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Steel Island

The rhythm of the human heart must have first inspired the beat of the drum. All the various inhabitants of Trinidad & Tobago treasure deep in the basis of their own cultures the insistent throbbing of that magical instrument. Thus, the steelpan was created out of the heartbeat of these islands.

During Trinidad's Spanish colonization from 1498 to 1797, French planters settled and introduced slavery, bringing the African people to Trinidad. When slavery ended, East Indians came as indentured labor. Drumming was confined to these two major groups in the 19th Century.


The beating of animal skin drums was an integral part of the Africans' religious observance, acting as a vehicle to create ecstasy as well as to transport them to a higher plain in order to communicate with their Orisha (saints or gods).  Shango, brought by the Yoruba of Western Africa, was the most popular. These rituals helped them to survive the rigors of a life of hardship, oppression and toil and to celebrate important social occasions.

Collection of Shango Drums


When Trinidad became a British colony in 1797, the British feared the drums would activate revolt by transmitting coded messages from one plantation to another.  The Catholic Church wanted to convert everyone to Catholicism and dissolve the African religion and culture. So drums were banned, and the slaves were forbidden to practice their religion or to speak their own language.

Slavery ended at midnight July 31, 1834. On August 1st the jubilant Africans celebrated "Canne Brulee",  when the sugar canes were burnt before harvesting. Fearing drums would be used to communicate uprisings and insurrections, the British banned this celebration, known as Canboulay. After much rioting in 1881, the authorities, in 1884, allowed a restricted celebration without drums, beginning at dawn on the Monday preceding Ash Wednesday, during Carnival celebrated today as j'ourvet.


Tasa Drums

The East Indians brought their own indigenous drumming traditions to accompany their celebrations. Although they were never deprived of their culture as were the Africans, the government did restrict their drumming which created cultural empathy between the Africans and Indians and a cross-cultural intermingling whenever the two cultures got together. The size and shape of the Indian tasa drum might have influenced the African drummer.


To accompany celebrations after the banning of their drums, the Africans turned to bamboo cut to different lengths and then beat on the ground to form bands called tamboo bamboo, from tambour", French for drum. The tamboo bass often caused injury to the foot when it pounded the ground as well as damage to the road surface. The biscuit tin replaced the bass for rhythm to avoid further injury. When it was discovered that the bamboo instruments were also used in the inter-district fights that had replaced the old tribal friendly rivalries organized between the plantations, the police banned the instruments.

Tamboo Bamboo


Laventille Hills

The Shango religious practice was forbidden and driven underground except in districts where the people were openly defiant of the drumming ban in order to retain their religious rites - Laventille Hills, Laventille proper, and John John.  The forbidden drums survived to instill their spirit in the very heart of the steelpan where the drumbeat and heartbeat are inseparable.


Shango Drum


In the 1930's experiments began with metal objects to produce musical sound because at that time the poverty of the African communities such as Laventille made it difficult to impossible to purchase materials for experiments or conventional musical instruments such as piano, violin, or trumpet to play. In Laventille the unemployed youths' insatiable musical appetite drove their relentless experiments with milk cans, paint cans, garbage can covers, car hub caps, pots, old brake drums, and biscuit tins, with the biscuit tin said to be the first true pan. It was hung around the players' neck upside down, and the base, now uppermost, was struck drum-style with the edge of an open palm or with a closed fist.

Collection of Drums Made
From Metal Objects


Andrew Beddoe

Andrew Beddoe, an accomplished Orisha drummer and the tamboo band's best biscuit pan drummer in John John, sparked the critical transition from tamboo bamboo to pan with his magical drumming fingers.


The police considered the early pioneers to be despicable, good for nothing vagabonds to be treated with scorn.  They were looked down upon as the worst type of "bad john", the outcast of society. Laventille had become a settlement of people without land, without work, and deprived of natural access to the full richness of cultural resources. At the time of greatest pressure, the the steel pan was invented and quckly became a vehicle of social identification, with John John being its birthplace, the cradle of the most momentous musical occurrence in 20th Century musical history.

Bermudez Biscuit Tin


Early Convex Pan

Oral accounts from surviving steelband pioneers and enthusiasts, together with the little that has been written, suggest that the invention and early development of the steel pan was not the outcome of a stroke of genius of a single individual, but the product of socially outcast communities groping for self-expression.

Many many people contributed to the development of the steelpan. In this website, we spotlight those that directly contributed to the "front line" family of musical instruments which prevail today.  Bertie Marshall and Tony Slater  modernized them, creating today's industry standard.


Winston "Spree" Simon, while living in John John, provided the link from biscuit tin to steelpan. The manufacturing area where many of the men in the district worked became a source of discarded drums and tins used in their drumming sessions. Spree was a kettle drummer with the John John band. He noticed the different sounds the different tins produced when struck with different objects. His first pan was a simple one-note kettle drum.  After loaning it out once, it was returned mishapen.  While pounding it to restore its shape and on different points with varying strengths, he was surprised to find it produced varying sounds or pitches.

4-note Pan - Early Ping Pong


Winston "Spree" Simon

He was able to hammer out 4 distinct musical notes. When he turned his knowledge over to the other members of the John John band, pan was born. He played and developed the "ping-pong" which carried eight notes, the forerunner of the tenor (lead) pan. By 1946 it had evolved to 14 notes, was beaten with plain sticks without rubber tips, and was not tuned chromatically. He was the first leader of the steelband Destination Tokyo. Spree played and wowed a Broadway audience and later made many visits abroad as a goodwill ambassador of pan to various parts the world, including Liverpool, Nigeria, and Ghana. By playing the kind of music that was widely accepted among the middle and upper classes, Simon was the first panman to make society sit up and give credence to the pan as a musical instrument.


In the 1940's, during WWII,  the American bases in Trinidad created great demand for oil which resulted in an abundance of 55 gallon drums. The early pioneers began cutting the oil drums discarded by the oil refineries, producing a new source of music that was no longer just rhythmical noise.  They discovered that when the flat tops of these oil drums were indented to make shallow cavities of various sizes, they were no longer just crude percussion instruments, but could increase the musical range by placement of more notes producing different musical tones. By systematically varying the size and depth of these cavities and the length of the skirts after cutting them from the original oil drum, complete scales could be formed ranging from the lowest bass to the highest treble.

Phase I - Sinking the pan


Although the struggle of these underprivileged youths against colonial oppression caused the steelband movement to suffer from the stigma of being low-classed and violent, the steelpan soon became the only focal point in their lives capable of engendering discipline and pride.  The youth of other low income communities quickly embraced it.  In a country whose people are drenched from birth in music and dance, this discovery was seized with delight and rampant creativity. Success of the steelband did not come easy because it originated, developed and modernized in the backyards, alleys, and areas of subcultural living. The social stigma remained with the music, and the names of the steelbands of the time reflected the violence of the warring communities - Desperadoes, Invaders, Renegades, and Hell Yard.


Neville Jules

The creative baton was passed to Ellie Mannette, founding member of the original Oval Boys Steel Band in Woodbrook which became Invaders. In 1946 he discovered that if the 55-gallon oil drum was hammered concave rather than convex, he could put more notes on it.

Both Neville Jules of Hell Yard, now Trinidad All Stars, and Mannette introduced instruments that were two drums tuned together to form one tuned double pan instrument.

Joe Griffith, a member of the Trinidad Police Band, initiated chromatic tuning of pans, and extended the steelband's tonal range to five octaves.


Tony Williams began a trail of genius in 1950 while he was captain and arranger of Pan Am North Stars in St. James. He recorded an album, "Ivory and Steel" which combined pans and conventional instruments. His vision was to develop and standardize pan to where it could have its own legitimacy beside the conventional instruments of the world. This vision manifested itself in his greatest invention, the Spider Web pan.  The notes radiated from the center like a spider's web, leaving practically no empty or dead space on the face of the pan. His genius led him to place the note arrangements in the best possible tuning position, in logical musical sequence spaced at intervals of fifths and arranged in such a way that each note ascends the chromatic scale and is one-eighth of an inch narrower than the preceding note. This fifths arrangement is the standard for the Lead instrument used today.

Tony Williams with Friend
with Spider Web Pan


Marshall Tone Pan
"a one-man band"

Bertie Marshall, steelpan innovator extraordinaire, also displayed his gifted talents as arranger, player, and band leader with the now defunct HIghlanders steelband of Laventille beginning in 1957. In 1965 he created amplified pans, culminating in 1971 with the Bertiphone which combined tone control and amplification. He modernized the earlier lead and double second pans by adding more space between the notes, as they had been too crowded. He revolutionized pan tuning by introducing harmonics and complex tuning. This tuning method creates the sound of pan we enjoy today. He designed and introduced the double tenor, dubbed by some as the perfect pan.


Denzil "dimes" Fernandez invented the Bore Pan. It is characterized by the boring of small puncture holes to separate the tonal zones or notes from one another which creates more resonance and volume. The idea was further developed by John "jap" Chow and Mervin Ray.   Between 1985 and 1986 the entire frontline of the St. Francois Valley Road band was equipped with bore pans. The resonance achieved was superior in tonal clarity in general, an effect rather like the sound quality of electrical amplification. "Butch" Kellman experimented with the bore pan, also, and after hearing it for the first time dubbed it the "Pan of the Twenty-First Century". After 5 years of further experimentation, the bore pan's brightness, clarity and sustainable tuning were recently perfected by Tony Slater and Bertie Marshall.


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