The steel band hammering out the sound of Antigua

By Gemma Handy
St John's, Antigua

Image caption,
Steel bands have become an integral part of Antigua's culture

The sound hits you long before you see the canvas gazebo and the ensemble beneath it: a motley crew of musicians from schoolteachers to mechanics, pensioners to kids as young as five, in perfect harmony, united by a single passion.

Here, on a roadside between a football field and a clutch of houses on the outskirts of Antigua and Barbuda's capital city, something magical is afoot.

The intoxicating sound of steel pans reverberates through the body, stirs the emotions and engulfs the mind to the exclusion of everything else.

This is food for the soul.

Crowd magnet

Once dubbed the devil's music, a ghetto pastime with instruments as rudimentary as hubcaps and scrap metal, traditional Caribbean steel bands are today as much part of Antiguan culture as Carnival and fried dumplings.

Such is the music's magnetic quality that barely five minutes pass before a crowd gathers to watch.

With concentration inscribed on their faces, the performers are lost to the rhythm, eyes closed, brought back only by the jubilant applause.

Even with just five or six players, the acoustics are incredibly uplifting.

Add another 140 when the band is at full strength and it becomes a tour de force.

Hell's Gate

The world's oldest, continuously operating steel orchestra, Hell's Gate, will this year mark its 70th anniversary.

Like many of its regional counterparts, the group's organic roots have evolved into a highly technical and competitive art garnering global acclaim and concerts in places as diverse as Europe and South Korea.

Hell's Gate leader Veron Henry says that when "playing pan" first started in the ghettos in the 1940s, they used "anything that made a noise".

At the time, participants were thought of as gangsters.

"It was the devil's instrument, it wasn't as fine-tuned as it is now; it was just a lot of noise, which is how our band got its name," he says and smiles.

Image caption,
Hell's Gate will mark 70 years since their formation this year

These days, steel pans are a common feature in the island's churches and children learn how to play in school.

The music is a far cry from its Trinidadian roots, with many more notes added over the decades, along with harmonics and octaves.

Youth appeal

The fact that around 80% of Hell's Gate's members are children is further testimony to its enduring and ever-increasing popularity, as well as its place in mainstream culture.

"The kids love it because it's like being part of a big team," says Mr Henry, himself a father of five.

"Schoolteachers tell us that kids who play pan tend to do better in class," he says.

"They have a longer concentration span, because you really have to focus to play all those notes, and it spills over into their work," he adds.

Image caption,
Antigua's annual Panorama contest is one of the highlights of Carnival

In addition to leading the band, Mr Henry is one of a tiny handful of professional artisans who build the pans from special metal barrels imported from Trinidad.

The son of Antiguan veteran pan builder and former Hell's Gate leader Eustace Manning, he grew up watching music being created in his backyard.

He has been sculpting the drums himself for more than two decades.

Transforming metal

"When you make the instrument, it's like putting life into something," he says.

"You transform a metal that has no sound into a musical instrument that everyone loves."

Image caption,
Veron Henry is one of a tiny handful of professional pan builders in Antigua

The barrels' modest exterior belies the intricate task of shaping the notes.

There are lead pans, double tenors, double seconds, double and triple guitars, four cellos and various bass pans. Some have as many as 36 notes.

First, the barrel's flat surface must be painstakingly pummelled with a sledgehammer to sink it down about seven inches (18cm). That process alone takes several hours.

Next, the notes are marked out with a ruler and chalk before being shaped with a blunted nail punch and smoothed.

Finally, the bottom of the barrel is cut off leaving around six inches, depending on the depth of the desired sound.

Mr Henry and his team of seven assistants carefully craft each one of the scores of pans needed for a performance.

'Blown away'

But there is one aspect that he insists on doing alone.

"I tune them all myself using a Peterson strobe," he says.

Image source, Alex Andre Rhodes
Image caption,
Pans are no longer crafted from oil drums but purpose-built metal barrels

Antigua's annual Panorama show, a vehemently fought contest between the island's dozen or so steel bands, is a key feature of the summer Carnival beginning on 25 July.

The eight weeks prior to the event see Hell's Gate practising up to five hours a night.

Recent years have seen the band tour North America, Europe and Asia.

"The internet has helped steel bands reach a wider audience; once people hear it they love it," Mr Henry says.

For him, the passion goes deeper even than the sound.

"I love the camaraderie between players. When you have 200 people playing at the same time, the feeling on stage is out of this world," he explains.

"And when you see the audience's reaction, it blows you away."

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