How did Steelpan Music Surpass All Others to Claim this Prize of the 20th century?

The steelpan was invented in Trinidad and Tobago and is widely regarded as the only major musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century.


The Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards describes the steelpan as

“a definite pitch percussion instrument in the idiophone class, traditionally made from a steel drum or steel container. The metallic playing surface is concave with a skirt attached. The playing surface is divided into convex sections by channels, groves and/or bores.  Each convex section is played by striking the pan with sticks to produce musical notes.”

In order to emit that orchestral sound, every group of pans needs to have a certain range – just like the instruments in a traditional orchestra. The difference is that instead of having different instruments contribute to the range of sounds, the pan is flexible enough to do it all.

Painting by Anisha Thomas
Painting by Anisha Thomas on Pintrest


Tamboo Bamboo and 2BKaribbeanThe Tamboo Bamboo ensemble took the place of African drums to provide rhythmic accompaniment for the Afro-Creole street culture.  Kalinda, Dame Lorraine and carnival parades all swayed to the beat of the tamboo bamboo – an ensemble made up of different lengths and sizes of bamboo which simulated the four main voices of music, soprano, alto, tenor and bass. This was the precursor of the steelband movement.

  • 1935: The year 1935 is generally accepted as the watershed year for the transition from bamboo to metal.  That year the Newtown Tamboo Bamboo band led by Lord Humbugger, discarded their lengths of bamboo and took to the streets for J’Ouvert with a full complement of metal containers.  These included garbage bins and covers, biscuit drums, paint cans, brake drums, chamber pots and bottles and spoons. They took the name of Alexander’s Ragtime Band from an American movie of the same name and caused a stir in Port of Spain.


  • 1946: Winston “Spree” Simon soon became the acknowledged ping pong virtuoso and his performance before the Governor at the carnival celebrations of 1946 made history as both the Trinidad Guardian and The Gazette reported the impromptu concert given by the young steelbandsmen while his band Destination Tokyo was parading before the dignitaries in the Governor’s box.


  • 1942-1945: Carnival was banned from 1942-1945 and a state of emergency declared which effectively prevented assembly by more than three persons.  This did not deter the young, restless steelbandsmen who took to the streets any time they felt like having a jump, which inevitably led to trouble with the police.  The panmen of the East Dry River area used the narrow alleyways, crowded yards and even the riverbed itself to defy the police who used brute force whenever they succeeded in catching up with the perpetrators.


  • March 8th 1945: The war was drawing to an end in 1945 and the colonial authorities decreed that when the Steelpan and 2BKaribbean 2air raid sirens sounded to declare victory on the European front, citizens would be allowed to congregate in celebration.  On VE Day, March 8, 1945, the steelband was presented to the world for the first time.  Throngs of happy revelers paraded the streets of Port of Spain and in the words of a reporter for the Trinidad Gazette, “They waved branches and chanted songs to the accompaniment of music thumped out of old iron.”


  • August 14th 1945: By VJ Day when the Japanese army surrendered on the August 14, 1945, steelbandsmen were ready, and throughout the urban centres of the Colony, steelbands ruled the road.  The Carnival of 1947 saw the steelband coming into its own, bands were now playing melodies and simple harmonies and were accompanied by masqueraders, this was to continue right up to the advent of the seventies when the steelband lost its place as the king of carnival.



An ugly era in the history of the steelband movement saw the fledgling art form under attack from within and without.  The steelband riots started with clashes between bands on the road and carried on after Carnival with violent outbreaks, mainly at the various entertainment spots created to cater for the thousands of US military service men stationed at the various bases in the colony.

While the steelband battles raged on in the streets, another war was being waged on a different front.  Society had not accepted the steelband movement and the middle class now saw the opportunity to destroy this abomination once and for all.  The editorial pages of the two daily newspapers were filled with bitter diatribes, exhorting the authorities to ban this primitive, savage expression of the dregs of society.


Steelpan and 2BKaribbean 3RISE TO NATIONAL INSTRUMENT:

Defenders arose to champion the cause; men with vision like Albert Gomes and Canon Max Farquahar used their newspaper columns to cry shame on the detractors.  Lawyer and social worker Lennox Pierre, was kept busy defending steelbandsmen in the courts of law, organizing the movement into a representative body.  Trinidad Guardian editor Sydney Espinet also was an admirer of the steelband and used his influence to negate the effects of the vicious propaganda that the middle class was using in a futile hope to abort the steelband.

The steelpan is now the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.  The instrument progressed from adversity to relative prosperity in a short space of time due to the extreme dedication of members of the fraternity.




This article is an excerpt from :  The Genesis of the Steelband By Selwyn Taradath (100 Years of Pan, Trinidad Guardian, January 1, 2000)

By way of : TT Connect



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MISSION: To elevate the brand of Caribbean culture in the fields of MUSIC, BUSINESS and the ARTS by celebrating the work of cultural ambassadors while advocating for upcoming Caribbean talent1.



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