Click photo to enlarge
Steel drum musician Harry Best, a fixture at local weddings, parties and receptions with his band Shabang, opened Panwest Caribbean Steelpan Music Center on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito in August.

EL CERRITO -- While its setting and mild climate may not resemble a Caribbean island in any way, the city has become a center for steel drum music, a style that originated in Trinidad and Tobago, islands off the coast of Venezuela.

Steel drum musician Harry Best, a fixture at local weddings, parties and receptions with his band Shabang, opened Panwest Caribbean Steelpan Music Center on San Pablo Avenue in August.

The studio provides a central location for the steel drum lessons that Best, an El Sobrante resident, was teaching in Walnut Creek and Richmond. Best also teaches in San Rafael.

Steel drums, which produce a sound associated with calypso music, originated at the end of World War II, but the whole tradition goes back to African slaves, Best said.

"In Trinidad and Tobago, the colonial power was British," he said. "Traditional African drums were suppressed because it was thought they were used to foster runaways and rebellions."

Thus, the residents began a tradition of fashioning drums from whatever they could find.

The U.S. Navy brought steel oil drums to Trinidad after oil was discovered on the island. Eventually, an enterprising musician found that discarded drums could be made into instruments that created an original sound.

Soon players discovered that dents in the barrels could alter the sound and they "proceeded to deliberately create dents," Best said.

"The steel drum produces a tingling sound, a tropical Caribbean sound," said Best, who noted that Jimmy Buffett has a steel drum player in his group. "It's a very unique sound, one that people enjoy and its popularity is growing by leaps and bounds."

Steel drums have come a long way since the early days. Today, drum makers stretch the bottoms of drum barrels, often custom made, into a concave shape using a sledge hammer in a process known as "shrinking the pan."

The depth to which the barrels are "shrunk" depends on the tone the instrument is expected to give.

Bass drums are shallow while a tenor steel drum pan is deep, producing a higher-pitched, shriller sound.

The steel drum sound is also determined by the number of drums used. A soprano drum is single drum, the alto is comprised of two drums and the tenor three. The bass is made up of six large barrels, Best said.

On average, a steel drum pan needs to be tuned twice a year, depending upon how much and how hard it is played. The finished pan is often painted in bright colors, or dipped in chrome for a reflective finish.

"These instruments are still hand-crafted and every steel pan is different from the others," Best said. "One guy in San Rafael makes them, and the biggest outfit in the United States is in Ohio."

Best is from St. Lucia, a small island in the eastern Caribbean, but he said he played the steel drums only casually when he was growing up because steel drumming on the island was concentrated in "some rough neighborhoods."

He became more active after coming to the United States at age 17 to attend City College of San Francisco and then UC Berkeley, where he was on the varsity soccer team.

Best and some friends got together to practice informally, and he eventually turned the pastime into a career as performer, recording artist and teacher.

Panwest Caribbean Steelpan Music Center is at 10855 San Pablo Ave. in El Cerrito. Details: 510-222-1123.