This is a thorough and well written account putting the story of the emergence of the steel band in its cultural and historical perspectives. Today, the steel band is at the centre of world music: it is heard on film sound tracks and is very evident at Carnivals everywhere. A further sign of its acceptance was the recent honouring of Sterling Betancourt (who became a pan player in spite of his mother’s objections) with an M.B.E. for services to steel band music.
The first steel band was formed on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. The book explains that many different peoples came to Trinidad bringing their own musical traditions. The original inhabitants, the Carib and Arawak, made music with log drums and gourds. Drum culture was also important to the people of Africa who were brought to Trinidad. Drums were banned in the 1930s by the colonial authorities and the Tambou Bambou bands came about and led dancing at Carnival. Then came the idea of beating metal containers and tins – available because of the oil industry – to make music. The book is alive with interesting stories and anecdotes. We learn how the calypso singer Carlton Forde began to make sounds using an empty paint tin can he found at a roadside. Soon all kinds of metal containers and objects were tried out and the steel pan band was born. Musicians worked hard to refine the notes on the steel pans but it was not until 1951 and the tour of Britain by the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) that the authorities in Trinidad recognized the importance of the steel band.
The clear organization of the book in eleven chapters will help take older primary children a good step from less text-rich information books towards coping with more mature non-fiction. Perhaps an index or glossary would have been helpful, although technical terms are clearly explained at the point at which they are mentioned. We learn in chapter 9, ‘Pounding the pan’, that the side of the steel pan is called ‘the skirt’ and that ‘coarse tuning’ achieves the correct pitch for each note.
This would be a splendid addition to the music section of any primary school library. Its aesthetic appeal – vibrant end pages, interesting photographs and bright artwork, quality paper and an uncluttered appearance – would make it a pleasure to read and own.