The Journey of ‘Gertrude’
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure…”
It was a fateful day back in February of 2007 when history collided with a modern day pan-enthusiast (steel drums are known as steel pans)… Suddenly a man born and raised in the heart of the Midwestern United States was staring at a piece of history born from a rich and luscious history thousands of miles away on a Caribbean island known as Trinidad. I immediately knew what I was looking at when my friend James said, “There she is…what do you think?”
How did this meeting come about? James Meadows is from East Tennessee and was given this drum many years ago by a generous neighbor. This neighbor was a widow that spent her days traveling the world, exploring all that it had to offer her. Apparently during a trip to Trinidad in the 1960s, she bought this drum to bring home to her son. Now, realize that pan is an obscure instrument of sorts today, and most assuredly was back during this time. Most American’s encounters with an authentic steel drum band occurred either by traveling overseas or perhaps a concert by the US Navy Steel Band or a rare World’s Fair appearance. So unfortunately when the pan arrived in East Tennessee, it was to little fanfare.
The steel pan has an extremely rich and interesting history: one that was born not on the backs of the elite, but through the blood and passion of Trinidad’s youth. Prior to the 1940s, Trinidad saw the emergence of Tamboo Bamboo bands. Basically using what was available to them, they would march the streets hitting bamboo rods of varying lengths on the ground to produce pitches (like something you would see in a modern day “Blue Man Group”, or “Stomp” production). Metal instruments accompanied this as well, literally using pots and pans, biscuit tins, etc. The “folklore” of the origins of the steel pan is that a man named Winston Spree Simon loaned his mother’s biscuit tin to someone in a band. Upon receiving the tin back, he noticed that there were dents. Fearing the repercussions of his mother’s wrath for returning a dented biscuit tin, he sat down to flatten the bumps with a hammer. Much to his amazement, hitting the bump created a pitch. Thus, the idea and concept behind the steel pan was born.
Throughout the following years, many people began experimenting with putting dents on metal surfaces. The competition was fierce, fueling a highly creative environment. The exact date that a steel pan was put on an oil drum; no one is able to say for certain. However, there is one man that is generally regarded as one of the first (if not the first) to put notes on an oil drum. His name is Ellie Mannette.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Ellie Mannette on a few occasions. His passion for the instrument is unparalleled and he has done an immeasurable amount of work to insure the future of this instrument. As soon as I had this pan (which I decided to nickname “Gertrude”) I took some pictures and sent them to Ellie. I had a wonderful conversation with him, hearing stories of the way things were back then, the history of the instrument, and where he sees things now, and heading into the future. It was such a pleasure to hear the enthusiasm in his voice as coming across this instrument brought back many memories for him.
From our conversation, we were able to surmise that this instrument must have been created between the years of 1946 to 1950. To put this into perspective, this is almost like discovering one of the first violins ever created. The fact of the matter is that although these drums may have been fairly accessible during that time, it is extremely rare to find one this old today. In fact Ellie stated that in the last 15-20 years he’s only come across perhaps one or two other drums like this. Truly a gem to come across! (Note the diagram and brief explanation)
So here we are as the circle begins to come together. An early pan made that trip from Trinidad to Tennessee and went into a ‘hibernation’ of sorts with attics and barns being its new home. I’m so thankful to James for not throwing this instrument away. Although he didn’t have much desire to play it, he at least recognized its significance as a unique instrument. As a novice scholar on the history of pan, you can imagine my amazement as my eyes peered onto this instrument for the first time. I immediately knew that this was a historical artifact that needed a proper place.
To add “icing to the cake,” as they say, I was very happy to realize that most of the notes are still pretty discernable. The next step was to share this instrument with everyone. I’ve been traveling with this drum, sharing it at clinics and public performances. It serves as a great tool to talk about the rich history of Trinidad and gives us a glimpse into the soul found not only in the steel pan art form, but the island and people from which it originated. I decided to produce a homemade video (you can find it on my Video page), have some music on my upcoming CD (you can check the MP3 clip on this page), and have a complete steel band arrangement called “Like Dey Used to…” suitable for college, high school, or any other steel band program (Check out www.ramajay.com for more information).
Because of James Meadows’ generosity, “Gertrude” can once again do what it was created for: making music and moving the hearts, soul, and imagination of people. Thanks for reading and listening. I’d love to hear your input, or perhaps you have an interesting story as well?