Caribbean steel pan music forged out of defiance

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Steel pan artist Gary Gibson will perform with the Walla Walla University Steel Band on Saturday at the Gesa Power House Theatre.

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The Walla Walla University Steel Band will perform in concert with guest steel pan recording artist Gary Gibson of Seattle and local jazz artist Mike Agidius at 8:30 p.m. Saturday in Gesa Power House Theatre.

Tickets range from $10-$20 and can be bought at the WWU and Whitman College bookstores and at Book and Game in downtown Walla Walla. or more details and to order tickets via credit card, call 509-527-2561.

WALLA WALLA — When Gary Gibson performs Saturday in Walla Walla, the instrument he will play is one most known to evoke images of sea, sun and breezes at play on a Caribbean island.

The steel pan, a mallet-struck instrument like vibes or marimba, however, has its origins in a darker era of defiance against colonial rule by descendants of slaves.

It arose out of cultural turmoil and civil disobedience in the West Indies, the Seattle composer, recording artist and music educator said in an email exchange.

“British rulers in Trinidad had severely restricted the practice of playing drums in the streets at Carnival and other festive occasions,” he said.

“Drums accompanying singing were one of the mainstays of the Afro-Trinidadian population.”

So for about 50 years, Afro-Trinidadians instead used different lengths and diameters of bamboo shafts as a substitute for drums.

“In the late 1930s, in an effort to be louder than a rival band,” Gibson said, “one band started using metal biscuit tins, garbage cans, etc. Within weeks, all the bands were using biscuit and garbage tins.”

Then serendipity lent an invisible hand.

“Soon, it was discovered that denting the metal in a certain way could produce two or more different pitches on either side of the dent,” Gibson said.

The early steel pan, fashioned out of metal discs capping steel container drums that have been hammered into a bowl shape with indentations to produce precise notes, was thus born.

Winston “Spree” Simon was the first to tune a biscuit tin with four scale tones, on which he could play simple melodies, Gibson said.

Then came contributions by Ellie Mannette, whom Gibson calls the “father” of the instrument and who made the set of steel pans Gibson will play Saturday in concert with the Walla Walla University Steel Band at 8:30 p.m. in the Gesa Power House Theatre.

Mannette created the entire family of steel pan instruments, Gibson said.

“He was the first to sink a barrel. He was the first to anneal the metal, which happened by accident, but he discovered that it improved the sound. He also developed better tuning techniques.”

In the late 1970s, Bertie Marshall discovered how to tune harmonics into the notes to sustain them.

“After this development,” Gibson said, “the instrument was finally ready for the concert hall.”

Indeed, steel pans have been incorporated into many music genres.

At the Power House, the audience will hear steel pans playing classical Bach and Chopin; the music of Harold Arlen, composer of “Over the Rainbow;” calypso; and Spiro Gyra’s jazz. The performance also will include local jazzmeister Mike Agidius

Gibson’s own love affair with steel pan started in 1968, according to his bio on his website at www.twotreesmusic.com .

Then an 8-year-old, he heard a U.S. Navy Steel band at a parade in his native Wichita, Kan. Inspired, he took his round metal snow saucer and hammered it into a four-note steel instrument.

A drummer, vibraphonist and keyboardist since he was 5, he holds a master’s in music performance from Wichita State University, where he led his own 16-piece steel pan group “Pan America Steel Orchestra.”

In 2004 he spent two months in Trinidad and became a national champion as a member of the 120-player strong “Exodus Steel Orchestra” in that year’s annual Panorama competition.

His most recent award from Trinidad came as first-prize winner in two out of three categories of the 2008 “Symphony and Steel’ orchestral composition contest.

Still, Gibson says, the steel pan as an instrument “is in its adolescence.”

“It has proven its usefulness in music, but still has a lot of what we might call ‘baggage’ to overcome: the strong geographic identity that so defines the average listener’s preconceived notions of what music the instrument is ‘supposed to play,’ and a reputation as being something of a ‘party’ instrument.”

Eventually, he said, it won’t be thought of as an “ethnic” instrument any more than the guitar or saxophone once were thought of in that way.

“All instruments go through a process to become assimilated and accepted into the broader musical world, and the steel pan in going through that process right now, which is why it is such a fascinating time to be a pan player,” Gibson said.

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