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Shabang! Steel Drum Band: Bio

Out With Shabang!

Ask any Caribbean musician in the San Francisco Bay Area if he's heard of Harry Best.The answer is a resounding "Yes."

In fact, Harry is a true Caribbean steel drum music pioneer in the area.

Harry Best and Shabang have a charismatic fresh steel drum pan sound that always has people asking: "Who are these guys?" "Where are they from?"

A native of St. Lucia, Harry is a seasoned songwriter whose music has had more notoriety than his steel drum band. For years, he's written hit songs for artists such as the late Caribbean international superstar, ‘Arrow’.

His lyrics are arresting, his melodies sweet, and the rhythms infectious. He is just as comfortable being the romantic, the rebel or the mystic. Add to that his accomplished skills on the steel drum pan and you have the foundation of Shabang’s music.

But ask Harry and he'll tell you that the real secret to Shabang's charm is their fun-loving approach to their performances.

"We go out to have fun with each other, first of all,” Harry says, “and we project that in our music. For the audience, the contagion is hard to resist."

A feature of Shabang's music is the enchanting sound of their steel drums. Affectionately known as "pans", steeldrums are handcrafted and finely tuned from 55-gallon oil barrels.

Dexter Bruce, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and a veteran steel drum pan player, formerly of Our Boys Steel Orchestra brings that special radiance to the Shabang steel drum sound.

Bass player Ed (Mac) McCarver is the pillar of the band. Says Harry: "Most of my compositions are written off bass lines...and I know I can depend on Mac to be in the pocket with an almost digital precision."

Mac's versatility and facility with the different Caribbean music genres give that consistent pulse that is the special trademark of Shabang's steel drum music.

Drummer Tyrone Gray is also another veteran musician from the Our
Boys corral of talent that's spread all over the Bay Area. He creates that pocket for Mac that translates into a tight groove.

History of the steel drum

"Everybody wondering how de steel band start
When you get to know, it will break your heart
I tell you now, it was founded by one Winston Spree
And this is how he started his first melody:
Be do be dom, tom ping, tom ping."
—Calypsonian Lord Kitchener

The sociological roots of Steel Drums /Pan go back to the 1800s, in Laventille, a community east of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Laventille was settled by freed African slaves with a strong tradition of drumming and percussion bands that paraded the streets during Carnival and other celebrations.

Colonial authorities were so afraid that the Africans were using their drums to pass secret messages encouraging revolt, outlawed the traditional drums. Riots and conflict between the natives and the authorities subsequently led to the banning of drum processions.

Not to be denied the expression of their traditional rhythms, the Africans crafted makeshift drums from hollow bamboo called “tamboo bamboo”. Around the mid-1930s, these street bands began to incorporate metal objects like garbage can lids, pots and pans, and biscuit tins because these objects were louder and more durable than bamboo. They became known as all-steel bands, or "steel bands" by the end of the 1930s.

By chance, it was discovered that bumps of different sizes in the bottom of a can, as a result of repetitive beating, could produce sounds of various pitches. Some players then started to experiment with tuning the cans and playing melodies on them.

Many historians point to Winston "Spree" Simon as the inventor of the first melodic steel drum pan. One account is that in 1946, during the first Carnival held after the World War II ban, Simon caused a sensation when he came out with a 14-note pan, made from a small oil drum.

It didn’t take long for other musicians to copy the instrument, and Trinidad’s rhythm drum bands soon evolved into music bands.

Ellie Mannette, a cohort of Simon’s, who was also a metallurgist, is said to be the first to start experimenting with the 55-gallon oil barrel (the standard for today’s pans). Ellie hammered the barrels concave, trimmed and heated it to make the metal stronger and more able to retain notes in tune. He then hammered from the underside to create convex lumps on the concave surface. With that approach, he was able to create a drum with two octaves of a diatonic scale.

Soon steel drum pans with chromatic scales followed. By the 1950s, the musical range was extended to include low-note bass pans. Then came the event that put Pan on the map. In 1951, the Trinidad All Percussion Steel Orchestra (TAPSO), a group of 10 all-star panmen that including both Simon and Mannette, was sent to represent Trinidad at the Festival of Britain in London.

The group wowed the Brits by playing not only Caribbean music but classical selections as well. They went on to tour England and France, playing on BBC radio and television.

Today, some steel drum orchestras have more than 300 pans spanning five octaves. They range from single "tenor" (soprano) steel drum pans of 29 chromatic notes, to sets of nine bass pans of three notes each, played by a single person.

Steel drum bands play music of all genres, from calypso and jazz to the Beatles and Bach. Trinidad’s Len "Boogsie" Sharpe is considered the world’s best pannist. He is often compared to jazz vibraphone great Milt Jackson. Sharpe has been showcased playing the steel drum pan upside down and harmonizing his own melody with a third playing stick.

the crafting of a steel drum

Pan tuner have de key to glory in his hand - Pan Passion

Traditionally, steel drum pans are made from 55-gallon oil barrels, although today custom barrels are fabricated for your more expensive instruments. A 40-pound sledgehammer (now hydraulic hammers) is used to stretch the bottom of the barrel into a concave bowl or dish shape.

This is called "sinking the pan". This stage can be very noisy and physically demanding. Craftsmen must stretch the metal evenly without tearing it or deforming the rim.

The depth to which the steel drum is sunk depends on the instrument being crafted. Basses are relatively shallow whilst the tenor steel drum pan is deeply dished giving a shrill sound. Sinking a steel drum pan can take up to 5 hours of hammering!

The next stage is the placement of the notes. A template is used to mark each note on the sunken head of the steel drum. Each note outline is then "grooved" using a steel punch and a hammer. Grooving the notes make the notes more visible and also serves to separate the vibrations of each note.

After grooving, the steel drum must be tempered to strengthen the metal. The barrel’s side, or "skirt", is cut to a designated length, and the bowl is placed over an open fire (some use blow torches) for a specified length of time.

After burning, the steel drum pan is allowed to cool off, or sometimes bathed in water to accelerate the process. This "tempering" process makes the metal a lot stronger and the barrelhead is now ready for tuning.

At this point, holes are drilled near the rim of the steel drum pan to hold wire loops from which the steel drum will hang. Using hammers of various sizes, the panmaker "pongs" each note from beneath, making them stand out like convex lumps. This creates the necessary tension for each note to vibrate at the correct pitch.

The panmaker sounds a tuning device, like a tuning fork, keyboard or a stroboscope, and carefully hammers at each note from the top, shaping it and smoothing the note area. Each note on the drumhead is tuned individually and in relation to the other notes. This requires tremendous patience at times.

It is important to note that during a steel drum pan's lifetime, it undergoes a lot of stress from playing and will require occasional fine-tuning. Often a note has to be tuned several times before the whole pan is fully "blended".

On average, a steel drum pan will need to be blended twice a year depending on how often and how hard it is played.

Finally, the finished steel drum pan is either painted in bright colors, or dipped in chrome to make them shine like silver. The chrome bath detunes the steel drum slightly, so it must be tuned again after chroming.