The World Steelband Music Festival is unique competition dedicated to the performance of European classical music (or music composed in that vein) on the steel pan (steel drums).
It is an off-shoot of the Trinidad Music Festival which was first held in 1948 to encourage and develop European classical music in Trinidad and Tobago. A steelband category was added in 1952 and was an immediate success with the spectators.
The steel pans however, were still in the early stages of development, and could not deliver the music with integrity. Also, the panmen could not read music and would memorize the melodies of the test pieces from recordings and create their own harmonies. This often resulted in arrangements quite different from that of the composers.
This did not go down well with the adjudicators and initially, they recommended that the steelbands stick to playing indigenous music and not European classical music.
The panmen were not offended or put off by the comments of the adjudicators. Instead they used the criticisms to asses the development of the instrument and to create new methods of arranging and composing for steelbands.
According to renowned pan innovator and arranger Anthony Williams, the festival
"caused improvement in making and tuning the pans, improvement in arranging and orchestration, improvement in playing the pans, and improvement in the appearance of the instruments."
New innovations, such as hanging pans on stands, were a result of entering the festival. Initially steel pans were hung around the neck of the pannist and played.
These early pans had narrow musical ranges and could not accommodate most classical music. New types of pans with wider ranges were developed but they were big could not be hung around the neck.
Instead they were hung on stands. Not only did this free the player from carrying the instrument, but they were now able to play elaborate and involved music.
Steel pans involvement in the festival also contributed to the acceptance of steel pan as a valid instrument by the middle and upper classes of Trinidad and Tobago.
The steelbands eventually outgrew the Trinidad Music Festival and in 1964 the National Association of Trinidad and Tobago Steelbandsmen (NATTS) held the first Steelband Music Festival. This new festival, like its predecessor, concentrated on the performance of European classical music.
The birth of this Festival also coincided with the Black Power era and independence of the Trinidad and Tobago from Great Britain. During this period Trinidadians promoted local indigenous thought and rejected those of the colonial masters. As a result, many persons felt the Steelband Music Festival should only focus on indigenous music.
Panmen however, did not see the festival as a rejection of indigenous culture. They felt the lessons learnt by attempting European classical music and the comments from European adjudicators would help them create local music of superior quality and the criteria for the festival remained unchanged despite the objections.
A Junior Steelband Festival was introduced in 1981. It is seen as an important training ground for the adult festival and for the steelband movement on a whole.
In 1988, the Steelband Festival was opened to steelbands from other countries and the competition renamed the World Steelband Music Festival.
In 2005, the World Steelband Music Festival was held outside of Trinidad for the first time when the final round of competition was held in New York, USA.
Currently, the categories of the festival are:
The next staging of the festival is expected to be in 2009