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Composing and Arranging for the Steel Pan - Part I : Basics
An Overview of the Special Issues in Writing and Arranging for the Steel Pan By Richard A. Sharma

2. The ‘Engine Room’

The ‘engine room’ or ‘riddum’ is the rhythm section of the steel orchestra, commonly partly or completely omitted from performances of arrangements of classical compositions as needed. Generally however, the ‘engine room’ is vital to the steel orchestra and is exactly what it says – the engine that sustains the beat.

The exact composition of the ‘engine room’ can vary greatly not only between different orchestras but also depending on factors such as an individual arranger’s preferences, availability of players, and so on.

Three fundamental constituents of the engine room that can generally be taken for granted as being available are the guiro, a metal scraper or scratcher similar to the Latin instrument of that name that is usually played with a kind of metal afro comb, at least one iron (often several of different timbres and relative pitches are used together), a car wheel’s brake drum struck with a metal rod, and the cowbell.

These go right back to the very beginnings of the pan, when instruments were improvised from junkyard finds. The guiro is specially made, and nowadays usually so is the iron. Traditionally, the latter is held supported on the inside forearm between wrist and elbow, but often it is also placed flat on some form of support these days. The iron usually keeps a fast repetitive rhythm of semiquavers or 16th notes, while the cowbell often keeps the basic beat in addition to calling players to attention and “counting in” the piece. The guiro is generally used in much the same way as the wooden scraper is in Latin bands.

Other givens in the engine room normally include the trap set and congas, the latter often played with mallets with hard rubber tips. Toc-tocs, or claves, and shak-shaks, or marimbas or shakers, are also common. Also to be found are tambourines, woodblock, and even timbales and other Latin percussion, although these can’t necessarily be taken for granted.

The use of counter rhythms, cross-rhythms and polyrhythms has been becoming increasingly widespread in recent decades and is often carried on the congas and other Latin percussion.


© 2009 Richard A. Sharma / Rainlore's World of Music. All rights reserved.

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