The steel pan was invented in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930’s. It is the only major musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century, as well as being the only major instrument invented from industrial waste. Now the national instrument of Trinidad, the steel pan is a form of identity and cultural pride.
The steel pan emerged as a result of a long history of colonial oppression. Since the arrival of slaves in the 1700’s, African drumming traditions played an important role in celebrations, ceremonies, and communication. After the emancipation in 1834, the colonists were especially threatened with the idea of drumming, as it became associated with street celebrations and kalindas, stick-fighting gangs that would have their own rhythms to call members to clash. Drumming and singing played a major role in the lively Carnaval celebrations, another opportunity for people to take to the streets. In 1884, all drumming was banned by the British ruling class for fear that the lower class may be sending coded messages that would lead to a revolt.
The British ban on hand drums and drum parades lead to the “Tamboo Bamboo” era. Tuned bamboo sticks were cut to different lengths and were pounded into the ground to produce different sounds. In the 1930’s, scrap metal objects began to enter the Tamboo Bamboo ensembles since they were stronger and louder than bamboo. In 1934, the British banned Tamboo Bamboo.
The year 1935 signals the switch from bamboo to metal and the steel pan as we know it begins to emerge. At this time, the Tamboo Bamboo ensembles begin using any scrap metal object they can find, garbage cans, tins, paint cans, spoons, bottles, and even the brake wheels from automobiles. During parades, the groups would often compete to see who had the loudest sound. This would cause the metal to dent and become concave. The drummer would try to pound the metal back into shape. Eventually it was realized that different notes were created by denting different parts of the “drum.”
The 1st musical steel pan was a convex dome with 4 notes dented into the surface. The initial sound was rough and gritty, very different from the clear tones of the modern pan.
Steel Pan Pioneers
The steel pan would not be what it is today without a few key pioneers. These individuals played an essential role in the development of the steel pan.
Winston “Spree” Simon created the first “melody” steel pan with 8 notes. Enough to play a full melody.
Ellie Mannette is considered the “father of the modern steel drum.” He was the first to use a concave bowl shape rather than the convex dome shape in his creations. He is also known for his skillful tuning techniques.
Anthony Williams created the “Spider Web Pan,” which used intervals of 4ths and 5ths to arrange the notes of the pan. This resulted in a higher quality sound and less dissonance. He is also the first person to use a 55-gallon oil drum to construct his steel pan.
Types of Steel Pans
Years of experimentation with the design of the steel pan lead to a collection of highly refined instruments. Here are the most common types of steel pans used in the steel band.
Soprano (also called Lead or Tenor Pan) The soprano is the highest of the steel pans. It can be used for melodies, counter melodies, harmony, and for chords. The arrangement of notes is in a pattern called the Circle of Fifths. An outer ring contains the lower notes and an inner circle contains the same notes one octave higher. Double Tenor Pans were invented by Bertie Marshall, who played two tenor pans together.
Double Seconds (also called Alto) The Double Seconds were invented by Sonny Roach. These have a lower pitch than that of theSoprano. These are often used for counter melodies and harmony. The tuning of these 2 pans follows the whole-note scale.
Baritones (also called Double Guitar) The Baritones are double pans that have a limited range of notes and are usually used to “strum” the chords. Their main function is to provide the harmony in a song.
Bass (also called Six Bass) These multiple pans played by one person to provide the bass notes for the song. The most common set consists of 6 Bass pans, although 7 bass, 9 bass, and 12 bass pans are occasionally used. The arrangement of notes follows an augmented chord.
Due to the variety of steel pans, the steel band has the full tonal range of a classical orchestra. Notes can be tuned chromatically, meaning that virtually any song can be played with the steel band. For the same reason, the steel pan can be played with virtually any other instrument.
The story of the steel pan is really a story of transformation. Originating from some of the least-privileged neighborhoods as makeshift metal percussion, the steel pan has evolved into a truly elegant, sophisticated instrument. After decades of shifting attitudes towards the instrument, the steel pan became the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago in 1991 and has continued to gain international recognition. Now, the delightful melodies of the steel pan are enjoyed all around the world.