Charissa Granger and the musical possibilities of the steelpan

I first heard Charissa Granger on a short video someone had posted on FaceBook. She was playing a soft haunting melody called Raindrops which was made even more interesting because she was playing the tune on the steel pan. The steel pan is an instrument we associate with the Caribbean and the sounds of Calypso and Soca music rather than with classical music. I recently spoke with Charissa on her choice of musical instrument as well as briefly on the history of the steel pan.

The origins of the steel pan can be traced back to slavery in the Caribbean (on the island of Trinidad and Tobago) and grew out of instruments called Tamboo-Bamboo which were bamboo sticks that were hit on the ground. The different sounds were made possible by the different lengths of the sticks but still there wasn’t that much melodic range (it was a rhythmic instrument) and probably came across as dull thuds. In Trinidad, the Tamboo Bamboo then evolved into beating of old scraps of metal, biscuit tins, oil pans and gin bottles. In the 1930’s musicians discovered they could produce different melodies by beating on used oil drums. They began to experiment and study the sounds of the steel so they could understand the tuning and through this the modern steel pan was born. By the 1950s the steel band as we know it today was in it’s prime in the form of Calypso in Trinidad with bands as large as 100 musicians.

Charissa who is from the island of Aruba began playing at the age of 11 in an after school program. At that time the steel pan was a dying instrument on the island so her mother thought it a good idea if she studied the instrument more seriously. By the time she was 16 and was traveling to workshops in Antigua, Barbuda and performing in the Antilles. From there it seemed a natural progression to study at university level. Northern Illinois University is the only university where one can obtain a Bachelors and Masters degree in music with the steelpan being the main instrument of study. Charissa was able to major in the steel pan and study under Liam Teague [Head of Steelpan Studies and is an Associate Professor of Music at Northern Illinois University] and Clifford Alexis co-director of the NIU Steelband . Charissa chose to interpret classical pieces and focused mainly on the challenge of the technical application of classical music on the steelpan. Under the guidance of Clifford Alexis, Charissa has the privilege of watching the process of building and tuning the pans – a learning process that could take over 10 years to master. The pans are largely made by hand using a 6 pound sledge though electric pneumatic tools are now being used to sink the metal.

Charissa started to play classical music to show the versatility of the steelpan and like many other instruments can be used for a range of genres. People are blown away and impressed with hearing the steelpan playing classical music. You can take the scores of say a violin or piano, transcribe and play it in a steel band. Charissa also enjoys playing jazz, improvising and soundscapes, the variety enables her to have a musical balance between traditional steelpan music and other forms of music. Playing the steelpan in this way has given her an additional technical ability. She is presently a graduate student of musicology at the University of Amsterdam and has hopes for the future is to get steelpan into a new musical space but also to research more into the music itself and again achieve a balance between being a musician and being a musicologist

Raindrops composed by Liam Teague and interpreted by Charrisa Granger