Beat that beat!
Music is a universal language. This is the story of a Lankan woman who broke the cultural barriers with the beats of her drum. Dr. Prashanthi Mendis is an accomplished musician and a lawyer. She has an inborn talent for music and plays the violin and the piano but the specialty in her music is the playing of African xylophone and the Caribbean steel drums. She has lived in many regions of the world for over 30 years and studied their music as an ethnomusicologist. Thrilling many audiences abroad with her unique renditions on the Caribbean steel drums, she is the only Steel Drum artiste in Sri Lanka.
So what are these Caribbean Steel Drums? Daily News Melodies met her to find out. “The Caribbean Steel Drums originated in Trinidad and Tobago (West Indies/Caribbean). It is an amazing 20th century invention on which any type of music can be played. Caribbean Steel Drums use the mallet technique similar to the African Xylophone known as the “Balafon” or “Balangi”. Hence, there is a connection between the Caribbean steel drums and African xylophones. However, the notes are not arranged in a scale sequence as in other musical instruments and therefore demands flexibility and agility especially from a solo performing artiste. This musical invention now serves as an Afro-Caribbean/African musical legacy to the world. The sonorous sound of steel drums is enjoyed today by many people and audiences across the world,” she explained.
Mendis adds that this instrument is made by the slaves. “I lived in the Caribbean region with my family for over 15 years including six years in Guyana in South America – Headquarters of the Caribbean Community/CARICOM Secretariat. As soon as I heard the sound of drums in the twin island State of St. Kitts and Nevis in the 1980s during the time of Independence from Britain, I decided to learn this instrument. I became more and more interested in mastering this instrument. People thought I was out of my mind as they thought violin and piano to be prestigious. This instrument was made by the slaves and there was a stigma attached to it. By the time I left the region I opened the doors for many to take up learning this. I visited carnivals in the region and New York City and began to play this instrument at many functions and events,” She said.
She went on to explain that a Steel Band consists of 10 to 20 drums or “pans” in different sizes. The notes of the drums in a Steel Band are manually tuned with a rounded hammer to an orchestral range of notes. They were originally turned out of discarded crude oil barrels.“The length of the skirt of the drums determines the pitch-range of different drums or “pans” in a Steel Band. These drums are generally classified as “Soprano Pans”, “Double Seconds (Alto) Pans”, “Double Tenor Pans”, “Double Guitar Pans”, “Triple Cello (Baritone) Pans” and “Bass Pans” consisting of five or six full length drums (oil barrels) depending on the preference of tuners of different steel bands. In modern times, the making of steel drums is sophisticated and they are made of high quality metal in many countries such as USA, UK, Germany and South Africa. My Double Seconds Pans were made in Dortmund, Germany – the country known for producing high quality steel,” she explained.
By Ruwanthi Abeyakoon