by Mark Stone
from Jumbie Journal, October 2005
At the impressionable age of sixteen I heard the sound of a steel drum for the first time. While visiting Toronto on a class trip I bought a tape-recording simply titled "Steel Drums" with a picture of a man wearing a wild headdress, and the subtitle "The Native Steel Drum Band (A Live Recording)." I had no idea what to expect but quickly fell in love with the sounds on that cassette and listened to it constantly during my junior and senior years of high school. I was captivated by the instrument and its mellow yet percussive sound.
O.U. students using bowling balls to start their steel drums
My fascination with the steel drum continued through college,
where I began learning to play the instrument. At
As much as I enjoyed playing in Ellie's Symphony of Steel I was still drawn to the sounds of pan-round-de-neck. This older instrument had a clearly African sound that reminded me of the kalimba and gyil. I was excited to find out from Trinidadian panman Tommy Crichlow that there were still many groups in
And he was absolutely right. Every pan-round-de-neck group that competed in the single pan category during carnival 2001 had chromed pans with the modern pan sound.
Although playing throughout the carnival festivities with
Tommy and the Scrunters Pan Groove was an incredible experience, I returned
The following summer when Michael and I got together in
With the memories of his youth and his friend's discarded
instrument as a template, Michael set out to recreate an entire set of
pan-round-de neck steel drums. Meanwhile, I had been asked to teach a summer
steel drum course for music educators at
I also enlisted the help of my friend and university colleague, Kerro Knox. Kerro is a theatre professor and Pan-Jumbie who played a very important role in this project as that guy who "knows how to build stuff". Together we set out to gather the necessary materials. Our shopping list read:
12 Bowling Balls
4 cut-off sledgehammers
1 propane tank
20 fifty-five gallon oil barrels
2 cans of paint
12 flexible rulers
8 ball-pen hammers
8 piece nail punch set
Gathering all of these items
was an adventure in itself involving numerous phone calls to bowling alleys,
confused looks from employees at hardware stores, and a trip in a beat up
U-haul truck to an old Detroit
Detroitwarehouse. In typical fashion, we gathered the final items minutes before the first class began. We were ready to build our own steel drums.
Mark Stone and Michael Kernahan at work
Every student was given a fifty-five gallon barrel, a bowling ball, and a pair of earplugs. We spread out underneath the shade of the pine trees behind the theatre shop and Michael instructed us in the process of sinking the face of an oil barrel. Each barrel needed to be sunk approximately six inches to make the old pan-round-de-neck drum known as a "grundig." We all lifted our bowling balls high into the air and began slamming them into our oil barrels. This process was physically demanding yet the excitement of making our own instruments carried us on. Once he could see that progress was being made, Michael showed us how to finish sinking a drum with a sledgehammer.
After the drums were sunk to the appropriate depth, we carefully marked where each of the drum's pitches would be placed.
Using different size ball pen hammers we began shaping the notes. Once these notes had the correct shape a groove was etched along the lines we had drawn in order to separate the vibrations of each pitch.
Finally, once all the notes had been correctly placed the barrels were cut in half and burned with a propane torch. Michael explained that the drums needed to be burned in order to temper the metal.
Michael cutting a pan
Mark burning a pan
Everyone was able to construct a drum after a week of intense work. However, this was the easy part! Although the drums had been correctly constructed the individual notes still needed to be tuned. Everyone quickly realized that tuning a steel drum was truly an art form that we could not expect to master in one week. Michael patiently showed us how by tightening and loosening the steel with a ball-pen hammer a note would eventually take shape. Some of us were able to get a few notes in tune, but this very challenging process was one Michael completed largely by himself.
I have always had a great
respect for Michael Kernahan. Through a lifetime in pan he has proven himself
to be an outstanding steel drum craftsman, tuner, arranger, and performer. His
two weeks spent as a guest artist at Oakland University also proved
him to be an incredible teacher. Michael's ability to patiently guide us all
through the process of transforming a raw oil barrel into a musical instrument
was nothing short of miraculous. In the end, every participant left the class
with their very own grundig to proudly carry around their necks and share with
I have always had a great respect for Michael Kernahan. Through a lifetime in pan he has proven himself to be an outstanding steel drum craftsman, tuner, arranger, and performer. His two weeks spent as a guest artist at Oakland University also proved him to be an incredible teacher. Michael's ability to patiently guide us all through the process of transforming a raw oil barrel into a musical instrument was nothing short of miraculous. In the end, every participant left the class with their very own grundig to proudly carry around their necks and share with the world.