Kenmore firm a hit in steel drum industry
By Judy Stringer
From Crain's Cleveland Business
A visit to Panyard Inc., one of the Kenmore neighborhood's burgeoning music businesses, is as much a lesson in the history of steel pan drums as a look inside the Akron company.
Owner Ron Kerns is a musician and — when it comes to steel pans — a historian eager to share his excitement about the birth and evolution of the instrument with the hope of keeping the Caribbean art form alive.
"I fell in love the minute I saw my first pan," Kerns said. "I was auditioning for Ohio colleges. When I came to the University of Akron, (Larry) Snider said, 'If I accept you and you come here, you will play a steel drum.' I said, 'What the hell is that?' He showed me and I never turned back."
Kerns opened Panyard in 1990 with former business partner Shelly Irvine after the two percussionists graduated from the University of Akron. The original mission was to document and publish Caribbean steel pan melodies. Today, Kerns makes and sells between 8,000 to 10,000 pans a year from his California Avenue factory.
About 150 of those are handcrafted 22.5- or 26-inch drums, but most are a smaller version — called the "Jumbie Jam" — mass produced off site by stamping sheets of steal into miniature 16-inch beginner bowls. It takes 8 seconds to stamp a Jumbie, Kerns said, and another 30 minutes to hand tune it. That's a fraction of the 10 hours it takes to make the same pan by hand.
The beginner pans are sold by 800 retailers in eight countries for just under $200 a pop. Sales for the 14-person company topped $1 million last year.
Ask Kerns how he went from UA Steel Drum Band member to a global leader in the fabrication of pans, and the Kettering native is quick to credit ingenuity.
"When I came up with the technology to produce a die and start stamping some of our pans instead of handcrafting them, that blew everything wide open" he said.
But, Kerns added, innovation has deep roots when it comes to steel drumming — roots that date back before the first hammer hit steel. This is where the historian kicks in.
In the 1800s, Kerns said, the British government made it illegal to play musical instruments in colonial Trinidad as a way to control African slaves, whom they had brought over to work sugar cane fields and whom they believed were communicating through drumming. Without their drums, the slaves began using bamboo tubes to tamp out beats for parade masqueraders during the annual Carnival festival.
As parades grew larger, bamboo tubes were not loud or durable enough for the processions. Drummers beat on garbage can lids and large biscuit tin lids. As the story goes, in 1938 a young Winston "Spree" Simon, fearing his biscuit tin drum was ruined after the flat surface was beaten inward, turned the drum over and tried to bang it back into shape with a rock. When he flipped it again, Spree noticed he had created five distinct pitches on the playing surface.
Steel pan pioneers later migrated to 55-gallon barrels, which were large enough to fit the full chromatic scale, according to Kerns, who entered the pan innovation scene himself shortly after starting Panyard.
Kerns and Irvine had visited Trinidad during their UA Steel Drum Band tenure and were mesmerized by the island musicians' intricate steel drum arrangements, sometimes 10 minutes long, all composed and passed down by ear. The duo made more than a dozen trips to Trinidad in the late 1980s and early '90s to transcribe and preserve various arrangements.
Not long after Panyard began publishing the Caribbean tunes, however, pan enthusiasts were asking for more than sheet music. They wanted mallets and stands — accouterments Kerns and Irvine had made for their own use. Then, composers, directors and musicians wanted the pans themselves.
"You would hear the pan sitting next to a grand piano. And the pan was cool, but it really couldn't hang with this high-quality instrument," Kerns said. "I started studying the metal, figuring out what kind of steel, how much carbon, how much manganese, and the exact thickness and hardness (needed) so we could have a straightforward departure point when we were handcrafting."
Panyard's first pans were handcrafted from 55-gallon drums, which have 22.5-inch diameters. Kern later developed a 26-inch solid hoop pan, which enlarged the playing surface for "proper note sizes," he said. In the early days, the company made maybe 100 pans a year; the larger ones taking as much as 100 hours to shape and tune.
In 2007, Kerns took Panyard to the next level when he introduced the world's first steel pan die, used for casting the Jumbie Jams. The drums are big sellers, especially around Christmas, he said, noting that Panyard sold about 1,000 each month in October and November last year.
The company also has built specialized tips for pneumatic hammers and drafted reusable templates, both of which allow it to speed up the production of the larger bowls and bring more consistency to the final product. Kerns said the plan is to fabricate a die for the 26-inch pans so the company can meet the heavy demand for those drums. Today, it takes the company three to six months to fulfill an order due to a backlog.
"The big step was how could we mechanize so that we can get more pans out to more people and expose the culture and expose the art form on a much, much higher level?" Kerns said. "Now that we have proven that works, we are almost done on our research to start making the dies to stamp the other size pans."