Founded in 1980, Oberlin Steel (OSteel) is a steel pan ensemble committed to sharing the infectious joy of pan music with the Oberlin community and the world beyond. OSteel’s members share an interest in Trinidadian history and culture: to celebrate it, the band engages in regular self-education and outreach efforts. To address the discomfort that is generated when a cultural music practice is replicated by nonnative players, OSteel has made discussing the politics of representation a part of the fabric of the band.
In the tradition of the great steelbands of Trinidad and Tobago, OSteel primarily plays soca and calypso music. Achieving excellent musicality, a cohesive group sound, and enthusiastic performance technique are among the band’s aims, as is supporting other Oberlin student groups by performing at their events and fundraisers. Through teaching the biannual Steel Drum ExCo class, OSteel continues to give Oberlin students and community members the opportunity to play the steel pan and learn about its history.
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 Caribbean 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, OSteel is unafraid to explore new territory, but always with its roots in mind.
After J. Rothkopf ’91, D. Shafer ’91 & E. Clegg ’93