Brief history of the Steelpan

Steelpan the National Instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, a great source of pride for all its citizens.


From a desire for cultural expression, the Pan (steelpan) was forged from a highly creative yet restrictive society, in Trinidad and Tobago and is now widely regarded as the only major musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century.

“Ellie Manette credited with being the first to put rubber on pan sticks, which softened the attack and produced a refined tone.”

Between 1838 and 1883, the beating of skin drums was an important part of Carnival Celebrations. Due to repressive acts by the colonial authorities in 1984, with the banning of the African skin drum and the attempts to stifle non-European cultural expressions, displaced the African population in Trinidad and Tobago of their natural form of musical expression. However, with the emergence of carnival in the late 1880s, revelers sought an alternative means for musical accompaniment as they chanted and marched on the streets of Port of Spain this not only steeled the will of the practitioners of street culture but also sent a message to the colonials that they would meet stiff resistance to their efforts to brutalize the masses for merely expressing themselves.

The Gin bottle and spoon to Tamboo Bamboo

The gin bottle and small scraps of metal were used increasingly to supplement the decibel level of the band, as a louder din was required. The Tamboo Bamboo ensemble took the place of African drums, filling the void by providing rhythmic accompaniment for the Afro-Creole street culture. These instruments were made up of different lengths and sizes of specially chosen and cured bamboo which simulated the four main voices of music, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. This was the precursor of the Steelband Movement. By the 1930s the use of metal containers increased in the Tamboo Bamboo bands and started to give way to percussive sounds like the biscuit tins, paint cans, and other old metal containers. These instruments hung around the necks of groups of players and were struck with sticks, the open palm or closed fist which was described as magical sounds.


First notes appeared in the early 1940s, as experimentation flourished. The creative genius of the early panmen took over and each ban sought to create its own unique sound. Various ways were explored by players to produce different sounds from the metal containers, they had soon discovered that when hammered from the inside out the metal containers produced marvelous tones.


The sound and form of steelpan continued to have experimented since the development of the first notes and tunes of the pan, biscuit pan and paint cans gave way to the 40-gallon oil drums. The process of the recycling of the old discarded oil drums, into the sweet-sounding instrument that we love, is extremely complex and time-consuming and even today has remained an esoteric art.


The evolving steel orchestra consisted of, the three (3) Drum-bass which had two three or four notes, the Cello-pan which is cut shorter than the bass with five to six notes and, the higher-pitched Double-Second Pan was is used primarily for the chording, The Ping-Pong or First-pan has about 29 notes, the orchestra revolves around this sweet-sounding pan which is the source of the melody of the band. To emit the orchestral sound, every group of pans needs to have a certain range.


In the early history of the Steelpan, the instruments and their creators were looked down on by the upper class of society, as they were made by persons from areas considered to be ghettos. The labeling of the steel pan being considered instruments of hooligans, came as performances of rival bands would often end in violence. With time and exposure, this stigma has been eroded, and the Steelpan is now the National Instrument of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and is a great source of pride for its citizens.