Not many people in Ann Arbor know the history of the steel drums (or steel pans) that have sounded through half a dozen Jimmy Buffett records and countless tropical vacations. And still fewer know that Washtenaw County is home to a band whose roots go back to the beginnings of the steel drum phenomenon.

The steel drum is a round piece of metal, mounted over an open resonating compartment and tuned by hammering out different areas to different thicknesses so that they sound specific pitches when struck. Its ultimate roots lie in one of the clandestine remakings of African cultures carried out by slaves all over the Western Hemisphere: when the British banned drums in Trinidad, black islanders began to play tin cans, barrels, and tuned bamboo sticks in groups called Tamboo Bamboo bands. In the 1930s Winston "Spree" Simon began experimenting with the top of a cookie container, then the top of a paint can, and finally, during World War II, the top of a fifty-five-gallon drum discarded by U.S. servicemen. The Tripoli Steel Band, one of the first, took its name from the "shores of Tripoli" line in "The Marines' Hymn."

The steel band, like so many other African-derived cultural forms, proved wonderfully adaptable. At first, it was an underground form with outlaw associations. Hugh Borde became the leader of the Tripoli Steel Band in 1951, when he was eighteen, and over the next decade the steel band evolved from street music to national pastime. The ensemble precision of the old Tamboo Bamboo bands stood musicians in good stead, and steel bands began to play everything from calypso tunes to Gershwin. The Esso oil company began to sponsor the Tripoli Steel Band, which won Trinidad's "bomb" award for best interpretation of a classical composition at the nationwide Panorama competition. It wasn't unusual to see an orchestra of steel pans playing Beethoven in a stadium.

The Esso Tripoli Steel Band played for Queen Elizabeth and appeared at Montreal's Expo 67. Liberace heard them there and invited them to tour with him. The band performed with Frank Sinatra and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. Then, in 1976, Hugh Borde and his family, which by now included several Tripoli Steel Band members, moved to Ypsilanti. Son Emile Borde created a new incarnation that took the name Trinidad Tripoli Steelband. With guitars and keyboards but always with the sound of steel drums front and center, they were a pretty consistent presence in Ann Arbor dance clubs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The steel drum got along well with its more high-powered nightclubgoing cousins, reggae and soca.

Now the Trinidad Tripoli Steelband plans a "Calypso Christmas" show at the Ark on Thursday, December 15. With all the changes the band has been through, a fun program of Christmas music shouldn't be too tall an order.

[Review published December 2005]