Staff photo by Allison Breiner Potter
Vince Stout has an assortment of steel drums ready for performances by the Sea Pans.
Wilmington native Vince Stout was fascinated with sound.
There is footage of the two-year-old Stout from 1966 that his mother always points back at to prove her point.
"I was dragging out all of mom’s pots and pans and I was banging on them," Stout recalled. "She claims I’ve gone full circle."
Stout’s first musical lessons however were forced upon him when his sister Julie asked their parents for piano lessons. In the beginning it was tortuous.
"She wanted to," Stout said. "I didn’t."
But with the guidance of Mrs. Donahue, who lived just down the street, Stout learned the basis for what would further him in his fascination with sound. And then there was his first real instrument, an old rusty steel drum that Stout remembers appearing at his home one day when he was a child. Even out of tune, the sound was something Stout could never get out of his mind and something he knew he would come back to.
Before then, Stout decided he wanted to be in a band—the cool thing to do. So in middle school he began to callous his fingers while learning to play the acoustic guitar. Then in high school he turned to rock and roll, learning the electric bass and drums for his garage band, meanwhile keeping it classy by taking on the acoustic bass in the Hoggard High School orchestra.
"It’s funny," Stout said. "Both of my parents were biologists."
Successful in their choice of fields, Stout expressed his love for music and his parents shrugged their shoulders and told their son to follow his own path, "Just do what you want to do."
So Stout continued to follow his heart, later receiving a degree from East Carolina University in music education.
"I was in quite a few bands," Stout laughed, recalling his role as the dreadlocked bass player in The Amateurs, a successful local reggae band from the ‘90s.
From The Amateurs to country, rockabilly, satire lounge, chamber music, orchestra and symphony work, teaching music part time at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and a long stint with a good friend, flamenco guitarist Paco Strickland, Stout said he’s just about done it all—except heavy metal.
"I have to change hats," Stout said, "to make a living at it."
But about 15 years ago, Stout heard a sound that took him back to his childhood—that old rusty drum.
"It was sort of like a marimba, but not really," Stout explained. "Sort of like a xylophone, but not really. It’s sort of like a bell sound, but not really. It has this real mysterious kind of sound to it…I figured out they were steel drums, or steel pans was the original term."
Stout, the music man that he was, bought a drum for himself. He began to play. But the more he played, the more he yearned to know the drum and "how it made that sound," he said. "How it works."
Twelve years ago, Stout met Mr. Ellie Mannette who taught him about that sound—how to build the drums, how to tune them, how to hear them—by serving as Mr. Mannette’s visiting apprentice.
Stout refers to him with reverence because Mr. Mannette, a native of Trinidad and now in his 80s, who lives in the rolling hills of West Virginia, is one of the few—and the only surviving—inventor of that mysterious sound.
During the days of slavery, Stout remembers his mentor telling him, the "Trinis" were banned from communicating with traditional hide drums.
"Still keeping their rhythms in mind," Stout said. "They would basically just pick up objects to hammer out the rhythms. Now these could be spoons, hubcaps, paint cans—still portraying the rhythm of the congas and bongos."
There is a legendary story, Stout explained, that begins around 1930 in the ghettos of Port au Spain where natives began to use large metal biscuit containers as marching bass drums.
"One guy loaned his drum to a guy who was really heavy-handed," Stout said. "He returned it with all these bumps and dents in it and he noticed that all these bumps and dents had pitches to them—ah, light bulb!"
This is how Mr. Mannette and four other men discovered the steel pans.
Like any instrument, with its growth in popularity during the years, experiments have been made in the progression of crafting steel pans with a machine. But all trials have failed.
"These," Stout said, "have to be hand-hammered. There’s a reason for that, because you’re stretching the metal …The only way you can do this is by hand."
Every so often, Stout ventures off Highway 421, looking for old, unwanted oil drums. The scrap yards know him by now and offer him their junk for free.
When Stout arrives home, he examines the particulars, placing each drum with a voice—lead, cello, bass, tenor bass, quantum bass, guitar—judging on thickness and granularity.
"These things are not like any other instrument," he said. "There’s no rhyme or reason as far as where the notes exist."
Stout cuts the bottom of the barrel. The sides or skirts are perfectly measured. They will one day act as acoustic resonators.
He carries the barrels out to a friend’s farm, where he can be as loud as he wants, and begins to sink in the bottom of the barrel with a 20-pound sledgehammer until it reaches the desired concavity.
And when he returns home, Stout begins a process that will consume four to six months of his time, about 20 different types of hammers and "this thing called patience," Stout said.
First he drafts out note templates that he will later use as barriers to contain the sound of each note. Then he puts the drum on top of a fire to temper the metal.
"There’s a reason for this," Stout said. "To remove localized tensions and anneals. The fire also reduces some manganese and carbon within the steel."
Tuning, Stout said, is like playing chess. Beneath the drum he plans his moves carefully, purposefully making a note flat knowing that one hammer to another will push it into key.
With Stout’s metal work, he has built enough drums to support his band, the Sea Pans, which may consist of Stout as a soloist one day, a trio of musician friends another, and up to a 20-man band that uses no electricity, just these simple yet complex magnum opus creations.
"I guess it’s my dream come true," Stout said.
To this day, Stout has yet to earn a dollar from anything other than his music. And yes, he even pays his taxes.
"I have to pinch myself now and then," Stout said. "How many people do that for a living?"