The steelpan or steel drum originated in the Caribbean Island of Trinidad. The stories begin in the 1930's when the African descendants, to express the music ringing in their heads started beating out rhythms and harmonies on pieces of metal. From the forbidden skin drums and the outlawed tamboo bamboo bands, they were searching for innovative ways of making music to accompany the people's songs and dances at carnival time.
The steel drum or steepen is the only acoustic musical instrument invented this century. The steel orchestra is composed of instruments covering the full range of the conventional orchestra. Six categories of drums make up the orchestra: the tenors, the double second, the guitars, the cellos, the quadro and six pan, the bass, plus the rhythm section. These instruments are made from used oil drums and are extremely versatile. Steelpan music includes not only Afro-Caribbean music but extends to jazz, pop and classical with all distinctive rhythms and tonality of the steelpan instrument.
In the Beginning:
It is difficult to pinpoint an exact date or event when steelpan emerged and there are several versions of the history of how it evolved. There is, however, some general agreement that the instrument emerged in an organized form for the first time during the second half of the 1930's. Essentially, the steelband can be said to be a development of the tamboo bamboo band; tamboo being derived from the French "tambour" a drum. The steelpan was found to be more effective; it permitted much more subtle and complex harmonies more accessible as technological progress produced cleaner and sharper tones from oil drums aplenty.
The Early Years - The 1940's:
The early years were not that easy. The effect that steelpan music had upon revellers and the noise involved resulted in the music being associated with criminal prosecutions. It seems as though this 'hot' music was producing an effect on the young not unlike the concerns which adults had over rock 'n roll in the 1960s. Steelpan music is infectious and uninhibiting. It makes people want to dance and move around. In addition, there were clashes between bands and a great deal of inter-band rivalry resulting sometimes in violence. However, as will be seen this did not last long and the 1950s brought brighter horizons. Steelpan pioneers include: Eric Mc Kenzie, Freddy Maroon, Victor Wilson, Carlton Forde, Lord Humbugger, Frederick Wilson, Winston Spree Simon, Neville Jules and Ellie Manette.
Growing Up - The 1950's:
Steelpan music clearly achieved major progress with the decision to send a steelband to the United Kingdom as part of a Commonwealth celebration. This had the result of strongly identifying steelpan as an important element of the cultural fabric of Trinidad and greatly enhanced its social "respectability" . In addition, the music's infectious and beguiling sounds swept up the usually polite and staid British resulting in an international exposure and acceptability of the steel drum as an accepted art-form.
Coming of Age - The 1960's:
Steelpans played an important role in Trinidad's independence celebrations and thereafter went from strength to strength with the introduction of steelpan festivals, performing for Queen Elizabeth II when she visited the island, and tour in the U.S. and the U.K. The first National Panorama competition was held on February 22, 1963. The ten bands that were in the finals were: North Stars, Invaders, Sundowners, Desperadoes, Modern Sunland, City Symphony, Casablanca, Starlift, San Juan All Stars, and Wonderland. The Steelbands Association then proceeded to organize the first steelbands Music Festival when each band played a test piece and a tune of their choice. The pan movement became more organized during this period.
Steelpan is a widely accepted art-form and international phenomenon. Steelbands have sprung up in a number of countries ranging from Japan to Sweden. Major institutions have commenced the study of the instruments and national organizations encourage the music and provide teaching facilities. The importance of the steel drum in the emergence of world music means that it is now being enjoyed internationally. Trinidadians are pleased to see their national instrument enjoyed and appreciated world wide. But if you want to savour the true soul of the steelpan, you will have to still go to the Panorama competition in Trinidad and Tobago, during the hot sultry nights over the carnival period. In fifty odd years, the steel drum has matured a great deal but the phenomenon is still in it's beginnings. Other countries are adapting the steelpan in many revolutionary ways. Carnivals with live steelband music are sprouting up all over America and Europe. One of the main attractions during Carnival in Trinidad is the steel band panorama competition. The instrument's versatility sets the stage for the steelpan to stand alone as large orchestras or blends with more modern innovative jazz improvisations. However, steelpan will continue to play a significant role in Trinidad and Tobago's society producing the world's greatest tuners, arrangers, and steel drummers. Exporting the culture will increase the instrument's overall visibility.
Sources: Roy T.Thomas,"Forty Years of Steelbands, 1939-1979" George"Sonny"
Goddard, Karia Press, London.
Steelpan tuning in the 21st century Peter Alman Joseph
Pan Trinbago Headquarters Port-of-Spain, Trinidad