the history of oberlin steel

oberlin steel is a steel band based at oberlin college in oberlin, ohio. formed around 1980 and known as the oberlin can consortium until 2001, the group plays in the tradition of the great steel bands of trinidad, but also performs arrangements of salsa, calypso, and jazz tunes as well as original compositions and arrangements by band members. a dance band in the truest sense, oberlin steel performs at campus events and in the oberlin area. after months of rehearsing and performing, the band tours for the week of spring break in late march. past destinations include chicago, boston, new york (the band has played at avery fisher hall of new york’s lincoln center), atlanta, new orleans, baton rouge, miami, montreal, ithaca, and washington, d.c., among others. oberlin steel performs for college and university audiences, nightclubs, restaurants, theaters, train stations, hotels, high schools, elementary schools, airplanes, weddings, stadiums, outdoor festivals and public spaces such as central park in nyc and the lincoln memorial in d.c. (check out our list of upcoming shows). the band usually has twelve to sixteen members, including tenor, double tenor, seconds, cello, quads, and bass pan players, plus auxiliary percussionists and a set drummer. the group is large, but can usually fit into even small venues. oberlin steel has made five recordings in recent years. if you are interested in ordering cd’s, or if you are an alumni of the band, please contact us; we would appreciate any historical tidbits or current address/email information.


a brief history of the steel pan

the rich history behind steel drumming is testimony to humankind’s desire to communicate through music, even under the most adverse of conditions. The legacy began in trinidad, a small carribbean island a few miles off the coast of venezuela, where thousands of african slaves worked the lucrative sugar and cocoa industries for the spanish and later english colonists. although emancipation from slavery in 1834 marked an important milestone for these african settlers, their intensely unifying religious rites were frowned upon by the colonial government, which feared a "heathen" revolt. ceremonial drumming, intrinsic to african religions, was outlawed in 1884 and suppressed with harsh police measures. still, many trinidadians persisted, avoiding the ban on drumming by inventing a new form of music, tamboo-bamboo, which involved the striking of different lengths of bamboo. tamboo-bamboo, however, garnered so much attention that their activities were again suppressed by the government.

it wasn’t until much later that trinidadians were legally allowed to pursue their music. using 55-gallon oil barrels and other detritus left after the world war ii naval effort, trinidadians created a new musical instrument: the steel pan. finding that they could tune these barrels to distinct pitches, zealous musicians united in street ensembles and orchestras, enveloping the island in kinetic, hypnotic rhythms and lilting melodies. "beating pan" has since become integral in trinidad’s folklore and cultural traditions.

this historical context of the steel pan gives it a significance that is more than musical. steel drumming is representative of, among other things, the will of an oppressed people to express themselves and to assert their own cultural identity. in playing pan, the people of trinidad were and are giving an active voice to their continuing desire to maintain a cultural integrity all their own.

oberlin steel tries to preserve the musical tradition of steel drumming. more importantly, however, we try to spread its spirit among our audiences when we play. just as the trinidadians allowed their music to change with the conditions, oberlin steel is unafraid to explore new territory, but always with its roots in mind.

--after j. rothkopf ’91, d. shafer ’91 & e. clegg ’93

for more information on pan, carnival, trinidad or music in general, check out our links page!


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updated 20 january 2005