The musical traditions hosted by Trinidad often reflect its complex political history. Certain trends in musical styles and types of musical instruments emerged as a reply to the oppressive politics of European colonizers (Manuel, Bilby, & Largey 240). One of the bright examples of such creative and ingenious response to the British cultural repression is the invention of steel drum, or pan (Manuel et al. 240). The tradition of steel pan music embodies the key social trends of Caribbean society aimed at social inclusiveness (Johnson 206).
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The roots of steel pan bands can be traced back to the colonial past, when slaves of African origin were not allowed to practice their cultural rites and to express their national identity via playing drums (Pilgrim 427). Even after abolition of slavery in 1834, they were forced to shift their traditional celebrations of canboulay to carnival days, and those were the only times when they could practice playing self-made percussion instruments (Pilgrim 427).
At first those percussion ensembles consisted of bamboo tubes which were hit by sticks and therefore were called “tamboo-bamboo” after the material of instruments (Manuel et al. 240). Later on, the wooden details were substituted with metal ones and by the early 1940s metal drums took over the traditional “tamboo-bamboo” instruments (Manuel et al. 240).
Initially, a steel band ensemble included most primitive objects as its instruments: biscuit or paint tins, kerosene containers, empty oil drums — everything that had a certain pitch would be used for making rhythmical music (Pilgrim 427). Everything connected with steel band activities acquires a prefix ‘pan-‘: the instruments are called pans, the performance places are panyards, the performers are pan-beaters, etc. (Pilgrim 426).
According to their range, pans are classified into five categories, ranging from tenor to bass pans (Pilgrim 426). The bass, cello, and tenor pans are used for harmony, while the more sharp-sounding ping-pong drums play the melody (Manuel et al. 242). The repertoire performed by pan bands is extremely diversified: from traditional folk songs to soundtrack tunes to works of classical music (Manuel et al. 242).
The social significance of steel bands lays in the fact that they allow inclusion of a wide range of social strata in their performance practice. On the one hand, initially created as a way of music making for the lowest and poorest classes of society, steel bands easily allowed representatives of middle class in their friendly community (Johnson 206).
On the other hand, steel bands included amateurs who could read no score, and therefore they promoted the spirit of shared improvisation and cooperation between its members. In addition, as steel bands enjoyed more and more popularity with the people, their competitive nature emerged in the form of so-called revving which emphasized the individual skills and strong points of each band (Johnson 208).
In terms of political implications, steel bands revealed their unique quality of promoting amateur culture. Initially frowned upon by the British authorities, steel bands appeared to attract so many tourists that they were gradually recognized as national cultural heritage and accepted as legal.
In 1951 Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, TASPO, brought the art of steel pan performance on a tour around England, and since 1963 a Panorama competition is held among steel bands (Manuel et al. 242). The popularity and the public recognition steel bands have acquired during the last century shows that this initially underground movement has evolved into a full-blood trend in amateur music that not only brings enjoyment but also helps to resolve social and political tensions.
Johnson, Kim. “Notes on the Pan.” Carnival: Culture in Action: The Trinidad Experience. Ed. Milla Cozart Riggio. New York, NY: Routlege, 2004. 204–212. Print.
Manuel, Peter, Kenneth Bilby, and Michael Largey. Caribbean Currents: Caribbean Music from Rumba to Reggae. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006. Print.
Pilgrim, Scofield. “Steelband in Trinidad and Tobago, or, Trinidad Steelband.” Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: An Encyclopedic History. Ed. Malena Kuss. Vol. 2. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007. 425–430. Print.
- Canboulay is a traditional slave drum parade that celebrates burning the sugarcane before reaping (Pilgrim 427).
- In this context revving means increasing the competitive spirit between the musicians by increasing the tempo and virtuosity of performance.