The Evolution of the Steel Pan as a Musical Instrument in the Caribbean

The Steel Pan has become recognized as a cultural art form and is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. It has spread throughout the world. This joyful, vibrant instrument was born of poverty in the backyards and streets of a cosmopolitan country with the pent-up energies of a population that included influences from African, East Indian, Carib Indian, Spanish Creole and Chinese cultures. The roots of the steel pan as an art form can be traced from the Tamboo Bamboo Bands (as they were called) of the thirties, through the use of metal dustbins (garbage cans) as a substitute for broken bamboo, to the modern Steel Pan instrument.

To begin, we must go back to the days when Trinidad and Tobago was a British Colony. With British rule came the Christian religion along with its many holidays, feast days and saint days, not to mention New Years Day and Discovery Day. The biggest celebration of the year however, took place on Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday called Carnival Monday and Tuesday. This celebration was a combination of the French “Mardi Gras” and the festival of the burning of the cane fields known as “Cannes Brulee.” Together they formed one big festival called “Jour Vert.” These were the days when the people took to the streets to celebrate, make music and enjoy themselves.

One must also understand that Trinidad and Tobago were sugar producers to the world. Along with their Christian religion, the British also brought African slaves to work the cane fields. After the slaves were freed, the plantation owners were desperate for new sources of labor. In 1838 the British government began a program of recruiting Indian laborers in Calcutta to be sent to Trinidad to supplement the work force. They were indentured laborers for a set period of time, working 7 and 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week, for three and a half years. Unlike the East Indians, who were allowed to keep and practice their cultural and religious heritage, the African slaves were forbidden to beat African drums or to practice their religious ceremonies which were seen as a threat by the ruling European Christians. As a result, most African drumming and musical culture were actually outlawed by 1851. The African culture dwindled and the Indian culture surfaced. The use of the bamboo plant as a rhythmic instrument emerged. The African slaves adopted the bamboo as a rhythmic instrument and developed it further.

Bamboo stalks of differing widths were cut at varying lengths and used as a rhythmic instrument. They were hollowed out inside by knocking out the joints. The bamboo was cured in linseed oil and put to dry. When the wide bamboo was held in an upright position and struck upon the ground, the bamboo gave off a booming sound similar to that of a muffled drum. At the same time the bamboo was struck on the ground, the sides of the bamboo were struck to play contrapuntal African rhythms. Smaller pieces of bamboo which gave off a higher pitched sound were held in the hands and struck together in different rhythmic patterns. This was a merging of two cultures. Bands of bamboo instruments soon formed. Tamboo Bamboo Bands emerged and remained in the forefront as the main form of rhythmic musical expression through the thirties.

Around the late thirties a proclamation was issued by the Governor banning the cutting of the bamboo plant which was necessary for the making of these instruments. This proclamation was posted only a few weeks before a celebrated holiday leaving no time to make new instruments. The people were forced to use whatever old bamboo instruments that remained.

On the appointed day, people took to the streets with the bamboos they had and anything that could make a noise, including the famous bottle and spoon. After a few hours of vigorous playing, the old bamboo instruments began to burst apart. Intent on continuing the rhythms, the revelers picked up dustbin covers and eventually the dustbins themselves and began beating on them. This was one of the first mixtures of bamboo and metal. In the choice of dustbin covers as a replacement for the bamboo, the idea of pan was born.

What followed was the direct inclusion of the sound of metal (be it a cooking pot, a brake drum from a motor vehicle or a paint can,) with the sound of the bamboo. The new sound of steel had arrived in Trinidad and Tobago, never to be quieted again. Tamboo Bamboo Bands underwent a total change. In some communities there was a mixture of bamboo and steel. In other areas, the bamboo became obsolete. The new bands that boasted of having all their rhythms played on metal of some sort were called steel bands and the men who played them were called steel band men. The instrument became known as the steel drum or steel pan.

In September of 1939, World War II broke out and much of Trinidad and Tobago went into seclusion. This was not the case with the steel band man. In the backyards of communities (pan yards as they came to be known) unemployed youth began to develop a new art form. These young men had no formal job for the most part and could afford to put their time and energy into the development of the steel pan. During the war years, pan men experimented with new ideas. Attempts were made to place tuned notes on biscuit tins and paint cans. By the time the war was over, short melodies were being played with one stick on these pans while being held in the palm of one hand.

The discussion regarding the development of the steel pan from 1939 onward deserves and requires a detailed manifest too lengthy for this particular article. However, a brief description is appropriate at this point. At first, the method applied to the playing surface of the metal containers was a convex shape, where the inside of the top of the container was pushed upward and outward. Tuned notes were dents made in the surface of this cover or domed piece of metal. Later, in 1945, a concave playing surface was introduced on a 45 gallon drum by Elliot “Ellie” Mannette. The playing surface had reversed itself and was now concave or pushed down inside the container. Areas containing tuned notes were more carefully marked in a geometrical pattern. These individual tuned areas were grooved along the outside with a wooden punch and raised slightly upward. This method of building a pan became accepted by all pan men and is still employed in the modern steel pan to this day.

Steel bands were loud. All day. They were not a welcome addition to the community in the early days. Neighbors would complain of the noise and call the police. Steel bands were subject to frequent police raids and arrests. The authorities were intent on wiping out the steel bands and used every means possible to do so. The steel pan was (and still is) listed under the law as a nuisance instrument. This created a rebellious attitude towards the police in steel band men that led to fierce fights between the two groups. These fights became commonplace in most communities. Police would invade areas to either seize or destroy the instruments. In trying to repel the attacks steel band men were labeled hooligans and vagabonds. From that time on, the steel band was left with an ugly sigma that placed it in direct opposition with the law. With this oppressed environment, steel bands turned their frustration inward on each other which led to the steel band wars of the late forties.

Even through the unrest there remained a breed of pan men dedicated to the advancement of the steel pan art form. These were individuals who would, through trial and error, become the innovators of the different pans, patterns, names, building/tuning/blending methods in developing the modern steel pan. Three men worth noting who contributed significantly to the continued development of the steel pan are Elliot “Ellie” Mannette, Bertie Marshall and Tony Williams. These three men are responsible for and can be directly linked to a large percentage of the innovations in building and tuning steel pan that has led us to the refined instrument we know today as the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the Steel Pan.