I don’t remember my own birth, obviously –or fortunately– even though I was not just there for the event, but apparently the center of attention. I imagine I heard a woman screaming and though I didn’t know exactly what a woman was, I instinctually and correctly understood which animal in the room was my mother. Records indicate I made my first appearance on the planet to a sold out crowd at midnight, between the 11th and 12th of March, in the city of Charlotte Amelia, St. Thomas, VI.
But of course, all of that is just hearsay. It’s just as possible that I was born on another planet, abducted by pirates, and abandoned here on Earth, where I was adopted by two humanoid-creatures while they were in the midst of conducting their own investigation of the blue-green planet. I think that would actually make more sense to me in a way, and explain so much.
However, if I were from another planet, then there would have to be calypso bands in orbit, because my earliest recollection of sound happens to be that of the Steel Drums which filled the Caribbean night air of my childhood, and later, floated up off my parent’s suitcase style record player. I have uncommonly early memories, but I won’t pretend to remember the names of any of those classic bands. I don’t even really remember the music, per say: I remember the sound of it.
As I stumbled towards maturity, and picked up a taste for popular American music, I left calypso behind with much of the indigenous music of my youth.
I have yet to return to St. Thomas, but I have often returned to steel drums, whether to attend a live performance or in recordings I've purchased. Something, I sensed as an adult, was different about the music that had once conjured in me a magical feeling. Had I outgrown it? Had living in United States re-engineered the way I heard things? I couldn’t quite put my finger on whether it was the music, or me –but I was cognizant of having a different reaction to it. Something in the way these contemporary pan players sounded was weirdly off to me.
As it turns out, quite the opposite. It wasn't that the new drums were off, but that they were on,–that is, they were perfectly on –or in– pitch. By happenstance I learned that modern pan players were using electronic tuning systems as guides while they hammered the instruments, when I knew that once they simply relied on their own ears. Over the course of my lifetime the practice apparently became ubiquitous.
While the steel drums from my youth were hammered as close to the tempered scale as human hearing allowed, that meant in practice that most often the resulting finished ‘pans’ were never exactly centered. However, it was just this off-tuning that created the ‘magical effect’ I remembered from my childhood: When a musician played a melody, the overlapping resonances of each note cascaded one over the other; the whole sounded just a bit richer because of each note's slight and uniquely different imperfection. In effect –no pun intended– each tone of each instrument was built with its own natural chorus.
Then along comes this new fangled technology whereby modern steel drums are now hammered until they're perfectly aligned within the bounds of western temperament. This should make for a better sound, right? Well, it does make for a different sound, which can be described as a purer tone, which is certainly better suited to playing in concert with other instruments. You know, sometimes –most of the time– it’s just nice when everyone’s in tune and playing in the same key. But see, hear, while the melodies might now all be right on pitch, it turns out the magic is all in the cracks.