The Knack: How To Play The Steel Drums

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The Independent Culture
IT'S JUST like playing the drums, but with one important difference - as well as a rhythm you can also produce a melody on a steel drum. On a steel pan you've got the whole chromatic scale, ie the musical alphabet, and this has to be learnt, just as you would for any other instrument. Sometimes the notes are written on all the different indentations in the pan, but not always, so you have to keep practising until you remember where they all are.

It's best to start off on a lead pan, also called a tenor pan, but buying it and then just playing it on your own is pointless and would be pretty boring. You need to play with other people, and get into the whole culture of it. Go out and listen to as many bands as you can and find one to join.

Never hit the drums hard - it should be more of a touch than a hit. The notes should ring out like bells, you don't need to whack them to get a sound out of them. The sticks bounce off the metal because they're wrapped in rubber, and if you use too much force the metal will stretch, which changes the note and you'll get a different sound from the one you're trying to get.

Like every instrument, though, the drums need tuning occasionally, so hammers are used to tighten the metal and retune the note. You get tuners from all over the world and every one of them has got his own sound so you can choose the style you like and go to that person.

I've been playing the steel drums for 15 years now and I still love it. What's great about playing at the carnival is the size of the crowd you get - you're capturing a wide audience and they follow you all the way round the route just listening to your music. It's a bit like being the Pied Piper of Hamelin!

Interview by Fiona McClymont

Darren Francis is a member of the Ebony Steel Band (Panique Productions), who are eight times winners of the Steel Band's Panorama at the Notting Hill Carnival, which takes place this Saturday from seven until midnight