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Steel Drum History

The Steel Drum, or Pan, is a very unique instrument and one of the most recently invented. It is a skillfully hammered 55-gallon oil drum which is carefully tuned to produce exact tones. Each Pan or Set of Pans carries the full chromatic range of notes and can produce just about any type of music that comes to mind.

BRIEF HISTORY OF THE STEEL DRUM  - Researched and written by Angela P. Smith, Austin Texas
The steel drum is believed to be the only non-electronic, acoustic musical instrument invented in the 20th century. The first steel drum or pan was invented around World War II in Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela in South America.

 In the 1800s Trinidad was a sugar plantation society.  The French and English colonists brought natives from Central and West Africa as slaves for their plantations.  The Africans brought their musical traditions with them, especially their drumming and singing, and used it in much the same way as they had in Africa - for celebrations, religious ceremonies, to pass time when they were working, and for communication.  The colonists were threatened by the drumming, thinking - sometimes rightfully so - that the slaves were sending messages that might lead to a slave uprising. 

Drumming also was used to accompany kalinda or stick-fighting gangs.  These groups would walk the streets playing rhythms and singing.  When one "kalinda" gang met another, a fight would usually break out.   The fights intimidated the colonists and gave them more reason to oppose drumming. 

Carnival, the period before Ash Wednesday and the Christian period of Lent, was another opportunity for Africans to take to the streets, beating their drums.  Fights often broke out between drummers and the colonists.   The Europeans, again suspecting the drummers were passing coded messages that might lead to rioting and revolt, banned all drum parades in 1883. 

Without their drums, Africans began using bamboo sticks to play rhythms.  These groups became known as the tamboo bamboo bands.  During Carnival, the tamboo bamboo bands would parade, pounding bamboo tubes on the ground and beating spoons on glass bottles.  When rival bands met on the street, they would compete to see who could be the loudest.  These sometimes violent and messy clashes, which left streets littered with broken bamboo and glass, led to tamboo bamboo bands being outlawed in 1934. 

The late 1930s are considered birth years of the steel drum.  Tamboo bamboo bands had already started switching to steel because the players discovered metal was stronger and louder than the bamboo.  The new rhythm  groups were called iron bands.  Their instruments were mostly paint and biscuit tins.

The more inventive players discovered that bulges of different sizes in the bottom of a tin could produce various pitches.   Some  players started to tune the tins and play melodies on them.  Winston Spree Simon is generally considered the inventor of the first melodic steel pan.

No Carnivals were held during World War II for security reasons, but Simon and others continued experimenting with metal.   From 1939 to 1945, the first melody pans were introduced.    Players discovered 55-gallon oil drums abandoned by U.S. forces stationed on the island during the war provided an ideal metal for the instrument.

The early pioneers of the steel band movement  were considered outcasts and hoodlums,    Rival bands clashed and engaged in bloody turf battles.   Petty jealousy and disputes over women were often the cause of fights. 

The forming of the Trinidad and Tobago Steel Band Association in 1949 was the first successful effort by some of Trinidad?s influential leaders to end the hostilities.  For  the first time steel bands shifted their attention from fighting to pursuing common interests.  The music of the steel drum  was finally on its way to being recognized as a true art form.   Many who had looked on steel bands as breeding grounds for troublemakers now saw them in a new light.

Over a little more than half a century, the steel drum has made its way from the panyards of Trinidads poorest neighborhoods to the world?s most prestigious concert halls.  In 1991, the steel drum was officially recognized as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.  An instrument once scorned and ridiculed is now a source of great pride for a nation and played and appreciated around the world. 

NOTE: Angela P. Smith is a freelance Writer/Editor, a great Pan enthusiast and a customer of the Steel Drum Shop.  Thanks Angela!