The New York Times

August 8, 2004

The Joyful Sound of a Steel Drum Is Muted by Controversy


Before moving to New York in 1970, Trevor King grew up in a rough neighborhood in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, where he lived just doors away from Winston "Spree" Simon, one of the early pioneers of the steel drum.

Mr. King was there when drums were mostly improvised out of garbage cans, scraps of metal and empty 55-gallon barrels; he saw the drum rise to prominence as Trinidad's national instrument, and watched as it caught on around the world.

Now Mr. King, who is 59, says he is ready to make his own contribution to his native music, even as many of his countrymen dismiss his claim to history. This summer, he secured a United States patent for a tenor steel drum design specifying that the sound-making bumps on the head of the instrument be arranged according to a pattern known as the circle of fifths.

The development is significant, Mr. King said, because the arrangement of notes on the drum, which players call the pan, has never been standardized.

"You've got to understand that this instrument was discovered by a class of men who society referred to as outcasts," Mr. King said last week at his home in Jamaica, Queens. Lack of uniformity, he said, made the drum harder to learn.

Mr. King's brother, Earl, a noted steel drum player, said he himself could have been "a genius of a musician" if he had played a standardized drum when young.

Such excitement is not shared by many people in Trinidad. His patent touched off a furor on the island, where steel drum music holds a cultural prominence similar to that of baseball in the United States.

Patrick Arnold, president of the Trinidad-based group Pan Trinbago, the world governing body for the steel drum, said last week that his organization planned to contest Mr. King's patent. He said people have been playing drums similar to Mr. King's since the 1950's.

"We were amazed that somebody from Trinidad would try to patent that pan," Mr. Arnold said, adding that an American patent would not likely affect music in Trinidad.

Mr. King said he has been working on his idea for decades, and was outraged over suggestions that the invention was not his own.

"I studied a lot of music to understand this," Mr. King said. "This is years of hard work, you understand?"

Playing a drum in his living room, he mused about how far he, and the music, had come. "This is my whole entire life," he said. "From where I'm born, where I grew up, to this."

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