From its inception through its short but rapid evolution, trial and error has played a fundamental role in the development, design, structuring and even the naming of the instruments of the steel pan family. Two almost opposing influences played particularly important roles in the naming of the instruments by pioneering steel band men. The first of these two influences is the colloquial expressions that developed based on the instrument’s sound or its function in a particular piece of music. The second influence, which arrived with the European culture, is the growing awareness of traditional Western classical music and its accompanying vocabulary.
A comparison of the evolution of the naming of the Tenor Pan (as it is called today) provides a good example of these two influences. Consider the colloquial influence first. The Tenor Pan was originally called a “Ping Pong.” This name was given to the instrument and Small groups of pan players would parade the streets of Port of Spain (the capital of Trinidad and Tobago) playing what was at that time the first type of melody pans, the “ping pong.” This was the first name given to the pan by community members who heard and enjoyed this new musical sound. To the ear, the words ping pong almost sounded “Chinese” and were descriptive of the sound the instrument made when held aloft in one hand and played with one stick with no rubber tip. The word pong appeared again in later years, this time used by pioneering steel band men in the naming of some of the newer instruments (i.e. Alto Pong, Tenor Pong, Soprano Pong.)
Even back then the Ping Pong, Tenor Pan or First Pan as it was eventually called had an air of importance to both the community that supported the steel band and the authorities who were totally against the steel band’s progress. Although it was legal for revelers to parade the streets at different times for one reason or another with the Bermudez Biscuit Drum call the Boom, the Kettle or snare Drum, and the bugle, the Ping Pong was not allowed. It was outlawed. When these parades took place police officers were placed along the route to seize the Ping Pong and arrest the player. As a result of these actions by law enforcement, the community would place lookouts along the route to warn the band of such activities so the Ping Pong player and pan could take another route to bypass the road block that was up ahead.
The name “Ping Pong” later changed to “First Pan.” The name First Pan has at least two interpretations. The term refers to the fact that it is the oldest or first pan invented in the family of instruments with more than three tuned notes. In addition, the First Pan was recognized then and still is today as the first choice of pan to play melody. Because it plays the lead or melody line, it is also sometimes called the Lead Pan or the Melody Pan.
Eventually, the names Ping Pong, First Pan, Lead Pan and Melody Pan gave way to the current nomenclature of Tenor Pan. This demonstrates a clear connection to the growing awareness of Western classical music and its accompanying vocabulary. Tenor refers to the highest male voice. Since this pan had the highest range of notes of any pan in the family of instruments, it was called the Tenor Pan. Do not get confused: the range of the Tenor Pan and a male tenor voice do not coincide. The range of a Tenor pan is more in the area of a female soprano voice. Some even called it a Soprano Pan. These same influences were the inspiration behind the name Piano Pan. However, Tenor Pan is the name that has survived. It is only in academic hindsight that a different name seems more appropriate for the pan.
Truly, the name Tenor Pan is a combination of the colloquial and classical influences in the development of pan and is a good representation of all that took place during the naming of the pans from the earliest days to the present.