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An Interview with Steelpan Innovator & G-Pan Inventor Brian Copeland

A WST Exclusive

Brian Copeland

Global - Touted by its supporters as one of the single most important developments in the last decade for the steelpan instrument  - the G-pan has received both praise and criticism.  The mere mentioning of the G-pan to its detractors will generate a cold shrug of the shoulder and an automatic question of “What’s new about it?”  “Have we not seen this all before?”  And in a flash the past inventive genius works of Anthony Williams, Bertie Marshal and Ellie Mannette will be brought to the table and conversation.  And still there are others who espouse that the G-pan signifies a clear and substantive improvement in focus and documentation, of Trinidad and Tobago’s invention and historical relationship to the steelpan instrument. 

The inventor of the G-Pan Dr. Brian Copeland - in this exclusive 2010 When Steel Talks (WST) interview - moves to explain some of the misconceptions about the instrument and further, its importance to the future development of the steelpan movement.

  • WST - “What has been the initial response to the first generation of the G-Pan family?”

    Copeland - “It was originally quite mixed.  Some were completely against the idea for various reasons but mostly because they saw it as an attempt to replace the traditional instrument.  Others embraced it openly and were appreciative of the fact that at last something was being done to move the pan industry forward.  I was prepared for contention because we are trying to re-engineer an instrument that has evolved for over 60 years and much of what has been done has not been properly documented.

    The G-6Bass was an instant success because of its clean deep sound. We received mixed reviews on the early G-Sopranos but those have been recently re-engineered and are correspondingly much improved.”

  • WST - “A number of bands included the G-Pan as part of their instrument arsenal in this year’s panorama finals.  Is this the first year the G-Pan has figured prominently in Panorama?”

    Copeland -  “No.  Skiffle Bunch and Phase 2 had G-Pans (G-6Basses) last year.  Boogsie was provided with a token Double Second before that, when the G-Pans were launched in 2007.  However, this is the first year that G-Pans were used for Panorama in such a big way.  It is also the first year that they were used on the road.”

  • WST - “In the When Steel Talks forum you said the ‘G-Pans are an attempt to re-establish TnT’s ownership of steelpan technology.’  To this end, has Steelpan Development Lab - which is led by you at UWI (University of the West Indies)- been successful? ”

    PHI with Rhapsody Steel Orchestra on Frederick Street, Carnival Tuesday 2010. The truck featured a mix of PHIs with mic’d traditional tenors and second pans. PHI played the bass.

    Copeland - “Well, let’s say that the TnT steelpan epicentre is now further strengthened, if even because of the attention given to the G-Pans. But this means nothing if the country cannot capitalise on the initiative.  That has not happened as yet but it is our intention to make it a reality because we see this initiative as more than pan – it is one of maturing a nation.  In the specific area of steelpan, our emphasis right now is on exploring and developing all aspects of steelpan technology of which there are two main components – the control of vibration of steel shells (preparing and tuning of pans) and note layout.  Both are embodied in the G-Pan as they are for the traditional pan. However, our R&D also more fully exploits the note layout technology, notably the 4ths and 5ths invented by grandmaster tuner and pioneer Tony Williams, in the Percussive Harmonic Instrument (P.H.I.), the world’s first fully electronic steelpan.  The P.H.I. is designed to broaden opportunities to panists by allowing them to more fully exploit their expert kinaesthetics in music performance.”

  • WST - “Were there any other significant contributors to the G-Pan initiative, and if so would you care to spotlight them?”


    Copeland - “The inventor of the G-Pan is Brian Copeland.  Its proprietor is the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.  The actual implementation of the patented design has been conducted by a team that includes Master Tuners Roland Harrigin, Birch Kelman and, more recently, Denzil Fernandez.  There are others who facilitate the drum manufacture process, including Richard McDavid who worked on the CARIRI (Caribbean Industrial Research Institute) project years ago.  There is a research team that now includes Keith Maynard (again from the original CARIRI project) and Randall Ali. Finally, the project has been operated under the guidance of Patent Agent Everard Byer and Ronald DeFour.

  • WST - “To those who would say: ‘What’s new about the G-Pan?  Several of its characteristics have been implemented in one form or another - e.g. the Spiderweb, the over-sized pan, etc.’ - what would be your response to them?”

    Copeland - “The G-Pan is a direct consequence of re-engineering the traditional pan, a 60-year old instrument, and consequently it inherits much of its DNA from all that existed before.  The rest of its DNA chain comes from a marriage with technology.  The G-Pan is an attempt to improve upon the design by purposeful redesign of its component parts – chime, playing surface and rear attachment (skirt).  The first draft, the G-Pan model that has been publicised, utilises high grade steel, and a thick chime. In later models, more significant changes will be observed.”

  • WST - “Will the value of the G-Pan instruments increase with time - in a similar manner as say, a Stradivarius trumpet or violin for its owners?”

    Copeland - “This depends on how the market evolves – the first G-Pans have been retained with this in mind.  Certainly, the G-Pans were designed with quality musicianship in mind.  The key here is to bring value to the owners of G-Pans and to rebuild pride in the national community.  At the same time we are working to reduce the initial cost of the G-Pans.”

  • WST - “In a past interview with When Steel Talks, steelpan musician and arranger Ray Holman said that he had been part of an experimental process to construct steel pan instruments from a press in the early 1970’s under the Eric Williams administration. He said the press mysteriously disappeared, along with all related info on that process. Is the G-Pan a follow up of that initiative?”

    Copeland - “In a sense, yes, this G-Pan Initiative is Part 2 of the original CARIRI project.  The press did not disappear – the press was in Europe at the Saab plant; there never was a local one.  This was in the early 80’s/late 70’s as well and the project was conducted at CARIRI and included Richard McDavid (on this project) as well as Keith Maynard and Clement Imbert - all of whom have been involved in this project in one way or the other.  We actually have two of the pressed samples (one mysteriously turned up after missing for all those years).  That project included the likes of Tony Williams and Bertie Marshall.  Funding was stopped for reasons I have not been able to determine – this represents 30 years of lost opportunity.”

  • WST - “What limitations of the existing instruments in the ‘traditional’ steelpan family - in your opinion - have the G-pan improved upon?”

    Copeland - “The G-Pan is actually a family of steelpans that significantly improve upon traditional steelpans which were developed over time in an ad hoc fashion. These improvements include:

    1. An extension of note range across the family of G-Pans. The G-Pan family comprises:

      • The G-6Bass, which covers the 9-Bass, 6-Bass and Tenor Bass ranges

      • The G-3Mid which is a 3-pan covering the cello and guitar steelpan ranges

      • The G-Second covering the double second and double tenor ranges

      • The G-Soprano which more than covers the traditional tenor range.  All except the G-6Bass carry a three-octave range; the G-6Bass carries a 2.5 octave range from a very low G1.  The design template allows for 4-and 5-drum complements but it is felt that these will not generally be required as the ranges described adequately cover the musical spectrum


    2. A consequent potential reduction in the minimum number of steelpans required to effectively cover the steelpan musical range from eleven to four (the National Steel Symphony Orchestra uses only 4)

    3. Rationalisation and minimisation of note layout styles.  Currently we use the 4ths and 5ths layout on 1-, 3-, and 6-pans and the whole tone on the 2-pan (a 4-pan was also referred to in the patent but not used in the current line up)

    4. The use of a compound design approach whereby individual component parts of the instrument, specifically the playing surface, chime (rim), rear attachment (skirt) are optimized for their specific function ….

    5. A playing surface made from high grade steel of which the three tuners on the project, Roland Harrigin, Birch Kelman and Denzil Hernandez, are high in praise.  The result is an instrument that has high musical accuracy and definition, wide musical range, excellent sound projection and improved signal to noise ratio, a parameter we have been using to quantify one aspect of musical quality

    6. The G-Pan incorporates the use of a variety of techniques for eliminating or reducing annoying non-musical sympathetic vibrations (noise) that detract from the purity of the musical sound of the instrument.”

  • WST - “Trinidad’s National Steel Symphony Orchestra (NSSO) utilizes G-Pan instruments exclusively in its lineup. Have there been any recordings of the National Steel Symphony Orchestra?”

    Copeland - “Yes. However, that is under the control of the NSSO and its line Ministry.

  • WST - “As an organization that has specialized in the art of recording the steelpan instrument and the steel orchestra - there are some areas that are of particular interest to WST.  Have you been able to reduce or completely eliminate buzzing noises that sometimes emanate from the rims of the instruments, and sometimes from the chipping or separation of the chrome from the steelpan itself after plating?”

    Copeland - “These noises are in the class of the sympathetic vibrations referred to above.  However, I must admit that out concern has been more with spurious resonances on the playing surface and skirt.

    The buzzing noise from the rim is likely due to the fact that traditional pans have rims that are made by crimping and rolling the playing surface and skirt sheets together.  These can unravel during the sinking process and with temperature change.  The noise may also be due to material that becomes loose in the space within the rim.  This cannot be removed without damage to the pan, although the loose material may be subdued by injecting the hollow space in the rim with epoxy, silicone or other similar substances.  G-Pans use rolled flats for the rim (chime) so this problem cannot occur once a quality weld is used.

    Chrome separation can be controlled by properly cleaning the pan before chroming; it is assumed that the chrome process is of suitable quality.

  • WST - “Are the G-pan instruments chrome-plated, buffed or otherwise? And if so, what finishing process is employed?”

    Copeland - “At present we chrome plate the mid and foreground pans. There is one chromed bass set used in the NSSO.  All others are powder coated as chroming in TnT is extremely expensive.  Customers can get tuned basses on demand.”

  • WST - “Have you tested your instruments in other climates? If so, how have they held up?”

    Copeland - “We have not yet conducted temperature tests on G-Pans. We did carry one to the PASIC convention last year – it suffered loss in tune in one note due to handling rather than temperature variation.  We anticipate slightly improved performance under varying temperatures because of the chime design – the loss of tune in the conventional instrument is because the rolled rim unravels and causes the playing surface to get slack. The welded rim we use will not do this. Note however, that steel does expand and contract with temperature so some detuning is expected, but not as much as for the normal pan.”

  • WST - “What is the recommended time/duration between tunings, under normal playing conditions for the G-pan?”

    Copeland - “I am not sure what normal conditions are.  Most bands do not do much between Carnival periods. The NSSO practices 5 days a week, 4-5 hours a day (used to be 8 hours) basically for the entire year.  We had to touch up the early Sopranos pretty often but have now solved that problem. The new Sopranos are really much improved on the early models.”

  • WST - “Have any orders been received for the G-Pan outside of Trinidad and Tobago?”

    Copeland - “Yes – a few visitors actually played them either for Panorama or as they were visiting a band with G’s.  They were impressed enough to place orders.”

  • WST - “You mentioned in the WST forum that the instruments were not as easily tuned as their original predecessors.  What makes this the case?”

    Copeland - “The large size, the bigger octave spread, the fact that the playing surface material is a slightly thicker than the standard 18 gauge and, particularly in the case of the bass, the instrument is heavier than the traditional instrument.”

  • WST - “Can we expect Trinidad and Tobago to hold G-pan tuning workshops to get the interested tuners up to speed in terms of necessary techniques needed to tune and maintain the instruments?”

    Copeland - “Certainly that is our intent.  We held one in November for bands who received G–Pans for Beta Testing.  A good tuner who is willing to take the required time needs little, if any, guidance in tuning G-Pans.  There is really only one very important rule to follow with G-Pan drums (as is the case for all pans) – take your time when sinking!”

  • WST - “Will T&T be offering a degree program or an accreditation approach that validates tuners specifically of the G-Pan worldwide?”

    Copeland - “Validation is part of a strategy for quality control in G-Pan manufacture.  However, some of the plans we have for rationalising the steelpan industry (for G-pans and traditional pans) is to provide a certification mechanism for tuners.  Clement Imbert actually initiated a Trinidad and Tobago Vocational Qualification Certificate (TTNVQ) at Levels 1 and 2 on steelpan manufacture through the National Training Agency which I currently chair.  We also just started a workshop on steelpan tuning as part of a steelpan technology final year course in Engineering at the UWI.  It will run again in summer – I intend to become a student then.  The workshop is conducted by Denzil Fernandez.  Right now the main effort is to increase the core of quality tuners locally and, ultimately, internationally.  I estimate that Trinidad and Tobago would be without its expert tuners in about 5 years.”

  • WST - “Can a non-G-pan experienced tuner damage the instrument?”

    Copeland - “Yes, it has happened.  But this was more due to the general inexperience of the tuners involved and their unnecessary haste in sinking drums.  Generally any decent tuner of traditional pans can handle G-Pan tuning with a little patience.  The real problem is in sinking the drums – larger sized drums are actually more easily damaged.  It is for this reason that we included partially sunk drums in our beta testing distribution of G-Pans to selected bands last November 2009 (see http://www.newsday.co.tt/news/0,110997.html).”

  • WST - “How can one purchase a G-Pan?”

    Copeland - “We have a portal at www.panadigm.com that will be up and running soon.  At present our entire process of drum manufacture and finishing is manual.  However, we are now in the process of procuring production machinery. We expect a full ramp up before September 2010 with instruments with improved finishes.”

  • WST - “What is the wait time between order and delivery?”

    Copeland - “At present we are not ready for full commercial activity – we have as yet to get feedback from our Beta testers.  Also my last comment applies.”

  • WST - “Have you set up any licensing agreements yet outside of Trinidad and Tobago with major music manufacturers?”

    Copeland - “We are exploring these right now.”

  • WST - “What have been the most difficult challenges faced by the G-Pan family to date?”

    Copeland - “1. Defending against those who want to maintain the status quo (I call them the t-cells of the established system) – no-one likes change, and I guess that it is necessary to have opposition to change.  However, given the history of the pan movement, a revolution that turned the music world on its head, I was surprised at the level of opposition.  To them I would say that we are trying to get to the next plateau.”

    “2. Lack of critical mass in the technical and scientific support – a problem in any developing country. In my early days in steelpan technology I faced outright disdain from many local scientists and engineers locally who baulked at the idea of there being a subtle elegance in steelpan technology.  It is better now, but we do need more hands on deck.”

    “3. The supreme hassle of the patenting process.”

  • WST - “Why will the G-pan achieve national and global success?”

    Copeland - “We think of nothing less than global success for all products emanating from the Steelpan Initiatives Project.  There is no other option.  This holds for both the G-pan and its sibling, the Percussive Harmonic Instrument (PHI), the world’s first electronic pan.  (See above, and below.)”

    Closure - The Big Picture
    Funding for the Steelpan Initiatives Project has come just in time for us to address the lack of adequate consideration of the steelpan industry over the years.  It is hoped, however, that the project is seen not just as one that, at long last, targets the development of the local steelpan industry - but one that marks a change in Trinidad and Tobago culture to one that more significantly includes technical innovation, a culture change that many opine is absolutely necessary for the long term survival of Trinidad and Tobago and for developing nations generally.  What better platform to launch a new national revolution than the steelpan?

    G-Pan manufacture.  At present welding is done manually but a mechanised process is planned for the next phase.  An immediate by product of the country is now in a position to manufacture high quality drums for the local industry.

    A completed G-Pan drum is shown next to the conventional drums at left. The finished product is either chromed, nickel-plated or powder coated.

    NSSO G-Pans at the launch of the Steelpan Museum, Port of Spain

    Derron Ellies of Panadigm Innovations Limited solos with, Rhapsody in Steel
    as band members look on at the 2010 Steelpan Panorama Semi-finals (Northern Greens)

    An outside view of the Rhapsody Steel Orchestra wagon on Carnival Tuesday 2010.  The lone
    PHI (extreme right) was used to play 6-bass. Rhapsody brings out a sailor band every year.

    Skiffle Bunch at Monday Night mas in San Fernando. G-6Basses are on the right of the rack. Traditional 6 basses are to the left.

    Contact Dr. Copeland: http://whensteeltalks.ning.com/profile/BrianCopeland
    Click for more on Dr. Copeland

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