The sound of the Caribbean is the soul of Trinidad
The sound of the Caribbean was born from a 55-gallon oil drum on the island of Trinidad.
With its distinct ring and chime, the steel pan instantly evokes the chill vibes we associate with the Caribbean more generally. Commonly known as the steel drum, it's estimated that the instrument has migrated to more than 50 countries around the world. But the sound of the steel pan, designated in the 1990s as the national instrument of Trinidad, tells a uniquely Trinidadian story of resilience, ingenuity and enduring community.
It's a story that's hard to miss in February in Tunapuna, the steel pan capital of Trinidad, where local ensembles of as many as 3,000 pan players practice for the country's annual Carnival celebrations. And it all begins with the poetry and craftsmanship that transform the discarded scraps of industry into the stuff of music.
At the family-owned Gillpans Limited, owner Merlin "Mutt" Gill and his team apply a mix of fire, brute force and fine-tuning to create their instruments.
After a spent oil barrel is drained and its residue burned away, the pan maker uses a handheld pneumatic hammer to gradually pound the flat bottom into a concave bowl guided by lines carefully measured out and marked with a permanent marker.
The craftsman then continues to pound and mold the shape, using patterns to mark the location of the notes on the chromatic scale.
As the work gets to be more delicate, a tuner takes over. While a note map comes in handy, a tuner's sense of pitch almost becomes an instrument in itself, finely calibrated to resonate with the subtle variations along the scale.
Those vibrations spoke to Jeannine Remy. A native of Wisconsin, Remy studied percussion at Northern Illinois University and the University of Arizona before moving to Trinidad, where she teaches percussion at the University of the West Indies.
Dr. Remy speaks about steel pans with a spark in her eyes and a reverence for the role the instrument plays in Trinidad beyond music. The steel pan unifies Trinidadians, teaches young people how to work together and rallies them around a source of national pride.
We follow Dr. Remy from campus to a panyard, where a large band of young pan players will rehearse a piece she arranged for the upcoming Carnival. Hundreds of thousands of people will gather to watch every steel pan band march the streets of the capital, Port of Spain, competing for a $1-million prize.
The conductor stands before the band, using a cowbell to set a gradually quickening tempo as the players learn to play the arrangement faster and faster. What begins as an arrhythmic collection of notes crescendos into a complex, exuberant interplay of gorgeous sounds.
The music stays with us the next morning as we make our way out of the city to Maracas Beach on the northern coast. It echoes in the vibration of the wheels on the road, in the palm trees dancing in the wind and the waves undulating on the beach.
It fades, ever so slowly, with the end of the day.