steel pan orchestra
New York, New York
CASYM is a thunderous orchestra consisting entirely of steel pans—percussion instruments fashioned from 55-gallon oil drums and played with rubber-tipped mallets. The virtuosity of its members and the versatility of its repertoire demonstrates this instrument’s incredible range. Annual participants in the New York Caribbean Carnival, CASYM is not just a musical group but also an organization that uses music to inspire youth of Caribbean heritage to imagine a brighter future.
The steel pan orchestra was born in Trinidad out of a long tradition of Carnival-based percussive music making and is a testament to the ingenuity and creative perseverance of Afro-Trinidadians. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, the British colonial government on the island banned the use of various percussion instruments in an attempt to control violent street encounters between rival groups during Carnival. In 1939, a musician discovered that the head of an oil drum dented in precise ways could produce distinct pitches, and the instrument called the “pan” was born. The presence of a U.S. Army base and a burgeoning oil industry made 45-gallon steel drums plentiful. In the 1940s a homegrown industry developed—the crafting of finely tuned, multi-note drums out of oil barrels. The music soon achieved international popularity. Panorama, a large, annual steelband contest, has become an integral part of Carnival in both Trinidad and the diaspora, and the steel pan is now the official national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.
Brooklyn-based CASYM (Caribbean American Sports and Cultural Movement) was founded in 1983. “Our founder saw that there was nothing for his children to do,” explains Executive Director Michelle Williams. “He wanted to create a place where people could come together, do something positive and have fun, with a focus on music, sports, and tutorial services.” Members range from a 10-year-old to a grandmother, but most are high school and college students.
Today the group is 100-strong when it competes at the Panorama contest that takes place just prior to the West Indian Day Parade and Carnival held each Labor Day in Brooklyn. For the highly competitive Panorama, each band’s musical director selects a trending song and arranges it for pan orchestra. Bands have entire units devoted to differently tuned pans that play tenor (lead melody), bass pans, and even “guitar” and “cello” sections. Over the summer, CASYM members put in 22-hour weeks of rehearsals leading up to Panorama. In Richmond a 30-piece version of CASYM will display its broad repertoire, with arrangements of jazz, reggae, classical, and the homegrown Trinidadian genres of calypso and soca. “There is nothing that a steelband can’t play,” says Williams.
Caribbean American neighborhoods in East Brooklyn face rapid gentrification, and steelbands have struggled to maintain their panyards, the often abandoned and reclaimed urban spaces where they practice. “Most of our members are second and third-generation Caribbean-Americans,” explains Williams. “We want to keep pan alive so the students in our community can build bridges and close gaps.”