History of the Steel Drum (Steel Pan) - Steel Drum History

The history of the steel drum (steel pan) steel drum history.

The steel drum (steel pan) was invented in Trinidad around the time of World War II. Its roots can be traced back to the African slaves who worked on the sugar plantations as far back as the 16th century. Music was a major form of "escape" for these slaves, having lost every other link back to Africa. They were very frustrated, having been separated from their families and losing their native languages.

The elite classes were fearful that African drumming would incite the slaves to rebellion and that the slaves were probably sending rhythmic messages with the drums. As a result they set very specific rules and hours for drumming. Eventually, African drumming was banned but the people created a new performance instrument the tamboo bamboo. Each member of the group would carry a length of bamboo and pound it on the ground as they walked through the streets. There were distinctive rhythmic signatures to identify each gang. Gang members hid machetes in long bamboo poles and would pull them out when one gang met another on a march. Soon, the bamboo bands were banned by the government.

steel drum

The history of the steel drum (steel pan)

As a replacement for tamboo bamboo, in the early 1930s Trinidadians began making music out of any objects they could find. This included garbage can lids, old car parts, pots, pans, biscuit tins. The bands were called "iron bands" or "pan bands". 

According to legend, the steelpan was invented by Winston Spree. One day, in the late 1930s, he found a dent in his garbage can. As he knocked out the dent with a hammer he suddenly realized that each blow with the hammer created a different pitch. He continued to add dents of various shapes and sizes and until he made a scale of notes. Soon, he was able to play tunes on his garbage can.

steel pans

The history of the steel drum (steel pan)

Garbage cans were not suitable because of the fact that they were hard to find and the metal was so thin. As the war ended, US forces left many oil drums in Trinidad and this became the ideal instrument for making a steel drum. Trinidad produced oil as well and this meant a continual supply of oil drums. The 55-gallon oil drum was used to make lead steelpans from around 1947. Pan innovators experimented with the stylings or note patterns, and improved upon the tuning. Ellie Manette, a pan-maker still active in the US today, was the first to dish out a pan and give the steel drum its mature form. Today the steel pan is tuned with precision.

Early steel drum music was music of the poor and not considered respectable. Violent behavior was associated with the music. There was rivalry and battles between groups. Young members of a steel band group were labelled potential criminals.

In time, the steel drum gained respect. Today, groups range from small groups to huge symphonic orchestras of over 100 players. The steel band is socially acceptable and highly regarded. While rivalry between groups still exists, it is totally different and takes the form of yearly Panorama contests preceded by relentless rehearsals for months in the hopes of winning and being crowned champion steel band.

Listen to steel drum music here.

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