Every instrument is a piece of history—but some instruments possess a story that is more intriguing than others. Around 1900, the British government ruled the island of Trinidad, an island populated mostly by African descendants.
The government feared that a population so large had potential to overthrow the government. As a result, the British government decided to stop a musical uprising before it happened. All musical instruments were banned, but the government would loan out musical instruments if you received approval.
What the government didn’t realize was the role that music played in Trinidad’s culture. This led to the invention of the steel drum. In 1939, around the time of World War II, the steel drum was born.
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During Keene State College’s Faculty Recital entitled “KSC Caribbean Night,” Murray Mast, James Walker, Christopher Swist, Don Baldini, and Julian Gerstin made sure to convey to their audience the significance of the steel drum not only in today’s culture, but also in Trinidadian culture.
During the recital, Murray Mast, professor of music, said, “The poor people had no musical instruments whatsoever including drums they had crafted themselves,” he continued, “The first thing they did was find pieces of bamboo and use them as stamping tubes, and hollow out the inside of the bamboo.”
However, bamboo did not produce the notes that the people of Trinidad desired. They soon realized that metal would produce a much louder sound. The people soon started to beat on cookie tins, Mast said during the recital.
These cookie tins were beat in order to create bubbles on its surface, which would then determine the pitch. Legend has it that a young boy named Spree Simon invented the steel drum. The boy would beat the pan to get the notes he desired—what he didn’t realize that when you try to beat back metal it stretches which creates bubbles on the surface of the metal. These bubbles are what creates the different pitches, Mast said during the performance.
The recital, which was held on Friday, Sept. 21, is the first of its kind to appear at the Redfern Arts Center. Christopher Swist, professor of music, said, “Nothing like this has ever happened in my 10 years here, so it is a neat little fun thing that we are hoping to make a tradition out of.”
“There are some local steel drum bands in the area but it is still a rare opportunity for students to hear and especially hear from someone [Mast] who has been there, and who has visited there and who knows the style,” Swist said.
Mast, who teaches half of the percussion studio here at KSC, not only plays the steel drums, but also studies the culture of it as well. “Murray has been to Trinidad and Tobago. He played in a couple of the bands there and studied how they do the authentic music there,” Swist said.
KSC Caribbean Night was an opportunity for Mast to educate the crowd on the legends and the folklore surrounding the steel drum and the Trinidadian culture, according to Swist. These steel drums that are a staple in the Trinidadian culture are made out of authentic 55 gallon oil barrels, according to Swist.
These barrels, which look like the insides of turtle shells, are hammered into the shape the musicians desire. Mast said during the recital that “somebody has to take a sledgehammer and their job is to sink the drum and they have to go around and stretch the metal,” he continued, “The next person’s job is to put the notes in and they will take a hammer and punch a section off each of the individual notes. Nowadays, they will have a magnet that is the right size and will trace around the magnets and get those sizes. The last job is to burn it over a fire and redistribute local tensions.”
After this process, these hammered oil barrels are ready to create melodies. All of the songs played during the faculty recital helped bring a little bit of the Caribbean here to the KSC campus. KSC senior Miriam Sharrock said that the concert “transports you to the Caribbean.” The evening included popular songs such as “I Shot the Sheriff,” by Bob Marley, “Yellow Bird,” by Michael Mauleart Monton, and “Georgia on My Mind,” by Hoagy Carmichael.
“Yellow Bird,” which was originally believed to be written by singer Harry Belafonte, has been traced back to Haitian roots, according to Mast. “This speaks to the amount of borrowing of melodies in Trinidad,” Mast said during the recital. Mast added that many players would set lyrics to melodies they already knew so they can sing-a-long right away.
However, for Swist, “Yellow Bird” was not the only song that he was looking forward to playing. Swist said that their version of “Summertime” by George Gershwin was the song he was looking forward to most. Swist played drums during the performance, along with Mast on steel drums, guest artist James Walker on steel drums, Don Baldini on bass guitar, and Julian Gerstin on percussion. The ensemble played a cha-cha version of “Summertime,” a performance that gave Swist his own drum solo.
However, unlike this band of five players, steel drum bands usually consist of 20 to 25 players, Mast said. But Swist said that his group, who call themselves Harmony of Steel, have been playing together for quite some time. Mast, Swist, and Walker have been playing with one another for over 15 years, Swist said.
Swist said he hopes this won’t be the last time the five play together at a Caribbean Night, rather he said this is a tradition he hopes to continue— bringing the Caribbean to KSC.
Sam Norton can be contacted at