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The steel pan has a legacy. Jonathan Scales is redefining it.

Jonathan Scales
Sandlin Gaither
Courtesy of Artist
Jonathan Scales

Jonathan Scales has climbed many mountainous obstacles to become the steel pan composer he is today.

The first was self-imposed. He chose to master the pan drum — an unusual decision which has raised many eyebrows throughout his career. He's not from Trinidad, where the instrument was invented, nor does he have a particular affinity for Calypso, the festive music closely aligned with his metal drum. Scales hears the instrument differently in his imagination. He matches its sound with ideas that draw from genres like bluegrass and work by composers that include Danny Elfman and Igor Stravinsky.

An unconventional choice on an unconventional instrument — how could he know it would even work? The creative voices in his head prevailed: Instead of evoking a tropical island, Scales conjures sounds that are introspective, melancholic and brooding, yet also forcefully delivered on his bright, kinetic contraption.

In this episode of Jazz Night In America, we learn about the fascinating origins of the steel pan and get lost in Jonathan Scales' magnificent and circuitous journey, which includes stops at the Tiny Desk with his band, the Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, and the creation of his own YouTube series, Scales & Friend, along the way.

Set List:
(All music written by Jonathan Scales unless otherwise noted)

  • "Box in the Sky" (Jonathan Scales, Agustin Uriburu) from the album Re-Potted
  • "We Came Through the Storm" from the album Pillar 
  • "Mizma" (E'Lon Jordan-Dunlap, Maison Guidry, Jonathan Scales) from the album Re-Potted
  • "The Mad" from the album Mindstate Music
  • "How to Rebuild Your Battleship" from the album Pillar 
  • "Focus Poem" feat. Béla Fleck from the album Pillar 
  • "Hot Cheetos" by MonoNeon feat. Jonathan Scales (Dywane Eric Thomas Jr.)
  • "This is the Last Hurrah!" feat. Jeff Coffin from the album Pillar 
  • "Ocean Church" from the album Re-Potted

Jonathan Scales Fourchestra: Jonathan Scales, steel pan; E'Lon JD, electric bass; Maison Guidry, drums.


Sarah Geledi and Simon Rentner, writers and producers; Christian McBride, host; Ron Scalzo, episode mix; Suraya Mohamed, executive producer of NPR Music; Keith Jenkins, vice president of visuals and strategy at NPR Music.

Copyright 2024 WBGO. To see more, visit WBGO.

Sarah Geledi left her job in advertising in Montreal to pursue a career in music in New York City. She fulfilled that mission, producing content for the JAM Festival at WBGO, segments for The Checkout, and programs for WWOZ and PRI's Afropop Worldwide. She also served as a producer for NYC Winter Jazzfest before landing the "job of her dreams," producing radio for Jazz Night in America.
For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.