Picture: Steel Drum Band        
         Readable Music for steel bands   


Playing "the pan" in a West Indian Steel band is an art that was initiated by slaves in Trinidad over two centuries ago, but is now known all over the world.

The pan, in many cases is actually more than one steel drum played by one person in the band, each drum having a limited number of notes arranged in traditional patterns. The art of playing steel pans has been passed on from masters to students by example, requiring many hours of practice.

Being a "folk art", it did not develop a system of writing musical pieces, but relied mostly on memorization.

Not any more!  In Toronto, Canada, Tommy Crichlow, one of the most respected Trinidadian pan masters who produces his own orchestral arrangements and directs steel bands, has recently adopted a music notation for steel drums developed by a computer scientist from Ontario: Giuseppe Augusto Gori. This allows him to print readable sheets of music to his students who can immediately practice and play without having to "know music". Tommy has reduced the time required to prepare a steel band performance from months to days!

Giuseppe was born In Arezzo, Italy, the town where Guido Monaco was born. "Guido d'Arezzo" was the monk who invented the classical music notation, for transcribing Gregorian chants, almost a thousand years ago.

After immigrating to Canada, while working at IBM, Giuseppe developed his idea of "readable music" - a "music language" with an extremely reduced set of symbols, but the same "quantity of information". He then published music books for children to easily learn how to play piano just knowing the A, B, C.

Giuseppe married a Trinidadian girl. Years later the connection with Tommy was made by Vince Maraj, a former economist at the Trinidad and Tobago ministry of finance and a competent musician in his own right.

Vince was a founding member of the group “Mother Hubbard” which had a hit record “Freedom” in Trinidad and Tobago in the early 1970s. He played professionally both in Trinidad and Tobago and Canada. He served as a president of the University of the West Indies (Trinidad and Tobago campus) music unit for two years.

While working with Giuseppe, Vince was exposed to the “readable music” notation and thought that it would be a perfect fit for steel bands. He arranged a meeting between Giuseppe and Tommy and that set a train in motion!

Steel band players are a fertile ground for "readable music": they do not want to invest years in learning the classic music notation, but "have rhythm in their blood".  And timing is the key concept of "readable music". Giuseppe says:

"To read music you need to know two things: what notes to play and when to play them. The 'readable music' notation relies on positional time. The names of the notes are shown as they need to be played, scrolling down vertically on paper or on a screen. It is particularly intuitive for any person with an innate 'sense of timing'."

And that's how a match between a need and idea was made.

See the following video for the history of Steel bands:

See the following video for the more recent history (post-1940): Using oil drums for Steel Bands in Trinidad:

The Defence Force Steel Orchestra of Trinidad and Tobago, playing in Bremen (Germany) in 2002:

Trinidad Panorama 2013: