The story of the steelpan starts with the drumming traditions that enslaved Africans brought with them to Trinidad, and their subsequent suppression by colonial authorities. In West Africa, drumming was an important part of several ceremonies, and the Church hoped that a ban on drumming might make it easier to convert the slaves into Christians. The plantocracy on the other hand were more concerned about the ability of drums to effectively communicate messages over long distances, and its potential use in planning island-wide slave rebellions.
The negative stigma associated with African drumming remained after Emancipation, especially since it was associated with the vagabonds of East Port of Spain. According to Bridget Brereton, these vagabonds “attended drum dances and riotous parties, they fought in the streets and sang obscene songs; they had the run of the city.” She further says that “endless letters, editorials, and articles in the press” implored the authorities to do something about them.
Finally, in 1883, a piece of legislation was passed outlawing “the beating of any drum, the blowing of any horn, or the use of any other noisy instrument.” Some continued to definitely beat their drums, however that came with significant risk. This was the same decade as the Canboulay Riots, and the Hosay Massacre; both of which were instances of law enforcement using extreme violence against processions of drummers. In the face of such violence, people began seeking a new musical instrument. They eventually turned to bamboo which proved to be convenient as it was fast growing and could be easily found growing near most streams. More importantly, bamboo stalks of different sizes could be modified to produce various notes and tones. This led to the birth of tamboo bamboo bands, taking their name from the name of the plant used, and “tambour”, the French word for drum.
Steelpan historian Angela Smith says that “by the beginning of the 20th century, tamboo bamboo bands were the major music makers of carnival season” and that by the 1930s “almost every district of Trinidad had its own tamboo bamboo band.” This decade also saw metal instruments making their way into these bands. Sources disagree on the exact year, and whether it was a garbage can or a paint tin that was first used. It’s generally agreed however, that it happened in Newtown, a neighborhood in North West Port of Spain. By the end of the decade, metal instruments were now mainstream. Not only because they produced a clean, metallic ring, but also because the government had begun to crack down on the illegal harvesting of bamboo.
By the early 1940s, pan players were experimenting with creating different sounds in different parts of Port of Spain. According to Angela Smith; “Those who lived in the East Dry River area concentrated on rhythmic aspects, probably because of the strong influence of the Orisha religion there. Those from the western part of the city were more interested in creating melody. Others in the St. James area, with its heavy Indian population, looked to the tassa drum ensembles for inspiration in creating new rhythms and pitches.” The quest for new sounds resulted in new styles of steelpan capable of playing multiple notes starting to emerge.
Winston “Spree” Simon is credited with creating the first steelpan with enough notes to play conplicated songs, but there were many pioneers who tuned pans alongside him, influenced him, and also made their own impact. Among these other pioneers was Ellie Mannette, who came up with the concave steelpan and also started the practice of using discarded oil drums to make steel pans.
In 1951, both Simon and Mannette were part of an orchestra sent by the government to perform in Europe. The year prior, politician Albert Gomes had defended the steelpan in his weekly Sunday Guardian column. In that column and subsequent ones, Gomes laid out his opinions on the instrument. He felt that it demonstrated the resourcefulness of the underprivileged youths who invented it. He further believed that the violence associated with it was simply the result of inequality and unfairness. Another notable supporter of the steelpan movement was Beryl McBurnie, a well respected theater and dance icon. McBernie sponsored a public steelpan concert where Gomes, who was in attendance, wrote that the pan players “held an audience spell-bound for more than half-an-hour.” Both Gomes and McBurnie helped change public perceptions about steelpan players, and also lobbied the government to understand the plight of the steelpan movement.
Their work contributed to a peace pact, and in 1951, the Trinidad and Tobago Steelpan Association was formed with members of rival bands finally working together. A result of the newfound peace was the establishment of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra and the subsequent plan to perform at the Festival of Britain later that year. Pan historian Kim Johnson says that the cause of funding the steel orchestra forged a “multi-class alliance which was for the first time nationalist in scope. The leader of the Hindu community Bhadase Maharaj and the Governor Sir Hubert Rance both made generous contributions, and inspired others to do the same. The pan players departed Trinidad on July 6th, and twenty days later they took to the stage in London. The Guardian reported that “the crowd who heard the band was skeptical that music could come out of pans, but they were soon tapping their feet to the rhythms of the Caribbean music.” Following the concert, they recorded music, played live on radio stations, and performed in Manchester, Glasgow, and Paris.
They returned as national heroes, and the next year steelpan was included for the first time at a national music festival typically reserved for classical music. Angela Smith says that “the success with audiences abroad finally convinced the upper crust of Trinidad society and the outspoken critics of the movement that the steelpan deserved full recognition as a legitimate form of music and artistic expression.” The panyard, once seen as a breeding ground for vagabonds and violence was now considered to be a place of innovation, arts and culture. Steelpan, previously scorned by the masses, was now respected.
Images via Wikimedia Commons and Kim Johnson.