steel pans

A Potted History Of The Steel Pan

Now that it feels as though summer is finally here, with a brilliantly hot May Bank Holiday only just behind us, there’s no better music to accompany the sunshine than the intriguing and unique sound than a steel pan band.

No doubt you’ve come across the interesting range of notes of steel drums before, but have you ever stopped to think about just where this musical style originated from? The instrument itself is a 55-gallon oil drum that has been hammered in such a way as to produce certain tones, with the drum capable of playing any kind of music whatsoever.

Back in the 1800s, when Trinidad was a sugar plantation society, slaves were brought to the region by colonists from central and west Africa to work on the plantations, bringing their music with them. Drumming and singing were commonplace, a big feature in all religious ceremonies and other celebrations, as well as a method of communication.

But eventually the colonists became concerned that the drumming was being used as a way of organising riots and uprisings, so all drum parades were banned towards the end of the century. After this, bamboo sticks were used to beat out rhythms, with groups of musicians later known as tamboo bamboo bands – although these too were banned in the 1930s because rival bands would often clash and fight in the streets.

The first steel drum was invented in Trinidad at about the time of the second world war. The tamboo bamboo bands made the move to steel because metal was stronger and louder than bamboo, with the first versions of the steel drum paint and biscuit tins!

From there, it was discovered that dents and bulges of various sizes in the tins could make sounds of different pitches and musicians started to tune them up so that melodies could be played! Winston Spree Simon is the man widely credited with playing the first recognisable tune on a steel drum – you can read more about him on the TriniSoca website.