Drums of Steel
Powerful percussion: The Art of Trinidadian Pan
Maksim Kolerich, one of Royle’s devoted students, hits the pans with him for a weekly lesson.
Photo by Stan Godlewski
There is little space to move in the back room of Jim Royle’s drum studio in Bridgeport. Amplifiers, music books, and percussion instruments of different shapes, sizes, and countries of origin occupy nearly every square foot. Among the latter are snares, a marimba, a drum kit and—notably—a steelpan.
Royle’s studio is unique not only because it’s the only music school in the area that focuses solely on percussion, but because of its offerings in the art of steelpan. Steelpan is a Trinidadian export and a product of the percussive innovations of the country’s poor in the early 20th century. “It’s not that old of an instrument. We’re talking about the late 1930s and 1940s when it started to evolve. It went from hitting on paint cans, pots, and pans to what you see today,” Royle says, seated on a stool amid the stock of drums.
Traditionally crafted out of used oil drums, steelpans are more commonly constructed today using sheet metal stretched onto a cylinder, in the sides of which oval-shaped dents of varying sizes are hammered. When struck with a mallet, the larger the oval, the lower the pitch produced. The depth of the cylinder, number of dents, and thickness of the metal are also manipulated to alter the sound.
“You have all the different instruments in a pan ensemble. There’s the lead pan that plays melody, you have triple cellos, and the full bass. You have the whole orchestra, but on pan,” Royle explains.
Steelpan began to be disseminated in the 1940s, when U.S. Naval officers stationed on the island took a liking to the native music. The sound further spread when, in 1967, the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband was sent by the Trinidadian government to play at the World’s Fair in Montreal and was subsequently asked to tour with superstar pianist Liberace.
Today in America, the New York Steelband Panorama competition draws some of the world’s top bands to Brooklyn every September. And though steelpan isn’t commonly heard on the radio, in 2015 a British producer showcased steelpan sounds on his critically acclaimed Caribbean-infused electronica album, In Colour. Nick Jonas’s 2016 single “Close,” which reached number 14 on the Billboard Hot 100, also featured steelpan prominently.
Still, Royle considers it a niche instrument in the States. “Steelpan keeps getting bigger and bigger. It’s very happening in parts of the South, Midwest, and California. But in general I think it would still be considered a small community of players,” he says. Royle stumbled upon steelpan by chance when a college professor brought him to a percussion convention.
“I was like a kid in a candy store. It was the energy it exudes and the rhythm that comes across on pan. I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” says Royle, recalling excitedly his first experience with the music. Looking youthful in a backwards cap, a shirt that reads “Pan Life,” and a stud in his left ear, he seems to have lost none of that early enthusiasm despite 30 years in the business.
Royle has been teaching since he was 23, first in the basement of his Bridgeport home, and now in his Wood Avenue headquarters. Over time, the operation has expanded to include a staff of two. They teach 100 lessons a week and lead percussion ensembles that travel internationally. One destination is Trinidad, where Royle will return this year to perform with his top high-school students.
“I’ve studied with people from Trinidad, but I felt like I needed to go to the motherland where it was invented,” Royle says. His students were awestruck by the native Trinidadian music, and were fascinated by the steelpan yards—where pannists, as the performers are known, gather to make and practice their instruments.
“The raw metal, the grit and grime of making it, that’s what it’s all about. It’s the real thing over there, and it gives you a lot more respect for steelpan,” Royle explains.
LOCAL OUTREACH To give back to his community Royle created the Student-to-Student Initiative in 2009 to offer free lessons to underprivileged Bridgeport youth interested in panning.