Beating music out of metal

The melodic steel drum from Trinidad is finding new followers


It was love at first sound.

About 25 years ago, Kevin Martin, then a guitar-happy high school freshman, walked into Ocean Pines Yacht Club with his parents and had what one might call an aural epiphany.

A couple of steel drummers were playing Caribbean music, and he'd never heard anything so sweet; like church bells in a giddy mood, like diamonds raining on a tin roof.

"The steel drum is a drum that plays melody. That's what's so weird about it," says Martin. "The closest thing to it is the talking drum from Africa."

He went on to earn a business degree from Cornell University, then worked a few years for his father's financial planning firm, but eventually surrendered to the "pan," as the steel drum is colloquially known in its native Trinidad.

Martin, now 38, plays in several pan bands and runs his Rockcreek Steel Drum School. He's also that rare off-islander who has mastered the craft of building (and selling) pans.

"He's a `pan jumbie,' " Jim Wharton, director of the Catonsville High School Steel Band, says of Martin. "That's a Trinidadian term. A jumbie is someone who's totally consumed by it."

Practitioners insist the steel drum can accommodate any musical genre, from classical to blues. But it's primarily associated with bouncy, sand-in-your-shoes rhythms, as much an accoutrement of summer as umbrella drinks.

Thanks in some measure to Jimmy Buffett and his pan-singed beach music, steel drumming is on the upswing. According to Angel Bice, president of the Akron, Ohio-based International Association of Pan, there are more than 3,000 players in the United States and about 400 bands, including nearly two dozen in Maryland. The tinkling of steel drums is heard as far away as China, Denmark and India.

"It's exploding," says Bice, adding that 50 colleges now make steel drums part of their music curriculum.

As yet, however, there are no standards for music notation or instrument design. That's because the steel drum barely predates World War II. It's still difficult to find teachers.

"Basically, you have to know someone," says Emrold Gray, a Trinidadian emigre who leads a Baltimore steel band. "It's not really a heavily advertised art, unfortunately."

Martin can vouch for that. When he and older brother Sean got the urge to try steel drumming after hearing that yacht-club band, they had no choice but to make their own. They bought a 55-gallon barrel from a heating supplier, sawed off the lower third - and started whacking away with a sledge hammer inside the family summer home.

Bang the bottom into a bowl shape and music happens, right?

Not quite. All the Martin boys managed to do was cut a large, circular divot out of the living room rug. Their parents didn't mind, though - because the kids never told them.

"We kinda rearranged the furniture and they didn't find out for a couple of years," says Sean Martin.

Kevin Martin stuck with drum making and, after lots of trial-and-error experimentation, got the steel to sing. The trick is learning how to heat the metal and dimple its surface, creating the bubbles - which vary in size from a nickel to a loaf of bread - that produce different notes when struck with a soft mallet.

Making the drum

The dank, low-ceiling basement of Martin's Crownsville home serves as his shop. He sits hunched on a stool, barrel bottom cradled between his thighs, holding a compressed-air hammer that wriggles like an electrified fish.

Four hundred mechanical blows a minute; 120 pounds per square inch of pressure. One slip of the hands and Martin's colon could become a colander.

"It's steel, so it's strong in one sense," he says, describing the shaping process. "But it's steel that's tuned in a really refined way, so it's also delicate."

Alison Tunison, a music teacher at Lutherville elementary school, got turned on to the steel drum five years ago and decided to launch a student band. Most manufacturers wanted $20,000 or more for a basic set of five drums. Martin sold her some for a fraction of that cost.

"I almost felt guilty taking them from him," says Tunison. "He makes it so that people can play an instrument he loves."

Four years ago, Martin accepted a solo pan-playing gig aboard a Caribbean cruise ship so that he and his wife, Greshen, could make a trip to Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago.

"It was like going to Mecca," says Martin.

While under British colonial rule, Trinidadians endured several periods where drums of any kind were outlawed by authorities, who feared they inspired gang violence and political unrest. As an alternative, locals reached for biscuit tins and garbage can lids, eventually graduating to empty oil barrels.

By the 1950s, those barrels had found their voices through shaping and tuning. The government decided to harness that energy, opting to combat gang activity by turning drumming into musical competition. It worked.

The `pan yards'

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