Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Din of Modernity: Steel Band Yards or Open-air Motor Repair Shops


"Deaf? If you are near there, no wonder you are deaf."
- Prince Philip, to group of deaf children standing next to Jamaican steel drum band,
visit to new National Assembly for Wales, 1999


My admiration for the gaffe-prone Royal Consort is mostly predicated upon his predilection for incredibly out-of-touch comments (he once said he practiced Dontopedalogy - the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it)...  I don't agree with the comments, but I appreciate his tendency to make them. And so it is with the Duke of Edinburgh's recorded comments on steel drum bands.  Another noted Anglophilic crank favourite of mine, V.S. Naipaul also found steelpan distasteful, writing to his father of his brother that "the news that Shivan is beating pans is distressing."

Forgive this post's title...

The historical background and origin of steelpan bands is compelling stuff - Trinidadian musicians fashioned tuned steelpans out of 55 gallon oil drums that littered the region during the oil exploration boom of World War II and oil companies would go on to sponsor competing teams throughout the region and internationally - a demilitarized post-colonial evolution of British marching bands.  Steelpan competitions were highly contested events, and eventually most oil companies withdrew support when violence began to mar them. If you thought the oil industry was a money-grubbing blight of fat-fingered philistines, please recall this noted contribution to music and culture.  I hope that in 2071 or whenever the tar/oil sands are depleted in Alberta, we shall see a resurgence of the mighty steelpan, as competing bands play against each other amidst the backdrop of a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape.

In the 1970s, popular music was not so changed by the Beatles that it was poor form or anomalous for musicians to interpret the works of other musicians, treating recent top hits as new standards.  A band could build an entire career as a cover band and do quite well, thank you...  In fact, as much as the Beatles made it a necessity for new bands to write their own material, they also contributed to the canon in a way that wasn't foreign to Cole Porter - providing chart-fodder for Ella Fitzgerald and others.

The 20th Century Steel Band was a London-based steelpan and their bread and butter was the high-energy interpretation of recent funk, soul and R&B songs like Papa Was a Rolling Stone, Theme from Shaft, and, as above, a cover of Love's Theme from Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra and Sam & Dave's Hold On, I'm Coming.  Interestingly enough, their lasting legacy is the song Heaven And Hell (Is a Place on Earth - their debut-album opener with an oft-sampled break that would become a standard of its own, popping up in songs by The Jackson Two, Grandmaster Flash, Spoonie Gee, Geto Boys, Chubb Rock, Salt n' Pepa, Positive K, The Jungle Brothers - far too many to mention here.

1 comment:

city said...

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