By Zahra Gordon
Steel-pan, the national instrument of Trinidad & Tobago, has become ubiquitous, with its music being found in numerous commercials for Caribbean tourism, in school programs as close to home as Grenada and as far away as Japan, and even in the song “P.I.M.P” by rapper 50-Cent. Yet as popular as steel-pan has become, people seem to know very little about its origins. Many still think that the instrument is a Jamaican invention. So in the interest of knowledge-sharing and challenging misconceptions, here is the true story of the steel-pan and its evolution.
The steel-pan is the only instrument to be invented in the 20th century. Pan, as it is locally referred to, developed as part of the Carnival culture of Trinidad. Up until the 1930s, tamboo-bamboo bands were still the norm for Carnival music among Afro-Trinidadians. The tamboo-bamboo bands were Carnival bands whose instruments consisted of different lengths of bamboo which would be played with sticks and knocked on the ground. Bamboo was used after drums were banned by the colonial powers in the 1800s. It is believed that the younger generation of Africans at the time sought to and did change this. In his book, “Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad & Tobago,” Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool, PhD, Trinidadian calypsonian writes that “The evidence of several writers and eyewitnesses show that following the Tamboo Bamboo band, younger bamboo beaters began to slowly introduce pieces of steel and old pans to provide more rhythm for the revelers.” The steel brought to the tamboo-bamboo bands was mostly recycled biscuit, paint and soda tins.
These young people continued to experiment with pans and by the early 1940s had developed instruments that could play simple melodic tunes. During the 1940s the steel pan would increase in versatility and by 1949, steel pan tuners and builders preferred discarded 55 gallon oil drums from which to fashion their instruments. As pannists – a pan player, as in “pianist” – sought to play more complicated music on their instruments, they developed more pans to suit, and by the 1950s the steel-band grew to a full orchestra containing pans to fit all voices – bass, alto, tenor – as such.
Since the steel-bands developed out of the poorer neighborhoods in Trinidad and were associated with the violence of these areas, the instrument was frowned upon by the upper and middle class Trinidadian society who tended to be more adept in their knowledge of European music. When students of prestigious secondary schools formed their own bands and/or ventured to join the lower class bands during the 1940s and 50s, they aided in the steel-pan gaining recognition. Steel-bands were also able to gain recognition by being allowed to participate in the national music festival, forming associations, gaining sponsorship from companies, receiving support from key figures in the middle class, and playing classical music and other genres besides the indigenous calypso. In the fight for independence and the rise of nationalism, the leading political parties saw the importance of the steel-pan to Trinidadians and it was then adopted as a symbol of nationalism. According to Liverpool, “By 1962, the majority of middle class people who had first spurned the movement began to accept the steel-band as the national music of the country. Its history showed a continuous march from the Congo drum of enslavement, to the Cannes Brulees of colonialism, to an orchestra on stage to usher in the country’s independence.”
After independence, the national Panorama competition was established by the new government as the foremost showcase venue for steel bands. As part of the nationalist doctrine, however, bands were restricted to playing only calypso for this competition. Some steel-band arrangers began to feel somewhat repressed by these constraints. Whereas pannists may have been able to “drop a Bomb” in the past while on the road at Carnival or in other venues and gain kudos, Panorama did not allow that comfort. “Dropping a Bomb” was playing a classical or American pop tune during carnival parades to gain prestige among the middle class patrons. These songs were usually rehearsed in secret to add to the element of surprise and would sometimes be played in calypso tempo.
Arrangers soon figured out how to add elements of the other genres to their calypso arrangements, resulting in the lengthy, elaborate arrangements we hear in the current Panorama competitions. However, while Panorama remained the height of showcasing for steel-bands, the sole playing of calypso at this event might in turn have created a steel-band movement of pannists, whose knowledge rests solely in calypso, as opposed to musicians, who have a broad knowledge of musical genres. Trinidadian Historian Kim Johnson laments that the steel-pan seems to have “fell to the social scientists by default, as if beating pan was some quaint folk practice, an aspect of ethnicity or national identity or pluralism – anything but a serious, modern art form.” Steel-bands spend months preparing and practicing these elaborate calypso arrangements and this focus may be part of the reason that some believe the steel-band movement has not been taken seriously enough.
This is not to say that there are not additional opportunities for pannists to showcase their talents outside of the Carnival and calypso setting. Outside of the Carnival season other competitions and showcases have arisen where the central focus is not calypso – although calypso is not absent. These events include the World Steelband Music Festival, where bands are required to play a classical piece in addition to a test piece which is usually a calypso, and the Pan in the 21st Century competition where participating bands are given a list of suggested musical genres to choose from, all of which are non-calypso. Not to mention the numerous Pan Jazz festivals held throughout the year.
For more in-depth information about the steel-pan check out these books:
Hollis “Chalkdust” Liverpool “Rituals of Power and Rebellion: The Carnival Tradition in Trinidad & Tobago”
Dr. J.D. Elder From Congo Drum to Steelband: A Socio-Historical Account of the Emergence and the Evolution of the Trinidad Steel Orchestra
Zahra Gordon is a contributor to Island Vibes Magazine and writes about Caribbean culture and entertainment. For comments, please feel free to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.