The steelpan is the only original non-electronic, acoustic musical instrument invented in the twentieth century. These pans are the only instruments made to play in the Pythagorean musical cycle of fourths and fifths.
Traditionally, this collection of musical instruments are called a steel band. The instruments make up the family of the Steelharmonic OrchestraTM. This is the National Instrument of Trinidad & Tobago.
The origin of this instrument is Trinidad and Tobago, a twin-island Caribbean Republic. Trinidad is situated 130 kilometres (81 miles) south of Grenada off the northern edge of the South American mainland, 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) off the coast of northeastern Venezuela. It shares maritime boundaries with Barbados to the northeast, Grenada to the northwest, Guyana to the southeast, and Venezuela to the south and west.
The steelpan progress from the early days to its present form into the Steelharmonic OrchestraTM has been a memorable and eventful journey for over 80 years and continues.
When Christopher Columbus and his sailors invaded the Caribbean Islands they brought with them diseases and other cruel methods which killed off most of the indigenous population who were mainly Arawaks and Caribs.
In the 1800s Trinidad, like most of the other Caribbean Islands was made into sugar plantations. Indentured, labour from India was used. With the discovery of a cheaper labour force from Africa, the use of slave labour was exploited and developed by the British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese.
The invention if the steelpan dates back to the 1930’s, possibly around 1936/7. Other research states that the first steel drum or pan was invented in Port of Spain Trinidad around World War II.
These colonists captured the inhabitants from Central and West Africa as slaves for their West Indian (Trinidad, Jamaica etc) plantations. The enslaved Africans brought some of their traditions with them which included music, food and religion.
Notable features were the drumming and singing. These traditions were the only forms of relief they had after hard long days in the fields working for their slave masters.
They used the drumming and singing in the same way they did in Africa – for celebrations, religious ceremonies, to pass time when they were working, and for communication. The slave masters felt threatened by the drumming, believed that the slaves were sending messages that might lead to rebellion and slave uprising.
Drumming also was used to accompany Kalinda or stick-fighting gangs. These groups would walk the streets playing rhythms and singing. When one “Kalinda” gang met another, a fight would usually break out. The fights intimidated the slave masters and gave them more reason to oppose the drumming.
Carnival the two-day celebration held on Monday and Tuesday is the period before Ash Wednesday which is the beginning of the Christian period of Lent.
This two day celebration presented another opportunity for African slaves on the plantations in the Caribbean to take part in the celebration.
They took to the streets, beating their drums. Some sources stated that fights often broke out between drummers and the European colonists.
The Europeans, again suspecting the drummers were passing coded messages that might lead to rioting and revolt, banned all drum parades in 1883.
Denied the use of their traditional instruments from their homelands the Africans began using other methods such as bamboo sticks to play their favourite rhythms. These groups became known as the tamboo bamboo bands.
During Carnival, the tamboo bamboo bands would parade, pounding different lengths of bamboo tubes on the ground and also beating spoons on glass bottles for high pitched sounds.
When rival bands met on the streets, they would compete to see who could be the loudest. These sometimes led to violent and messy clashes, which left streets littered with broken bamboo and glass, led to tamboo bamboo bands being outlawed in 1934.
Tamboo bamboo bands had already started switching to steel because the players discovered by chance that metal was stronger and louder than the bamboo. They brake hubs and other forms of iron. The new rhythm groups were called iron bands. Their instruments were mostly paint and biscuit tins.
The more inventive players discovered that bulges of different sizes in the bottom of a tin could produce various pitches.
Some players started to tune the tins and play melodies on them. Winston Spree Simon (inventor of the tenor pan or ping pong) is generally considered the inventor of the first melodic steel pan.
Carnivals were suspended during World War II for security reasons, but Simon and others continued experimenting with metal. From 1939 to 1945, the first melody pans were introduced. Players discovered 55-gallon oil steel drums abandoned by U.S. forces stationed on the island during the war provided an ideal metal for the instrument.
The early pioneers of the steel band movement were considered outcasts and hoodlums. Rival bands clashed and engaged in bloody turf battles.
The instruments are made from steel drums. Previously these steel drums contained harmful contained chemicals, individually each instrument is called steel pans.
The instruments are made by skillfully hammering the face of 55-gallon steel drums to create an oval shape. Each musical note is then carefully grooved, blended and tuned to produce exact tones of the chromatic scale. Each instrument or set of instruments carries the full chromatic range of notes and can produce just about any type of composed music
Some sourses state that the forming of the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band Association in 1949 was the first successful effort by some of Trinidad’s influential leaders to end the hostilities.
It could also be said that this organisation was formed due to the recognition that the steelpan was a new and inventive way to express onself in musical form.
The interest groups in Trinidad saw this new artform as a new way to capitalise on the financial side. Their interest and imput meant that for the first time steel bands shifted their attention from fighting to pursuing common interests.
The music of the steel pan was finally on its way to being recognized as a true art form. Many who had looked on steel bands as breeding grounds for troublemakers now saw them in a new light.
Even during this period of transition, African pannist were still not recognised as skilled musicians although they made up a high percentage of the players in any SteelharmonicTM Orchestra.
Over half a century, the steel drum has made its way from the panyards of Trinidads poorest neighborhoods to the world’s most prestigious concert halls.
In 1991, the SteelharmonicTM Orchestra was officially recognized as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. An instrument once scorned and ridiculed is now a source of great pride for a nation and played and appreciated around the world although it is still not so in its own country of invention.
Pannist in Trinidad and Tobago are still not paid a decent wage and although promised payment for playing at festivals such as Panorama they are still have to wait months and in some cases years to receive their wages.
A case in point is 2018 Carnival Season. To date September 13th 2018 no pannist who participated in the panorama celebration has been paid. Pan Trinbag which is the internationally recognised body is still waiting for monies to be released by the National Carnival Committee (NCC).
So, altough the rest of the World recognises the value that the steelpan instrument has brought to the family of musical instruments from its humble beginnings. There is still less recognition and respect for the people of Trinidad and Tobago who participate in the festivities each year.
SteelharmonicTM Orchestra Instruments
The Trinidad Tenor Pan
The reason for naming the highest pan of the steelband ‘tenor’ is historical: In the early days, the lead melody was played on a pan with less than 10 notes. These notes were bigger than on todays tenors and the pitch was in the tenor range – therefore it was suitable to call the pan a tenor.
As the instrument developed, more notes were put into the tenor to increase its range. The new notes had to be made smaller, thus putting the pan in a higher tonal range. But the name ‘tenor’ prevailed.
Some try to change the name to Soprano but the name still remain today. Would you call an organ a piano or an alto saxaphone a soprano. The point here is for us not to try to change the name of the original instrument but to agree and recognise that there are different variations of the same instrument.
To date, we have the G tenor which have a higher range than the other two members of the family the C or low tenor and the D or high tenor.
Trinidad & Tobago – 50 years of steel. Under the auspices of the National Association of Trinidad & Tobago Steelbandsmen (NATTS), led by the late George Goddard, the preliminary of the first official Panorama competition was held on Sunday, February 17, 1963, at the Queen’s Park Savannah in Port-of-Spain