 5th. I had to miss the Panorama because I had a party to play out in Long Island, but at least I got to hear some late-season rehearsals.
If you’ve never heard a full steel orchestra you’re in for a treat when you do. There are 60 or more pan players playing many different steel drums, from huge bass pan setups all the way up to small tenor pans. The bass pans are fashioned from whole 55-gallon oil drums arranged on a wheeled float, with four to as many as 12 drums played by one person. There is also a percussion section made up of a standard drum-kit plus other drums and percussion instruments. The arranger is the leader/conductor who writes and arranges the music and teaches it by ear to the band during rehearsals.
The sound of the full steelband is (surprisingly) somewhat like a symphony orchestra in tonal color and dynamics, but with a rhythmic authority unknown in the concert hall. When you hear a single pan being played it gives you no hint whatsoever of what a full pan orchestra sounds like.
The music of Pan Sonatas was harmonically adventurous, with chromatic sections setting up unexpected modulations; their command of dynamics is breathtaking. For the non-musicians out there the previous sentence simply means the music was good for the soul as well as the mind!
The music of the Panorama is original to each band and they rehearse all summer under the direction of the arranger for the Labor Day weekend Panorama. If you’re interested in a unique summer evening’s diversion, I highly recommend you spend a couple of nights next summer checking out some steel band rehearsals.
Here’s a link to the final Panorama results.