Steel Away

BY Emily Colin

Legend has it that in the early 1940s a 12-year-old Trinidadian boy named Winston “Spree” Simon invented the first steel drum by happenstance. He’d lent a friend a kettledrum and when it was returned the drum was bent concave. While hammering it back into shape with a stone Simon discovered that the process created different notes … and the steel pan was born.

The seed of the steel pan revolution was planted when British authorities in Trinidad outlawed the skin drums used by freed African slaves. The disenfranchised musicians first turned to bamboo drums then to metal. By the late 1930s gangs of rebellious percussionists were roaming the streets of Trinidad playing trash can lids biscuit tins pots and pans and even discarded car parts. It was in this context that Simon made his discovery.

Ellie Mannette a Trinidadian friend of Simon’s is recognized as the originator of the modern steel pan made from 55-gallon oil drums and featuring convex notes on a concave surface. Today he resides in West Virginia and his steel drums have been displayed in the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Wilmington’s own Vince Stout founder of the Sea Pans Steel Drum Ensemble apprenticed under Mannette who taught him how to make tune and play the steel pans. Stout who holds a degree in music education from East Carolina University says “I get my drums from junkyards around town. I look for a certain grade of steel. Then I tap the bottom of the drum. You can tell if it makes a good or a bad tone. Next I get a sledgehammer and just wail on it hammering it into a concave shape.” This process is called sinking the drum.

“Each instrument has a specific depth ” Stout says. The deeper the voice of the instrument the shallower the pan is sunk. “The pitches don’t exist naturally in the metal; they’re put there with a hammer ” he says. Next he puts the drum over a fire to re-harden the metal and remove localized tension. Finally the completed drum undergoes repeated tunings to get the pitches just right.

The work which Stout does in his garage and backyard is time-consuming but rewarding. “A lead drum takes four or five months to make and sells for about $500 or $600 ” he says. “It’s a labor of love taking that piece of junk and making harmonious tones.”

The lead drum has the most notes and highest range in the steel pan family and it plays the melody. In his crowded garage studio Stout showcases lead pans as well as double seconds double tenors bass and tenor bass cello guitar mini-pans and his own invention: the quantum bass pan. All of his drums are painted with bright colors and bear the name of his band the Sea Pans.

“The Sea Pans are authentic all steel drums ” he says. “We don’t use electricity so I like to joke that we’re a greener band. The acoustic nature of the drum has taken us places that other bands can’t go like Masonboro Island.”

The group plays traditional steel pan music including calypso bossa nova soca and Latin tunes and ranges in size from one to 20 players depending on the event. Stephen Brand who plays bass pans with the Sea Pans trio at the Holiday Inn SunSpree on Tuesday evenings says “Steel drums are all about patterns. Unlike most instruments you only have a set amount of notes to play. You need to be musical with what you have. The steel drum is the newest acoustical instrument in the world. It’s got a unique sound … you can’t hear anything else like it.” It’s a sound that has attracted some interesting and accomplished area musicians.

Percussionist Mona Black who holds a Ph.D. in music education from the University of South Carolina sometimes plays with the Sea Pans. Her Oleander Drive studio is a percussion aficionado’s wonderland complete with marimbas drum kit glockenspiel vibraphone timpani congas bongos log drums and — you guessed it — cello and lead pans. Black who leads the handbell choir at St. John’s Episcopal Church plays the steel pans with her husband each year at the Festival of Trees as well as at weddings and churches.

Educator and percussionist Dave Di Muro founder of Wilmington-based Pantastic Steel teaches music at Lincoln Elementary and sometimes plays steel drums with his students. “It’s a great instrument for kids ” he says. “Once they find the touch it’s very physical.” Di Muro who has played drums with the Wilmington Big Band since 1999 first played steel pans in 1995 when he was getting his master’s degree in music performance from East Carolina University.

“I love the sound. It’s magical ” he says. “Steel drums have a large dynamic range. They’re very expressive.”

Unlike the Sea Pans who play traditional steel drum music with a minimum of vocals Pantastic Steel play a hybrid of traditional beach and party tunes. They encourage audience participation and hand out shakers to the crowd. “We sing Belafonte Jump the Line Buffett … It’s a mix of modern Caribbean songs ” Di Muro says.

An adaptable percussionist Eduardo Somech has played with both the Sea Pans and Pantastic Steel. He also does solo gigs; you can find him every Thursday night 7 p.m. at Wrightsville Beach’s King Neptune Restaurant. It’s hard to imagine him being more at home however than he is in Room 400 at Murrayville Elementary School.

Somech has a gift. He can inspire children to trade recess for rehearsal aloofness for friendship academic indifference for determination … all through the miracle of music.

What’s his secret? The music teacher at Murrayville Elementary School and a talented musician in his own right Somech founded the school’s Percussion Ensemble to encourage a select group of students that needed an extra boost. Participation in the ensemble is by invitation only. “The ensemble brings together kids who wouldn’t normally hang out ” Somech says. “Some are in the band because they need it and others because they deserve it.”

The ensemble is a model of diversity. The nine-member group which includes five boys and four girls incorporates African-American Japanese Latino and Caucasian students. Most of the students are fourth-graders but one is in second grade and one is in fifth. Some of them are shy and some are boisterous; some are academic achievers and others struggle; some come from middle-class homes and others from public housing. In Room 400 of Murrayville Elementary none of these distinctions matter. When they cross this threshold the students are percussionists and proud of it.

“This is their recess time ” Somech says. “They want to be in here. They define themselves by this group. They see themselves as a family.”

The Murrayville Percussion Ensemble is distinguished by more than its commitment and amazing chemistry. It is the only student group in New Hanover County to incorporate the steel drum.

These kids are on the ball; recently they performed for school superintendents from across the state at the Blockade Runner’s Progress Energy Leadership Conference. Consummate professionals they file out of the room without instruction preparing for a proper stage entrance. Fourth-grader Lauren Hester enters kneels on the floor and holds down the beat with her contrabass. Her hands are confident and sure as the mallets strike the bass bars.

One by one the students walk to their instruments. Ike Mitchell stands in the center of the group laying out the melody on lead pan with a calm air of leadership. To Ike’s right stands second-grader Timothy Miller playing the djembe. A beatific smile graces his face as he drums. Carina Reyes Loan Li and Amber Elderdice kneel and soon the bright ringing notes of their xylophones fill the room. Tyler Coulter takes his place behind the brightly colored bass pans — created by none other than Vince Stout — Kyle Pucci slips behind the guitar pans Anthony Prado lifts the mallets for the bass xylophone and voilà: Room 400 is transformed into an Afro-Caribbean cabana by the sea!

With his customary enthusiasm Somech threads between the instruments and takes up the drum kit. He’s having as much fun as his students dancing to the music as he plays. The song ends and as in a well-choreographed game of musical chairs many of the students switch instruments. Somech himself ends up behind the bass pans. He calls out “This song is African. It’s derived from Zimbabwe.”

The students lift their voices in a chant all the while continuing to play. When Ike Mitchell takes a solo on lead pan the other students turn to look at him waiting for their cues to come in. They’re a fluid well-attuned team and at this moment they shine.

“These kids are the stars of the school and they know it ” Somech says. Some students such as Mitchell who lives in public housing have been profoundly changed by the experience. “The percussion ensemble gives Ike a sense of belonging ” says Somech. “Before he was a shadow kid. Now his self-being has changed. He sees himself as a musician.”

Mitchell isn’t the only one. Fourth-grader Anthony Prado says what he’s learned from the Percussion Ensemble is he’s discovered more than a passion — he has found a potential career. “I definitely want to be a musician ” he says. “I found out that all famous musicians started out just like us.”

Want to hear the upbeat rhythms of the steel drums? Here’s where you can catch them.

Eduardo Somech

King Neptune Restaurant
Wrightsville Beach Thursdays 7:30 p.m.


Sea Pans Steel Drum Ensemble

Holiday Inn SunSpree
Wrightsville Beach Tuesdays 7-10 p.m.

First Friday Concert Series
Airlie Gardens August 3 6-8 p.m.

Soundside Concert Series
Surf City September 1 6:30-8:30 p.m.


Pantastic Steel

Bluewater Grill Wrightsville Beach July 15 4-8 p.m.
August 19 4-8 p.m.

Cameron Art Museum Wilmington
August 10 time TBD