What is a Steel Band?

CultureMix Steel Band Festival 2018 RASPO perform image by Ben Taylor Hewitt

A steel band is a group of musicians who play music on steel pan instruments.

Steel pans are acoustic tuned percussion instruments recycled from oil drums, they are sometimes referred to as steel drums and originate from Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean.

A typical steel band will have a selection of steel pan instruments that can play any genre of music using melody (tenor and soprano pan), counter melody and harmony (double seconds and double tenors), chords (double and treble guitars) and bass lines (tenor bass, bass pans).

The steel band may keep the beat using a drum kit and hand percussion like congas, scratchers and scrapers. This part of the band is called the engine room.

A very small steel band of two to four musicians is sometimes known as a steel ensemble. A large steel band is called a steel percussion orchestra.

Steel bands are best known for playing Caribbean music called calypso but can play any type of music including pop, jazz, gospel, reggae and classical.

Steel ensemble
An ensemble is a small steel band of either a duo, trio or quartet. Small steel bands are popular for weddings and reception events. Usually made up of melody and chords for the duo, for a trio another tenor pan is added for more melody or hand percussion. A quartet may have three steel pan instruments and percussion.

Steel band
A typical example of a steel band is a five, six or seven piece ensemble with a drummer. The full spectrum of notes is represented with the tenor pan, double seconds and double guitars, tenor bass and bass pans. Add a drum kit and you have the complete package: a steel band that can play quiet background music and up tempo party music for dancing.

Steel percussion orchestra
This is the larger steel band of twenty, fifty or a hundred people or any number required. Steel percussion orchestras take part in carnivals, concerts, outdoor events and championship competitions like Panorama with 35-75 players in each band in the UK, and up to 120 in Trinidad.

Chapter 2 – Why set up a steel band