Steelpan Combos

An instrument combo is a group of musical instruments from different instrument families that are played together as an ensemble. The combined sound when played together is unique as it does not belong to any individual family.

The steelpan is an instrument that was born out of experimentation and has always been on the quest to encounter new horizons, therefore it is no stranger to creating new sounds as a result of combos.

The early origins of this instrument show that the steelband has never been exclusive to only steelpan instruments. The evolution of the steelpan documents Tamboo Bamboo instruments as one of its forerunners and the fusion of these instruments led to the development of the steelpan, hence the general term ‘steelband’.

One of the earliest established forms of steelpan combo, Parang, features the steelpan and guitar as the main instruments. The popularity of this genre has resulted in an annual competition called Pan Parang.

In the 1950s, one of the earliest pop groups to have taken an interest in the art of pan was the Beatles. Their relationship with Trinidadian steelpan player Harold Adolphus Philips aka Lord Woodbine is well documented. Philips also formed one of the earliest steelbands in the UK, the All-Steel Caribbean Band.

In 1967 we saw one of the earliest UK televised combos with The Hollies featuring a steelpan in their pop tune Carrie Anne.

In the 1970s and 1980s the pop group Boney M graced the UK pop charts with a string of hits that featured steelpans as a part of the instrumental background.

Throughout the 1990s Liverpool was home to Sunset Sound (aka Elegance), a combo that featured steelpan, guitar, bass guitar and drums. In Manchester, at Band on the Wall, London based trumpeter Kevin Davy hosted a monthly 'Monster Jazz Jam' that featured a local steelpan musician as a part of his ensemble. 

In 1992, So Many Promises, a musical held in Manchester featured a steel orchestra as part of the musical ensemble.

In 1997, Manchester Camerata and the Mancunian Steelband provided the musical accompaniment for A Feast of Fables, the first dramatic piece to be performed at the Bridgewater Hall.

From 2000s onwards many other forms of steelpan combo have become popularised.

A popular steelpan combo for gigging is the combination of frontline steelpans performing along-side a bass guitarist or keyboard player.

The rise of the steelpan soloist has also given rise to seeing a steelpan player performing with several other instrumentalists:

  • Courtney Pine’s ‘House of Legends’ jazz fusion, features saxophone, steelpans, guitar, double bass and drums.
  • UK based Trinidadian Fimber Bravo has created his own style of music performing with an array of musicians across as many genres.
  • Trinidadian Calypsonian Alexander the Great is well known on the London scene for singing and playing his guitar with steelpan accompaniment.

In 2002, Mangrove Steelband performed with the BBC Concert Orchestra at Albert Square, Manchester.

During the late 2000s, the Hackney Empire, the Troxy and The Tabernacle hosted Pan Jazz events featuring internationally renowned pannists Andy Narell, Lennox Sharpe, Leon Foster and Liam Teague. 

In 2012, Lacey Green Primary Academy performed with the nationally acclaimed Fodens Brass Band after being crowned winners of the North West Schools’ Music Competition.

In 2014, several pop and rap artists featured steelpans in their music. In that same year

  • Pangaea, a steelband combo from South London regularly performed at the The Joiners Arms, Camberwell. The group features a tenor pan, double tenor, guitar, bass and drums. 
  • Steel Pan Fusion, a monthly event that began in May to promote the diversity of the steelpan instrument is now a focal point for steelpan soloists and supporters.
  • Perfect Pitch became the UK’s first steelpan competition for steelpan and non-pan family instruments.

The steelpan combo has also led to much experimentation with non-traditional music performance. This has helped to reaffirm the steelpan as a dynamic musical instrument.