steel drum, or steel pan, is a unique instrument commonly heard in Caribbean music today, and is one of the most recently "invented" instruments in the world, when taken in its current form. However, the roots of the instrument date as far back as the 18th century. This paper will examine the roots of the steel drum, as well as the evolution of the instrument its self. Additionally, this paper will examine the steel drum's impact on the Trinidad society.
The steel drum claims origin on the island of Trinidad, located in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Venezuela. This island and the smaller island of Tobago, located 19 miles northeast of Trinidad, make up the single nation state of Trinidad and Tobago. To understand the evolution of the steel drum in this area, it is important to evaluate the political history of the islands, since it was that very political situation which helped the area to develop the instrument (Goddard, 1991).
In the late 1400's, Christopher Columbus reached Trinidad, around 1498. At the time, the area was inhabited by Caribs. It was not until 1592 that the first Spanish settlement was developed in the area. For the next several decades, the area was greatly underdeveloped as a nation. In 1783, Spain opened the island to Catholic settlers, many of whom were plantation owners and operators (Rouff, 1972). With them, the Catholic settlers from islands such as Grenada, St. Lucia, and Guadeloupe brought their enslaved African workers. With sugar as its primary product, the island quickly became a full-scale plantation society, which helped the Port of Spain become a prime commercial center for the area (Stuempfle, 1995).
The enslaved workers on the plantations greatly outnumbered the French and Spanish plantation owners, as did the freed Africans of the area, who had quickly grown to be plantation owners themselves. However, by 1979, the British had captured the island, and in the following time period, quickly moved into the area, bringing with them not only their enslaved workers, but also a completely different set of political and cultural views (Goddard, 1991). While the British controlled the government of the island, the French and African inhabitants struggled for control over the dominant culture of the area.
By 1834, emancipation was initiated on the island, and the process was complete in 1838 (Stuempfle, 1995). Prior to their emancipation, the slaves were unable to leave the plantations, even in celebration of the three official days of the Carnival celebration. However, the free blacks in the area took to the streets every year, often masquerading as British or French plantation owners. They additionally played African-style drums in a show of creativity and independence (Averill, 1998).
In the year of the emancipation, the newly freed slaves were able to participate in the Carnival celebrations. In addition to playing the traditional instruments, such as the African drum, the newly freed slaves re-enacted a tradition of events that had taken place on the plantations. When a fire broke out in the fields, the slaves were sent to put out the flames. The re-enactment involved stick-fighting and drumbeats as the participants pretended to put out fires. On occasion, violence broke out between the aristocrat society and the freed slaves during the festival (Maxime, 1997).
Colonial authorities, intent on keeping the Carnival celebrations a more "pristine" event for the middle and upper class society, and in an attempt to stop the violence, banned the African drums, stick-fighting, and dancing (Averill, 1998). In addition, authorities in 1884 banned all percussion, string, and woodwind instruments for "unlicensed players" (National Library and Information System Authority, 2004). The ban was not limited to the Carnival festival, but was also applied to East Indian and African religious meetings, where the traditional instruments were still used for ceremonial purposes (Maxime, 1997).
The ban was not readily accepted by the lower class of Trinidad. Riots ensued, and the Carnival of 1884 was filled with more violence than even those years following emancipation. An attempt to break up the Hosay festival, which included traditional drums, occurred and thirteen persons were killed, while several others were wounded. However, the ban persisted (Goddard, 1991).
In response, the people began to use lengths of bamboo tubes, banging them on the ground to get certain notes that mimicked traditional drum playing. These groups, known as Tamboo Bamboo bands, were some of the most popular groups within the Carnival festival. The new "instruments" began to be used throughout the area. By 1941, those band members began using biscuit tins, dustbins, and caustic soda drums as percussion additions to the bamboo sounds. When the bamboo was outlawed, players turned their attention to any percussion sounds they could find, including garbage cans, and oil drums from the nearby Navel field (Blake, 1995).
Until 1945, the Carnival and other activities were suspended by the colonial authorities, due to World War II. During this time, many inventive musicians toyed with various shapes and sizes of metal, producing different sounds by creating dented surfaces in different positions. There are records on file of arrests for youths who, in defiance of the bans on their creativity, took to the streets with their steel or African drums. The Magistrates in the area gave stiff penalties in the hopes that the punishment would deter further acts (Maxime, 1997).
While it is unclear who created the first steel drum of the type used today, Winston "Spree" Simon was certainly a great influence in this time. Whereas steel drums had previously been used as percussion instruments only, Simon and other inventive individuals of the time began experimenting with the different notes a steel drum made when dented in various ways, and when the drums were of various thickness. While the original drums were convex, new models used a dish shape. Additionally, people such as Simon began to groove the drums, furthering their capability not only as percussion instruments, but as melodic instruments as well (Maxime, 1997).
It was in 1945 that the steel drum was first heard in a positive way by the colonial government of Trinidad. Following a horrendous war, when victory in World War II was declared May 8th, all people took to the streets. The previously banned Tamboo Bamboo bands had been replaced throughout the war years with the Steelbands, using steel drums as both a melodic and percussion component to victory songs. The pan instrument was heard all over the area for the first time, including the Port of Spain, and neighboring Tobago (Stuempfle, 1995).
It was again Winston Simon who is credited with the steel drum's introduction to mainstream society. On Carnival Day in 1946, Simon played Schubert's Ave Maria and God Save the King on his now finely tuned 14-note steel drum. In attendance at the Carnival Parade were the likes of the Governor, Sir Clifford and Lady Clifford, the Honorable Norman Tang, and other higher colony officials (Blake, 1995). No attempt was made to stop Simon, and the steel drum was accepted into middle and upper class society.
Today's version of the steel drum, while much more advanced, holds the same properties as the original. Skillfully hammered 55-gallon oil drums are often used. The drum's dented shape provides the full chromatic range of notes, and is used in not only Latin and Caribbean music, but pop and other music as well. The shape, usually dish shaped, produced melodic sounds like no other instrument known. In Trinidad, yearly Panorama competitions are held during the Carnival, where "pan-bands" as large as 100 musicians each compete for the title of "Steel band" of the year. The bands produce highly orchestrated classical pieces played entirely on steel-based instruments. The Carnival celebrations, once a marker for the banning of the enslaved workers beloved African drums, are now a celebration…