History of the Steelpan
Trinidad and Tobago is the birthplace of the steelpan. This musical instrument, the only one invented in the twentieth century, has its origins in the drumming tradition of the African groups that now reside in these islands. Both the indigenous Caribs and the East Indians also had their own traditional type of drumming.
Trinidad & Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago are the two most southerly islands in the chain of Caribbean islands and are located just off the northern coast of South America. These two islands, though one country, were originally inhabited by the indigenous Carib and Arawak Amerindian tribes. Spanish invasion and colonisation in 1498 until 1797, for the purposes of cheap labour and the misguided belief that the islands held gold reserves, led to the near decimation of the indigenous peoples and a demand for a new labour force.
In 1618, and for the next two hundred years, Africans were subsequently forced from the African continent and taken to the Americas, United Kingdom and the Caribbean to work as enslaved labour on the sugar plantations. Slavery was brought to an end with the Emancipation Bill of 1833, and East Indians were brought in as indentured labourers to replace the African labour.
The beating of drums was a significant aspect of the Africans’ Shango religion, helping them to tolerate the harsh and inhumane practices of slavery. In 1797, Spain surrendered the islands of Trinidad and Tobago to the British who banned the drums and forbade the Africans from speaking their native languages and practicing their religion for fear that the drumming would be used to send messages that would inspire rebellion.
The emancipation of the enslaved Africans coincided with the traditional celebration of the Canne Brulee (Canboulay) - the burning of the sugar cane for harvesting. Afraid that this celebration would also be used to communicate uprisings, it was also banned. This led to much rioting by the Africans and in 1881, the British permitted a celebration without drums known as j’ouvert, to begin on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. This celebration was adapted from ‘Mardi Gras’, brought over by the French in the 18th century, and the enslaved Africans used songs, known as Calypso, to satirize the French plantation owners and overseers. The masquerades and masks from ‘Mardi Gras’ have evolved into the costumes that are now an integral part of Carnival.
The banning of the African drumming led the Africans to use bamboo, cut at different lengths to produce different sounds. They formed bands called ‘tamboo bamboo’ bands (from the French word for drum – tambour). Unfortunately, as rival bands would clash during celebrations and use the bamboo as weapons, the police banned the bamboo instruments.
Steelpan is born
Still, in the hills of Laventille, in central Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad, the drums continued to beat in secret as the islanders sought to maintain the practice of the Shango religion. The poverty of the people of Laventille forced them to trial of a number of metal objects such as milk cans, garbage can covers and pots to produce musical sounds. The biscuit tin replaced the bamboo drums and it was soon realized that the tin covers could be made to produce a few musical notes. The biscuit tin was hung around players’ necks and was initially struck with the open palm. It is claimed to be the first true pan. The early pioneers of the steelbands were from the poor, low income areas and were without lands and resources. Their development of the steelpan with which they became socially identified was therefore given a social stigma, having been shunned by the middle and upper classes. Little recognition or acknowledgement was given to this musical creation because of the background of its inventors and players and the region from which they came. It is now accepted, however, that the origin of the steelpan began among what society had first regarded as social outcasts, from an area that was socially neglected.
In the 1940s, during World War II, the American bases in Trinidad and Tobago created a demand for oil using fifty-five gallon drums to transport the oil. Discarded by the oil refineries, the drums were cut to provide a musical source. It was found that by indenting the surfaces of these drums a range of musical tones could be made. The length to which the drums were cut permitted complete scales from the bass to the soprano. The steelbands were readily accepted by youth from other low income communities and soon music from the steelpans surrounded and filled these neighbourhoods. The social stigma remained with this musical instrument and is reflected in the names taken by the steelbands – Desperadoes, Invaders, Renegades. Many people are credited with the development of the steelpan. Andrew Beddoe, an accomplished drummer whose skills shifted from the traditional African drums to the biscuit; Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, who made the transition from the biscuit tin to the steelpan; Ellie Mannette, Tony Williams; Bertie Marshall and Rudolph Charles.
Trinidad and Tobago gained political independence from the British in 1962 and the government set about changing the image of the steelbands. Official involvement and corporate sponsorship led to the national recognition and credibility of the steelpan as the national instrument of the islands and the pan players as its musical ambassadors.
The steelpan is now widely played throughout the Caribbean and is regarded as the musical instrument of the Caribbean. Today, steelbands range from 4 players to orchestras with over 300 pans. Most players do not read music and have to memorise their parts. All types of music can be played on the pans, from calypso to jazz to classical. There are more than 190 steelbands in Trinidad and Tobago and more than 800 steelbands in countries around the world including 300 in the United Kingdom, 240 in the United States, 130 in Switzerland, and now the first in Aotearoa/New Zealand, The Caribbeanz Southern Stars.