Steel pans (steel drums)were created on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in the 1930s, but steel pan history can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands during the 1700s.
They carried with them elements of their African culture including the playing of hand drums. These drums became the main percussion instruments in the annual Trinidadian carnival festivities.
In 1877, the ruling British government banned the playing of drums in an effort to suppress aspects of Carnival which were considered offensive. Bamboo stamping tubes were used to replace the hand drums as they produced sounds comparable to the hand drum when they were pounded on the ground.
These tubes were played in ensembles called tamboo bamboo bands.
Non-traditional instruments like scrap metal, metal containers, graters and dustbins were also used in tamboo bamboo bands. However, by the 1930’s these metal instruments dominated the tamboo bamboo bands. The bamboo tubes were eventually abandoned and replaced by the metal instruments.
These early metal pan bands were a rustic combination of a wide variety of metallic containers and kitchen utensils which were struck with open hands, fists or sticks.
The metal pan players discovered that the raised areas of the metal containers made a different sound to those areas that were flat. Through experimentation, coincidence, trial and error, and ingenuity on the part of numerous innovators, the metal pan bands evolved into the steel pan family of instruments.
As the pan makers knowledge and technique improved, so did the sound of the instrument.
For audio clips of vintage and contemporary steelbands click here.
Several innovators throughout steel pan history have made significant contributions to the development of the instrument.
Despite the achievements and hard work of the innovators, modern day steel pans still have a few limitations.
Steel pan is a work in progress. Pan makers around the world are constantly investigating ways to improve and refine the instrument.
When steel pans first emerged in the 1930’s they were not taken seriously. The instruments and their creators were looked down on by the upper class of Trinidad society because they were made and played by persons from the ghettos.
Also, criminal elements had an unfortunate love of steel band music. Performances of rival bands often ended in violence and steel pans were considered the instruments of hooligans!
Time and exposure eventually eroded this stigma and the steel pan is now the national instrument of the republic of Trinidad and Tobago and a source of great pride for its citizens. Steel pan and its innovators are now held in high regard by persons of all levels of society in Trinidad and Tobago.