You are here

Pan is everywhere

…pop, jazz, country, hip hop, electronica, and more
Published: 
Monday, August 28, 2017

When American country music artist Hank Snow penned the famous song I’ve Been Everywhere (that has since been adapted by Trinidad Rio), little did he know that the song’s catch line would be true for T&T’s national instrument.

It is no secret that today steelpan is found throughout the globe with new steelbands cropping up all the time; yet, it is also worth noting that steelpan is now routinely featured in almost every style of music imaginable. This is especially true of popular music genres where it is becoming increasingly common to hear steelpan in pop, rock, country, electronic music, hip hop, and contemporary classical.

Steelpan music has also made its way into films, television, commercials and commercial advertising, and indeed, everywhere.

Modern pop embraces pan

The most recent example of steelpan’s place in pop music is the new album released by young DJ, electronic music producer, songwriter and instrumentalist Mura Masa. The self-title album Mura Masa includes a couple of tracks that prominently feature steelpan in a complex, layered mix.

Mura Masa, aka Alex Crosson, grew up on the isolated Guernsey island in the UK but moved to London two years ago, Crosson started getting exposed to steelpan player near the subway station in Brixton. As he recently told NPR, the steelpan is “such a dynamic sound, it’s percussive and melodic at the same time.”

Mura Masa uses steelpan on the 2016 track Love$ick that has had almost 30 million hits on YouTube and a newly released track Second 2 None which also features quirky French pop phenome Christine and the Queens.

French pan player Clement Blazin has created a unique steelpan and pop mix that suggests that the newest acoustic instrument is becoming popular in the newest electronic music.

Other examples of steelpan in pop music abound, such as Regina Spektor who added steelpan to Don’t Leave Me (Ne Me Quitte Pas), and openly dreams of her fans dancing the limbo at her concerts. Jaime XX, the British dance producer, employs the steelpan in a lot of his recent work.

More recently pop artists Selena Gomez in Me & the Rhythm (2015) and the heartthrob pop singer Nick Jonas in his hit Close (2016) have been lacing steelpan into their songs.

Pan plays in classic pop

Pop music’s interest in steelpan, despite its recent surge, goes back decades. The Beaches Boy made it to number one on the charts in 1988 with their song Kokomo. The song featured the memorable line, “we’ll be falling in love to the rhythm of the steel drum band” and featured the late pan player Vince Charles who himself played in stadiums around the world touring with Neil Diamond for over 25 years.

In his Forty Years of Steel, Jeffrey Thomas identifies the first major pop record with steelpan as the Hollies’ 1967 recording of Carrie Ann, a top ten hit in both the US and UK. The track featured Trinidad steelpan pioneer Ralph Richardson who would later go on to be a major force for steelpan in Switzerland. Richardson was also featured on the Fleetwood Mac mega-selling album Penguin (1973). Meanwhile, a small band of pan players from Anguilla and St Kitts called the Tropical Isle Steel Band were featured on the Rod Stewart album Smiler (1974). New wave band Talking Heads featured an evocative but unidentified steelpan soloist on their catchy track, Uh-Oh, Love Comes to Town on their first album in 1977.

If there is anyone who has come to define the sound of steelpan in pop music albums it is the master Robert Greenidge. Since the 1970s, Greenidge has provided his distinct steelpan sound to a wide variety of artists including Barry Manlow, Carly Simon, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Harry Nilsson, the Temptations and Earth, Wind and Fire.

He toured with Taj Mahal for several years before joining Jimmy Buffet in 1983 and has been a core member of Buffett’s Coral Reefer band ever since. For many in the American cultural mainstream, Greenidge’s playing on Buffet recordings and at concerts is the sound of steelpan. More recently, Greenidge has been featured on Toby Keith’s hit Rum is the Reason on his latest album 35 MPH (2015).

Pan and Indie Rock

Steelpan has also made its way into the Indie Rock scene as well where groups like the Canadian-based Arcade Fire have embraced steelpan since 2012. Australian rockers Adventures in Helsinki’s fine Heart it Races (2007) has a prominent steelpan in the mix as does The Killers’s I Can’t Stay (2008).

In 1988, Jane’s Addiction featured steelpan on their hit Jane Says. To this end, pan player and rock musician Tracey Thornton has made a career of teaching rock and heavy metal tunes to school steelbands throughout the USA and is currently in production on a project featuring members of Kiss, Mr Big and Jane’s Addiction with a 50 piece steelband.

Pan and country music

Interestingly, steelpan has had a hold in Country music for quite awhile. There are steelpan bits in country songs by George Strait, Toby Keith, Charlie Pride, Kenny Chesney, Keith Steigall, Lee Greenwood, and many others. The go-to player for much of the steelpan work in Nashville (country music’s mecca) is Mat Britain who teaches at Vanderbilt University who is featured on Kenny Chesney’s platinum hit When the Sun Goes Down.

A common pairing: Pan, jazz and contemporary classic

In the world of jazz, Andy Narell and Othello Molineaux are some of the first pan players to be featured in jazz ensembles and have been stalwarts in the scene since the 1970s. Now, there are a number of young jazz pan artists including Victor Provost, Leon Foster Thomas, and Kareem Thompson who are regulars

in clubs, jazz festivals and other performance venues and all three have fine new albums out.

And no one is as hard working playing as many gigs as Jonathan Scales who has a unique style with elements of funk and who took his group on an extended State Department tour of China, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Taiwan earlier this year even collaborating with a Taiwanese group on a crop gathering song!

Contemporary classical music has had a fascination with steelpan as a sound since the 1960s; yet, its recently begun to take the instrument much more seriously. This is due in no small part to the efforts to commission new works from classical composers by virtuoso pan player Liam Teague and percussionist Josh Quillan who is a member of the leading group So Percussion.

Meanwhile composer Andy Akiho is busy writing pieces for all kinds of combinations of instruments including an amazing steelpan and string quartet piece In/Exchange which he performed several times last year with the excellent young Friction Quartet out of San Francisco. He has done pieces for small pan ensembles and an amazing pan and violin duet, Deciduous.

Akiho wrote a concerto for steelpan and orchestra that was premiered by Liam Teague with the National Symphony in Washington DC in 2015 and Akiho himself performs in various settings including in a spoken word group M is Black Enough with Trinidad poet Roger Bonair Agard.

Pan treading the boards

Since the 1950s, steelpan shows up on occasion in Broadway and theatre productions. Three pan players (Michael Alexander, Rod McClaverty, and Alphonso

Marshall aka Austin Stoker) who came to the US with Geoffrey Holder’s dance troupe performed in the Broadway musical House of Flowers starting in 1954 for 165 performances. Since then, steelpan has rarely been seen or heard on Broadway; however, the instrument is much more common in theatre performances staged in Trinidad and the greater Caribbean.

Last year, UK’s Donmar Warehouse had a celebrated production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in both London and New York with an all woman’s cast featuring the stunning Trinidadian actor Martina Laird in which several of the actors performed on a set of double seconds on stage.

Blockbuster scores feature pan

The television and film industries have long embraced steelpan. The 1962 Tom and Jerry cartoon Calypso Cat, for example, features a steelpan playing cat who gets the girl! Beyond cartoons, steelpan has been featured in movie soundtracks, including blockbusters such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Commando and 48 Hours. Perhaps the most extensive use of steelpan on any movie soundtrack is Brother from Another Planet (1984) which features Denzil Botus, Desperadoes Steel Orchestra legend, performing throughout the film on steelpan.

Walt Disney movies have a history of employing steelpans ranging from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) to Enchanted (2008). More recently, for the film Experimenter (2015) starring Wynona Ryder, composer Ross Holcombe arranged and performed a JS Bach violin piece on steelpan.

On television, steelpan has been a constant presence from Lord Inventor appearing on Captain Kangaroo in 1969 to the Bill Cosby Show episode with Alston Jack, a former Desperadoes Steel Orchestra member. Gee Rabe who is an accordion diva and a pan playing fiend has been a regular pan artist on television, movie and cartoon soundtracks and is featured in the Phoebe’s wedding episode in the sitcom Friends.

Cranking pan in hip hop

In the past 20 years, steelpan has been a favourite instrument of hip hop artists, many of whom like to sample and synthesize steelpan sounds. In 2003, 50 Cent featured steelpan prominently in his track Pimp, especially in the Snoop Dog remix. This was followed by the 2007 hit Crank Dat by Soulja Boy. These are just the tip of the iceberg as countless other hip hop artists continue to use steelpan in a variety of creative and interesting ways, including Big Sean, Charley Hood, Cash Out, Clipse, DG Yola, Cadillac Don & J-Money, and Chance the Rapper among others.

Pan is global

Every day schools are forming steel ensembles across the planet. Steelbands are traveling and competing in concerts, panoramas throughout the Caribbean in Brooklyn, Toronto, London, and Australia. There are a growing number of church and community steelbands in different countries. Steelpan soloists regularly perform on beaches and cruise ships and busking in the subways, and now permeating almost every facet of western music. Truly steelpan is everywhere.

• Ray Funk is a retired Alaskan judge and a Fulbright scholar who is passionately devoted to calypso, pan and mas. Dr Andrew Martin is an ethnomusicologist, percussionist, pannist, and Professor of Music at Inver Hills College in St Paul, Minnesota.