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Steel Pan History

Articles on the Internet

A short history of the shiny drum - How discarded oil barrels evolved into a global musical tradition

An article on the history of steel pan for IDBAmerica by David Mangurian, Laventille, Trinidad.

Illustrated history of pan

Steel Island has published an illustrated overview of the development of the steel pan at their web site: www.steelisland.com/history.asp

Lies and Distortions of Pan

An article on the history of pan, written by Bukka Rennie on November 11, 1999 for TriniSoca.com

Videos

Historical Moment of Steel Pan Creation & Tuning, from Trinidad & Tobago to North America

Toshi and Peter Seeger's 1956 documentary film: "Music from oil drums" - Historical Moment of Steel Pan Creation & Tuning, Trinidad & Tobago

From the book Steel Pan Tuning

The steel pan, the tuned steel drum, is one of the few genuinely novel acoustic instruments invented in the twentieth century. Its origin is believed to be dustbins, used as rhythm instruments by the traditional Carnival bands of Trinidad & Tobago in the 1930's. During its 50-year history the steel pan has evolved from a multi-pitched percussion instrument to the mellow-sounding melodic-harmonic instrument of today.

The history of the steel pan is a story of prohibitions and compulsion. Its invention was in fact induced by the ruling colonialists trying to suppress the strong rhythmic heritage of the black Africans. Here are some milestones in the history of the pan:

1883
The use of drums in street parades was outlawed since the colonialists feared that passing of secret messages by means of drumming might become the impetus for social unity and revolt among the black. Riots and conflict between the natives and the authorities led to the banning of drum processions after the carnival this year.
1900 - 1934
The ban of drums led to the use of tuned bamboo sticks in street parades. During the 1930's biscuit tins were included as rhythm instruments in the Tamboo Bamboo bands.
1934
Tamboo Bamboo bands were forbidden due to street clashes among rival groups.
1935 - 1938
A gradual change to steel instruments in street bands.
1938 - 1939
Are considered to be the "birth" years of the steel drum. Tamboo Bamboo bands finally switching over to steel. Alexander's Ragtime Band, led by pioneer Carlton Forde, is said to have been the first known band with an ensemble exclusively consisting of steel instruments.
1942
Carnivals forbidden during World War II for "security reasons", which gave people more time for acoustic experiments with the emerging "steel drum".
1939 - 1945
The first melody pans with three to eight tones was introduced. The pan crafting process was improved by sinking, grooving and tempering. Sticks damped with rubber tubing were starting to be used. The instruments were grouped into categories as iron, boom, dudup, ping-pong.
1945
In a spontaneous Carnival at the end of the war there were several bands consisting of only steel pans - the first real steelbands.
1946
The Invaders steelband, led by Elliot "Ellie" Manette, was reported to be the first steelband to participate in organised "mas".
The last years of the small melodic steel pan; in 1948 the 55 gallon oil drum finally replaced the biscuit tin as main raw material. The first fourteen-note steel drum with chromatic tones was developed.

The early rhythm steel drums were usually made from paint tins or biscuit tins, one foot in diameter and two feet long. It was discovered that bulges of different sizes in the bottom of a tin could produce sounds of various pitches. Some of the more inventive players started to tune the tins and play melodies on them. Several sources point out Winston "Spree" Simon as the inventor of the first melodic steel pan.

An oil industry as well as an U.S. naval base had been established on the island of Trinidad. Leftover oil drums were often cut in two and used as dustbins. These dustbins successively replaced the biscuit tin as the raw material for pan making. The bottom of the dustbin was hammered outwards to a convex shape (i.e., the opposite to a modern steel pan) and then small dents for the different notes were made in it. In the later part of the 1940's, pan tuner and arranger Elliot "Ellie" Manette changed the design to concave with convex note-dents and increased the number of notes in the pan.

Through the fifty years following the second world war, the steel pan has been further developed by panmakers through sophisticated experimentation with the physical parameters of the metal, using intuition, trial and error experiments and a good musical ear. The development is still in progress; refinements are made and new crafting techniques and constructions are tested. A number of pan types with different layouts have evolved from this experimentation. Some problems that have not yet been finally resolved are the standardization of the note layout on the various pan types and the evaluation of the effectiveness of the different existing crafting techniques.

Read more about the steel pan in my book: Steel Pan Tuning - a Handbook for Steel Pan Making and Tuning