Music often evokes time and place. Hearing a particular song that was playing at the time may vividly bring back, for example, making out with your high school girlfriend in the basement of your parents’ house, or a drunken, late night bull session with your buddies at your trashed college apartment.
Few genres of music, however, are as tied to a location as steel drum music is tied to the Caribbean islands. Perhaps ukelele music and Hawaii, or oompa bands and Germany, or koto music and Japan could compare — but that’s about it. Rock music, classical music, jazz, big band: all could be, and have been, successfully played just about anywhere. Steel drum music, though, really needs to be played outdoors, on a warm evening, with sultry breezes ruffling the leaves of lush tropical vegetation and crowds of happy, relaxed, rum-stoked people moving slowly to the ringing and tinkling sounds made by striking those gleaming steel drums. Try to imagine hearing steel drum music in a snowbound northern location, with people bundled up and their breath visible in the cold. I bet you can’t, because the juxtaposition is just too jarring.
My association of steel drum music with tropical warmth and beauty is so strong that I can make good use of it after I return home. When the cold, gray, gloomy days of winter close in, I put on some steel drum music and can almost feel the sun on my skin, smell the coconut scent of suntan lotion, and see the bright turquoise waters of the Caribbean. It makes the winter just a bit more bearable.
It’s chilly and damp here in Columbus, and the weather forecast is for colder temperatures and snow. I’m mentally not ready for it. So, I’ve plugged in my iPod and decided to listen to some steel drum music.
Steel drum music is one of the few musical genres that will immediately transport you to a particular place. In this instance, it is somewhere in the Caribbean on a beach, looking at brilliant blue water beneath clear skies, with a cold adult beverage in your hand and your toes wriggling in the sand. The tinkling of the steel drums music wafts past on sultry breezes and urges you, irresistibly, to try the latest rum-based concoction developed by the friendly barkeep at the nearby Sand Bar.
When you listen to steel drum music, snow and cold are very far away.
Although the precise history of the invention of the steel drum apparently is uncertain, there seems to be general agreement that it was first developed on the island of Trinidad during or shortly after World War II. From there, it spread to every island in the Caribbean, and a new kind of musical sound was born. The drums typically are made from the bottoms of 55-gallon steel drums and are called “pans.” The surfaces are carefully shaped and tuned so that striking particular parts of the concave surface sounds different notes, and they usually are polished to a shiny finish. If you watch an expert play a steel drum, as opposed to just swaying with the music as you guzzle your Swizzle or Sea Breeze, you realize that it takes a lot of skill.
The first song I ever heard played on a steel drum was “Yellow Bird.” Jamaica Ray plays it in the video below, and although the video is dark, I like it because the dimness and background bar sounds really capture the relaxed Caribbean feel that I think of whenever I hear steel drum music.