Celebrating the steel pan our national instrument

World Steelband Music Festival
Players at the World Steelband Music Festival (Photo credit: Pan Trinbago Twitter)

Trinidad and Tobago has officially declared August 11, World Steelpan Day (WSD) in the City of Port of Spain. According to the Deputy Mayor, the designation was declared on behalf of the capital city’s mayor as part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of our Independence.

But how did this unique instrument come about, as asked by many of my foreign friends? I often find myself sharing my various childhood experiences surrounding the steelpan. I grew up in a community of relatives and friends who all played or “tuned” the steelpan at home or in the “pan yard” (a place where many go to play the instrument). Growing up was a lot of fun, simply because as kids we had the opportunity to run around freely while beating the drums. These steel drums made a lot of noise and sometimes we would get angry stares from the neighbours because they didn’t value the steelpan music then. Some adults even complained or prevented their children from partaking in the festivals and practising playing the steelpan in the “pan yard” because it was often associated with violence. I remember seeing grown folks fighting each other with sticks that caused serious skin lacerations and broken bones, simply because each side wanted to win at the panorama finals, or the other side stole their music.

Steelpan and steelpan music (steel drums) were created on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in the 1930s, but steel pan history can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands during the 1700s. They carried with them elements of their African culture including the playing of hand drums. Multiple cultures in West Africashared customs of talking drums or as we say in Trini, “ feel the shango”. The hourglass-shaped drums were used for communicating messages from a distance with drum language. For example, the rhythm and pitch could indicate the location, time, and type of dancing during an upcoming ceremony.

In the eighteenth century, persons from countries in West Africa were forcibly abducted to Trinidad to be sold at slave auctions. Persons of the same tribes and languages were deliberately separated and sold to different enslavers in an attempt to eradicate their traditions. In most cases, enslavers did not allow them to speak in their native tongues, forcing them to give up their tradition and learn the enslavers’ own language.

After the French colonists arrived on the island and brought street festival traditions, plantation owners held the first carnival (street parade) in Trinidad. Many White plantation owners masqueraded as slaves (presumably in blackface) and marched down the streets mocking African slave dress, singing, and dance customs, including banging on talking drums. Though they were mimicked, enslaved Africans were not allowed to join the festivities. In response, the Africans organized underground carnivals of their own, taking place in cabins and backyards. Inspired by ancient traditions, Africans incorporated masks, feathers, beads, and drumming.

The Canboulay riots, which occurred in 1881, were a series of revolts during the harvest festival. After emancipation, Africans celebrated Canboulay annually until today, which is a harvest festival involving calypso drumming. Then stick-fighting emerged, and African percussion music were banned. They were replaced by bamboo sticks beaten together, which were themselves banned. However, by 1937 they were revolutionized in Laventille, as an orchestra of frying pans, dustbin lids, and oil drums. All these events led to the formation of the magical steel drums

Pioneers and innovators such as Winston ‘Spree’ Simon and Ken “professor” Philmore helped grow the steelpan into a legitimate and respected instrument, with the soothing sound it’s known for in the twenty-first century.

Today, these steelpans are now a major part of the Trinidad and Tobago music scene and are a popular section of the Canboulay music festivals. They deserve to be celebrated and preserved knowing it’s eclectic transformational history.

Today, Trinbagonians wear it as a symbol of pride and community allowing others to feel the magic of the drum to dance and “free up” themselves, and we are happy to share its rich heritage with the rest of the world.

Subrina Hall Azih is a Trinidadian educator residing in New York.





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