The Bass in the Caribbean: Trinidad's Bass of Steel

May 14, 2012
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Freddy Harris III plays the steelpan six-bass in Brooklyn.
WHEN STEELPAN VIRTUOSO FREDDY Harris III heads to his gig, he doesn’t just bring a bass player—he brings eight of them. And they’re not playing the kind of bass you are imagining.

Harris is the director and arranger of the Sesame Flyers, a steelpan orchestra based in Brooklyn, New York. The band is made up of steelpans in all shapes and sizes, from lead “tenor” pans to the lower-pitched “guitar” and “cello” pans that handle chords and inside lines. Rather than use bass guitars, Freddy’s orchestra gets its low end from the mighty bass pans—batteries of booming 55-gallon oil drums hammered and tuned into fully chromatic instruments. To pull off their bass lines, players twirl their arms and whip their bodies around like cartoon octopi, striking notes behind their back while simultaneously dancing to Caribbean beats.

According to Harris, the steel bass sound is one of the world’s best-kept secrets. “The tone is ridiculous,” he says. “The steel drum is an instrument that comes with its own natural reverberation. When you hit a note on the steel bass, you don’t just hear the note—you hear the 3rd, 5th, and octave if you listen carefully. All of the harmonics are really present.”

Today, steel drum orchestras can be found in cities such as New York, London and Toronto, but they are rooted in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The first steelpans were created there in the mid 20th century by musicians who repurposed the plentiful steel barrels left over by the local petroleum industry. In the earliest steel bands, bass duties were held down by a simple instrument called the dudup, a big drum with two undefined dummy notes that was used to drive the rhythm. Since then, steelpan in Trinidad has blossomed into a complex musical culture and symbol of national pride. At Carnival time, orchestras with up to 100 players face off in competitions for up to $2,000,000 in prize money. Meanwhile, the steel bass has evolved into a versatile instrument. Pan makers have experimented with a number of different bass layouts, including four-, nine-, and twelvebarrel variants, but the six-barrel “six-bass” has become the industry standard, laid out in 5ths and 4ths as shown in Fig. 1.

Steelpan orchestras play all kinds of music, but they specialize in the island flavors of calypso and its juiced-up cousin, soca. The basic soca drum beat (Ex. 1) is a four-onthe- floor kick pattern at around 120 BPM, seasoned with syncopated snares. The real pulse of the music, however, comes from the bass. Rather than lock in the with a kick drum, bassists (and bass-panists) groove on two pairs of eighth-notes on beats two and four, as seen in the first bar of Ex. 2. They often add quarters on beats one and three or play with 16th-note syncopations as seen in the rest of Ex. 2, but those eighth-note pairs on two and four drive the music and always carry the heaviest accents. “They’re fundamental,” says Harris. “It might be in the year 2030 or 2050, but if you’re playing soca, you need to have those notes.”

Soca songs are spun out into intense, ten-minute-long arrangements for steelpan competitions, so bandleaders such as Harris need to play around with different grooves in order to keep things dynamic. In breakdown sections, the bass line might follow something closer to the syncopated basssnare pattern, as seen in Ex. 3.

The Trinidadian bass has a few more tricks up its sleeve, as well. The style borrows from American soul, funk, and disco, which have had a big influence on the island. In lines such as Ex. 4 (from Freddy Harris’ arrangement of the song “Advantage,” for Brooklyn’s 2011 Panorama competition), that funk influence displays itself in a bouncy dominant-chord lick with a passing- tone walkup at the end. Later in that same arrangement, the bass changes up again for the lick in Ex. 5, adopting the feel of an Afro-Cuban tumbao. The Latin tinge is no coincidence: Trinidad’s southern tip is just seven miles from the South American mainland, and Spanish-language sounds such as salsa and merengue float seamlessly in and out of the local musical vernacular.

None of these riffs are much of a challenge on the bass guitar, but they can involve some serious acrobatics on the six-bass, whose layout is better suited to simple 1–5 lines. That doesn’t stop six-bass players from executing more complex parts, however. “You just have to think of solutions on the fly about how to get from here to there as fast as possible,” says Harris. “It takes a lot of torso work. By the time you finish, you can give yourself a hernia playing the six-bass.”

Outside of the steelpan orchestra, soca is played on the electric bass as well. Harris suggests that bass guitar players keep the six-bass in mind when trying to catch the subtleties of Trinidadian music. “Anybody can come in and play 1–5, but it’s all about having the right feel. I found that at a lot of gigs now, the bass players are trying to bounce their notes like a stick bouncing off the bass pan. A bass guitar player just plays a note, but with six-bass, it’s like basketballs bouncing. Because of that, you feel an internal spring in the music.”

It’s not easy to find a maker, but getting a hold of a six-bass could be a refreshing new sound for your low-end needs. At a minimum of $1,600 for a decent set of pans, they don’t come cheap. Still, according to Harris, it could be worth it. “You can’t beat a six-bass. That’s hand-to-mallet, rubber-tosteel. It curves the sound and the way we interpret it and the way we hear it in our ears. I don’t think steelpan music would be the same if there were no six-bass. It just wouldn’t work.”

Marlon Bishop is a bass player, arts writer, and radio producer who reports on global music for Afropop Worldwide, MTV Iggy, and other media outlets.

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