In Focus: The History of Steel Pan and Its Role In Pop Music Today

Dyandra Morris

by Dyandra Morris

Published June 2, 2014
D Original Woodbrook Modernaires at the blink/bmobile National Panorama Small and Medium Conventional Bands Preliminaries in Tobago (2011)

When one thinks about the steel pan / steel drum, images of white sandy beaches, coconuts and anything to do with the “ideal” island life comes to mind. Little does the outside world know, the shiny steel instrument holds years of one country’s history: the history of Trinidad and Tobago. A history that has flourished to the point that it has become an influence in today’s popular music genres.

According to the cultural organization Pan Trinbago, the instrument was “born out of deprivation, a desperate need by a people to fill the void that was left when something central to their existence was taken away.”

In celebration of the abolishment of slavery in 1834, freed slaves decided to make instruments to join in on the street carnival the French started. They used African drums, but the drums were banned by the British ruled government in 1881. Trinidadians then resorted to creating percussion instruments out of bamboo called Tamboo Bamboo, thus leading to creation of Tamboo Bamboo bands. Unfortunately, the Tamboo Bamboo was banned in 1934.

The banning of the bamboos didn’t stop the musicians. “Readily available were steel drums discarded by the oil refineries on the island,” stated Pan Trinbago. In an interview with BBC, Michelle Huggins-Watts, one of the top Trinidadian female steel pan arrangers stated “It really came from the bowels of our impoverished lower classes and we are extremely proud of that.”

Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) performing at the Festival of Britain in Southbank, London (1951)

It was from the creation in the 1930s, that the steel pan / drum grew to make an impact in popular music. To this day, steel pans / drums are played by millions of people. Whether it may be taken up as an after-school activity or a life-long hobby where one competes in competitions such as Panorama, the instrument is well known around the world. It’s so well known, an artist from just about every genre has a sample of it in their music:

National Panorama Competition 2014 Large Band Winner Petrotrin Phase 11

Check out some of those artists below:

50 Cent - “P.I.M.P.” (2003 - Hip Hop / Rap):

Ween - “Bananas and Blow” (2000 - Rock)
Andy Narrell - “We Kinda Music” (1989 - Jazz)
Bill Withers - “Just The Two Of Us” (1981 - R&B)

Many steel pan / drum orchestras have gone a step further by not only covering local Caribbean artists but by also covering popular songs.

Codrington Pan Family - “If I Ain’t Got You” (Alicia Keys cover)
Pan Knights - “Night Shift” (Commodores cover)
PANLAND Steel Orchestra - ”What A Wonderful World” (Louis Armstrong cover)

There are many steel band orchestra competitions around the world. You can visit one in such places as New York City, Barbados, Miami, Virginia, Canada, France, Japan, South Africa and of course Trinidad and Tobago. Most of these competitions are held during their respective countries carnival season.

50 Cent Bill Withers Ween
Contest Hip Hop Jazz Pop R&B-Soul Rock
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