In 19th-century Trinidad, drumming became so synonymous with gang warfare that the British colonial authorities outlawed hand drums altogether. Seeking an alternative, the island’s denizens turned first to bamboo before happening upon an ingenious use for discarded oil drums. The resulting instrument, the steel pan, must be the most refined piece of junk percussion ever invented.
Today, Trinidad and Tobago’s gang battles are confined to the annual Panorama competition, held during the February carnival when huge orchestras up to 100 strong compete for glory and a sizable cash prize. You can catch some of the competition’s veterans on tour in Japan this week in the guise of The Caribbean Magic Steel Drum Orchestra, formed by Sheldon James in 1993. The orchestra drew many of its members from the Amoco Renegades Steel Orchestra — once one of the island’s most notorious street gangs, but by the early ’90s were the reigning Panorama champions.
Under James’s adventurous musical direction, the group has incorporated a vast miscellany of styles into its repertoire. Along with calypso and reggae, listeners can expect everything from jazz to easy listening to classical. On previous trips here, the orchestra has gamely tackled Japanese standards too, including Kyu Sakamoto’s international hit “Sukiyaki” (1963) and the theme from Hayao Miyazaki’s hit 1997 anime, “Princess Mononoke.” On the tour’s final date, they will be joined by Little Tempo, the Japanese dub reggae outfit whose use of steel pans lends their music an irresistibly tropical lilt.
The Caribbean Magic Steel Drum Orchestra play: Aug. 22, 6:30 p.m. at Shimane Arts Center (¥2,800;  31-1860); Aug. 24, 7 p.m., Hyogo Performing Arts Center (¥4,000;  68-0255); Aug. 25, 3:30 and 7 p.m., Okayama Symphony Hall (¥3,500;  224-6066); Aug. 26, 3 p.m., Little World, Aichi (free;  62-5611); Aug. 28, 7 p.m., Yaizu-shi Bunka Center, Shizuoka (¥4,500;  627-3111); Aug. 29, 7 p.m., Shibuya O-East (¥4,500;  3444-6751). For more information, visit www.conversation.co.jp/schedule/caribbean_magic/
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