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A Golden Ear Tends to Brooklyn's Steel Drums for West Indian Day

By Sonja Sharp | August 31, 2012 7:00am

CROWN HEIGHTS — The steel drums may have been born in Trinidad — but for this island-born tinkerer, it took a move to Brooklyn to find the pan's perfect pitch.  

Clement Franklin, 54, of Canarsie, began banging out steel drums in 1985, but it was only a decade ago that he undertook the much more delicate art of tuning the popular Caribbean instrument — an intricate process that he and more than a dozen other specially trained ears will repeat over hundreds of steelpans this week in advance of Monday's West Indian Day Parade.

"Some guys can't get the tuning — they can shape and prepare the pan, but they can't get that tone," Franklin explained as he tapped away with his hammer, gently "blending" a pan for Despers USA-Trini, one of about a dozen steel drum bands that will compete and perform during the weekend-long carnival.

"Everybody has their gift, but some people are slower than some."  

For Franklin, uncovering that tone was something he came to only after years of producing the pans — originally crafted from 55 gallon oil drums — in New York City. 

"I believe I'm one of the only ones that came from Trinidad and learned tuning in the United States," he said. "The one that's just been built, it's sometimes a little dull. You've got to get it up to that pure sound."

All summer long, the silvery ring of the steel drum could be heard on side streets and lots of Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Flatbush, where the majority of the bands that will perform this weekend practice and perfect their signature sound.

Most bands begin practicing in June, when school lets out and younger performers are free to spend their afternoons holding a pair of drumsticks. That work will culminate with a competition this Sunday, and, of course, at the parade on Monday afternoon.

While the rest of the Despers plunked away, Franklin donned a pair of earplugs, bending over a pan he'd outfitted with a pair small leather pads so he could isolate just one ring among the bell-like tones produced by each surface of the drum. He tapped a single face and bent his ear close to listen, briefly consulting an electric tuner before giving the steel a slap with his two-headed hammer.

It's a process he'll repeat scores of times for each pan, completing more than 60 by Friday.

"I started Tuesday, and I'll work until Friday," Franklin said. "Everything will be OK — not perfect, but good enough."