Steel Pan History

The steel pan evolved out of earlier musical practices of Trinidad’s African descendants.

Drumming was used as a form of communication among the enslaved Africans and was subsequently outlawed by the British colonial government in 1883.

While many instruments have experienced some degree of evolution in recent years, the steel pan has the distinction of being the only instrument to be truly ‘invented’ in the 20th century.

Pan! Our Music Odyssey – Trailer (2013)

The first instruments developed in the evolution of steel pan were Tamboo Bamboo, tunable sticks made of bamboo wood. These were hit onto the ground with other sticks in order to produce sound. Tamboo Bamboo bands also included percussion using biscuit tins, oil drums, and bottle-and-spoon. 

By the mid-1930s metal percussion was being used in the Tamboo Bamboo bands, the first probably being either the automobile brake hub ‘iron’ or the biscuit drum ‘boom’. The former replaced the bottle-and-spoon, and then later the ‘bass’ bamboo that was pounded on the ground. 

Tamboo Bamboo sounds from the documentary ‘Breathless in Trinidad and Tobago’

By the late 1930s the occasional all-steel bands were seen at Carnival and by 1940 it had become the preferred Carnival accompaniment of young underprivileged men. The 55-gallon oil drum was used to make lead steel pans from around 1947. 

The Steel Pan instrument first appeared on British TV in 1950, when Trinidadian Boscoe Holder and his Caribbean Dancers performed with a steel band on his own television show, Bal Creole, broadcast in June 1950 on BBC Television.

With the exposure of the instrument so widely broadcast the previous year, The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) were invited to play in the summer of 1951 on the Southbank in London as part of the ‘Festival of Britain’.

This was the first time the British public came into direct contact with the instrument. It was hard to comprehend how a 55 gallon oil drum could make musical sound let alone be used to play melodies of songs and the public literally looked under the steel pans to check the sound was actually coming from the instrument.

Sterling Betancourt talks about Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra’s historic visit to The 1951 Festival of Britain.

The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), formed to attend the Festival of Britain in June 1951, was the first steel band whose instruments were all recycled from oil drums, and the first time steel pan music was heard in Britain. The festival, held to mark the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851, took place at the newly built South Bank Centre in London.

The members of TASPO consisted of the twelve best pan musicians selected from 70 Trinidad steel bands at the time including Ellie Mannette from Invaders, Sterling Betancourt from Crossfire, Philmore ‘Boots’ Davidson from Syncopators, Belgrave Bonaparte from Southern Symphony, Andrew ‘Pan’ De Labastide from Hill 60, Theo Stephens from Free French, Anthony Williams from North Stars, Dudley Smith from Rising Sun, Orman ‘Patsy’ Haynes from Casablanca, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon from Tokyo and Sonny Roach from Sun Valley who replaced Granville Sealey from Tripoli.  

Watch a clip of Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra performing live at The 1951 Festival of Britain

The musical director and conductor was Lieutenant Joseph Griffith from Barbados, a member of the Trinidad Police Band and director of music for the government of St Lucia. TASPO toured London, Manchester and Leeds followed by a performance in Paris before returning to Trinidad. In the years to follow most became pioneers for the steel pan instrument and it’s music.

in 1992 the steel pan became the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago acknowledging the progress made at home and abroad. The steel band is now much more than just entertainment for a Caribbean themed party. It is an orchestra of hundreds playing any style of music from traditional classical to dynamic and original compositions, it is also an experimental ensemble working with other instruments to create new work. 

An award winning documentary film Classical Steel, features the steel orchestra in the role of symphony orchestra.

Trailer of Classical Steel documentary.