Steel drums add ‘island flavor’ to Christmas

2013-11-22T06:30:00Z 2013-12-11T20:30:20Z Steel drums add ‘island flavor’ to Christmas

The Islanders Steel Band is bringing some “island flavor” to Christmas classics on Monday, in concert and on a new album.

At the beginning of the semester, University of Montana music professor Robert Ledbetter and his students got to work arranging familiar tunes and carols for the least wintry of instruments, the steel drum.

They didn’t tinker too much with standards like Mel Torme’s ballad “Sleigh Ride,” but others were arranged into new shapes. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” will get a Latin rhythm; “Jingle Bells” becomes a samba, resulting a bit of “guess the tune in a new rhythm.”

“The melody is there, but the background is so much more different than the usual version,” Ledbetter said.

The songs were cut at the beginning of the month in a one-day recording session. Ledbetter thought it could raise some money for future projects while also teaching the students about the recording process.

On Monday, the band will hold a CD release concert on campus. Before the main Christmas event, the Percussion Ensemble will perform several works including two tangos by Astor Piazzola, a mallet ensemble jig and a piece based upon Japanese Taiko drumming.

Steel drums date back to 1930s Trinidad, when the island was still a colony. The British government had forbidden native music, but the Trinidadians developed ways around the rules, using items like bottles, pans and bamboo. Soon they were developing the first steel drums from paint cans and oil barrels.

To make a modern steel drum, Ledbetter said craftspeople “sink the pan” with sledgehammers. They then measure out the notes in the surface, make an indentation around each one. Then they turn it over and beat it out from the inside, creating the convex shape. It includes a series of “bumps” that the musicians strike to sound notes.

The Islanders Steel Band is a 15-piece steel band, with 17 players rotating among the instruments.

First up are the four “single pans,” which are sometimes called “lead pans” – think “leader,” not metal. These have a range of about 2 1/2 octaves or roughly 28 notes.

Next are a pair of “double second” pans, which have the same range as the leads, but are lower in register. There’s one set of triple guitars, so called because of their rhythmic similarity to the stringed instrument. Then there’s one set of cellos and one set of basses.

The latter are made from oil barrels.

“They cut the shell so it’s only about 5 or 6 inches deep,” Ledbetter said. These deepest of pans are limited to only three notes each, so a bass pan player ends up playing about six of them.

Musically, this means it’s a little more cumbersome, Ledbetter said. With the limited range per barrel, playing a line that wouldn’t give an upright bass player any trouble would require far too much movement for a steel drum player.

Ledbetter came to UM in 1990, two years before the steel band started. He’s added more instruments over the years to get the group to its current size, which is typical of a steel drum band.

But there’s only so much it can grow.

“We don’t have any more room in our building anyway,” he said.

Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at

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