The field crickets had slowed to a late summer dirge in a chill and soggy dusk at the Tried-Stone Christian Center, but pouring golden light and Tito Puente out the front door and onto the dying grass, The Panjammers, Blacksburg’s steel drum band, was hosting a swinging open house.
With a drum kit and a thumping bass guitar keeping the beat, the high vaulted room was filled with people leaning into their music stands, rolling their drum sticks over their pans: the silvery single pan lead section playing melody, arrays of two and three-pan sets called guitar-cellos, and a ring of six bass pans surrounding the player in the middle—everyone playing a dancing, swirling Calypso “Oye Como Va.”
The Panjammers are an award-winning steel drum band of about 25 pannists of all ages and abilities and a shared enthusiasm for playing music together.
“We are a community band with really unusual instruments,” Derley Aguilar, who went to a workshop a decade ago and has been playing ever since, said. “There are a lot of us, 25 or 30. We have to warn people when they book us.”
And they are booked. A lot. By house parties, street festivals like Steppin’ Out, beach and romance-themed fundraisers, the town’s public music-in-the-park events.
The band’s announcement of the open house read, “Bring a friend. Meet the band, Ask questions and play a drum.”
Welcoming to newcomers, many pannists are frankly musical, and an open house encourages wading in. The seasoned musicians are good teachers.
Emily Fritz, a double-tenor pannist with the Panjammers for 10 years, was there with her daughter, 14-year-old Abbey, who plays synthesizer keyboards with the Blacksburg High School band and is no stranger to steel drums. They brought Emily’s parents, Marnie and Mike Slayton.
“I like music, but as far as playing it, I just never did,” Mike Slayton said, watching Emily and Abbey high-five with their sticks after a tricky chord change, and Marnie tackling a double-guitar riff.
“I thought it could be fun if it were three generations,” Mike said. “Their performances are just so relaxing with everybody enjoying themselves. We’ve seen [Emily] play a hundred times. We just wanted to come see what it was all about.”
Traditionally, fashioned from the tops of 50-gallon oil drums by resourceful young men in the rebellion and poverty of 1930s Trinidad, the instruments are commonly, but mistakenly called drums. Steel pans, though, are skillfully hammered and tuned to produce melody, rhythm and played with rubber-tipped sticks making a suave, happy warble and resonant thrums.
Christine Gibson leads the band bounding from pan to piano to play the opening of The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” or the melody of Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean.”
“We play a lot of rock, but we like to mix in reggae and R&B,” Gibson said.
With a brief, but musically polyglot description of steel drum history, of pioneering young musicians like Ellie Mannette, she welcomed visitors and explained the array of drums.
“Guitar-cellos” for a swinging tenor rhythm. The leads, single drums, tend to have the melody. They’re just more agile. You don’t have to cover so many drums,” she said. The double tenor is like the mezzo-soprano in a choir or obo in the band. A little bit lower than the lead. The double seconds have the largest range.”
Aguilar was originally assigned the kind of pans she plays. It turned out to be a great match because she likes to dance while she plays.
“I love playing them. I actually tried playing a lead many years ago and decided I did not like them as much as the guitar-cellos,” she said. “I find with the guitars that I get to move a lot more—there’s a lot of swinging and twisting, which, for me, usually leads to dancing while I play. What can I say, I like to have fun when I play.”
Music, the active work of bringing sounds to life, delivers benefits of health and bonding, facilitating communication that goes beyond words, and in that bright vaulted room on that drizzly autumn night with the Panjammers and newcomers shimmying with James Brown, clearly everyone is saying, “I feel good.”