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History of the Steel Pan

No one can dispute the claim that the steel band originated in Trinidad. During the days of slavery, musical instruments were scarce. The greed of the slave master had made the arts almost disappear as every available piece of shipping space was used to bring the necessities and the very profitable human cargo. There were no recreation facilities – slaves working from before sunrise to after sunset had little time to relax and enjoy themselves and life was hard, monotonous and dreary.

To take their minds off their unhappy existence, slaves would occasionally gather together and hold a ‘callender’ or ‘camboule’, where they would sing, play sticks and tell stories about happier times. Often they would dance to the rhythm of the simplest of musical instruments such as dustbin lids, bottles, and spoons.

The Musical Trinidadians would make new instruments from any materials available, and, bamboo being in great supply and very fast growing, became the most popular base material. Bamboo drums led to the Bamboo Tamboo band, which soon became accepted as an essential part of any carnival. Sadly, these too were banned when local police found the Bamboo instruments doubling as weapons.

The first steel pans

Bamboo Tamboos bands reappeared at the end of the First World War, and by about 1930 – anything that could make a satisfying noise crept into the bands, even by striking the petrol tank of an old car lying nearby. At the end of the war, many oil drums were left lying on the beaches of Trinidad. The local people would beat them like a drum, which produced a rhythmic sound that they could dance to. It was then noticed that where dents started appearing from hitting the drum, the sound would change.

Folk stories tell us that one day, a player found the top of an old drum to be dented. He found that the dented part gave a different note. He tried to repair the drum by heating it and beating it with a stone. He found not only that different dents gave different sounds, but also that with care, a single drum could be adapted to create a whole range of notes. With this in mind the musicians would purposely make these dents and eventually there were musical notes coming from this rusty old piece of metal that had been dumped on the beach.

By the late 1930′s to early 1940′s, the steel drum or ‘Pan’ as it is now known was born and it has become the only musical instrument to be discovered in the 20th century.

The steel pan grows… 

The steel pan is made from a 45-gallon oil drum. A process was then created to hammer the notes out properly, to create many notes on one drum. It was also noticed that if the bottom was cut out of the drum, the sound was louder.

Things quickly progressed from here and more and more pans were created, some with 2 drums which had larger notes, which made the note deeper, right up to 5 drums, which would only have 3 notes per drum, which could be used as a bass line. Today there are many different types of steel pan, ranging from 1 up to as many as 12 drums played by one player!!

Word of this amazing new find spread very quickly throughout the Island, and very soon people were forming bands throughout the country. Everyone wanted to play this magical instrument.

In its early years, the Steel Pan was associated with poverty, as a recreational activity for the lower classes of society. Today, the Steel Pan is now officially recognised as the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago and has millions of players and followers throughout the world. There is a governing body for the instrument, Pan Trinbago, and the annual national ‘Champions of Steel’ Panorama competition has a prize fund of TT$1,000,000 for the winner. Not so lower class now eh…?

Today the steel pan is more technical in its manufacture. Although many still choose the traditional method of making the pan by hand by ‘sinking the belly’ with a cannon ball and ‘firing’ it on a normal log fire, they are now more generally made using machinery such as pneumatic hammers and furnaces. Regardless of the technical approach to making pans, it is still a time consuming process, with one pan taking approximately 80 hours to build before final tuning!

Steel Pan in the United Kingdom

The steel pan first reached Britain’s shores in 1951 when the Trinidad All Percussion Steel Orchestra (TAPSO) took part in the Festival of Britain and went on to tour around England. A number of TAPSO members subsequently settled in Britain  and started to form their own bands.

The arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 heralded an era of Caribbean migration and the advent of steelbands being established in the UK. The introduction of the steel pan in the UK brought mixed reaction. Some welcomed the idea of the sound of the Caribbean, others were very firm in the view of the instrument being ‘black music’ and not accepting it into society. Nevertheless it continued to progress and no one could have predicted the impact it would have on our culture in the years to come.

Notting Hill Carnival

In 1964 the Ladbroke Grove Residents Association, in West London, approached the Russell Henderson Steelband and asked them to perform on Ladbroke Grove as part of a street party, which had been organised to tackle the racism and poor social conditions developing in the area at the time. As the lorry carrying the Russell Henderson Steelband rolled onto Ladbroke Grove, history was made. What started off, as a small street party has now become the biggest street party in Europe, the Notting Hill Carnival.

More than 40 years, on the Notting Hill Carnival attracts in excess of 1 million people from across the globe every year. The ‘Champions of Steel’ Panorama competition also arrived in the UK in 1979, which was first won by Paddington Youth Steelband, and is the start of the August Bank Holiday weekend’s festivities.

1995 saw the establishment of the British Association of Steelbands (BAS). This membership – based organisation is the only one of its kind in the UK, dedicated to the advancement of steel pan in Britain. BAS are the organisers of many events, which showcase UK steelbands, such as the ‘Champions of Steel’ Panorama competition and the Pan Explosion Competition, which is for young arrangers and composers to advance their musical skills. In 1999 BAS started the Pan Podium bi-annual magazine and website which exhibits work being done in the UK alongside news and features about pan in Europe, America and the Caribbean.

So, although many people do not realise it, the invention of the Steel Pan has been one of the major contributors to the UK’s culture as we know it today, bringing with it cultural diversity and musical opportunity that has been matched by no other instrument in the same way.