Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

Did you know that the steel drum was born out of poverty and a local ban on drums? The steel drum originated in the late 1930s on the island of Trinidad and was played as part of a steel band, a percussion ensemble contrived by lower-class rebellious teens.

Learn more about the steeldrum’s complex history, development, and current form with our ten fun facts below:

  1. The steel drum is a tuned idiophone traditionally made from an oil drum, but today is made of high-quality steel. To make a steel drum, or a pan, the bottom of an oil drum is first pounded into a bowl, then shaped and tuned with hammers to form distinct resonating surfaces.
  2. Steel bands are stylistically versatile, but the most common steel band conventions of melodic phrasing and rhythmic structure are related to Calypso music.
  3. While the first steel bands included instruments such as soap boxes, biscuit tins, and dustbins, modern steel bands include vibraphones, cow bells, congas, bongos, triangles and other percussion instruments.
  4. Drums are made in families: bass pans, rhythm pans, and tenor pans.
  5. The steel band developed directly out of bamboo stamping tube ensembles, which provided carnival music for the lower-class in Port of Spain after a British colonial law restricted the use of drums with skin heads.
  6. “Band wars” between rival steel bands emerged in Trinidad, complete with street fighting. Membership in a band soon became interpreted as hooliganism signalling creole disdain for European norms.
  7. Manufacturing steel drums is a highly specialized skill. Pans are not standardized, as competition between rival bands fostered innovation in tuning and design.
  8. Winston ‘Spree’ Simon of the John John steel band is credited with making the first pan. In 1946, his band performed Ave Maria and God Save the King for an audience that included the British Governor.
  9. As of 1992, the steelpan is Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument. However, the notion dates from the 1940s when the steel band’s musical transformation was driven by competition between bands as well as by the efforts of progressive middle-class individuals to promote what they viewed as an indigenous art form unjustly maligned by colonial cultural standards.
  10. Popularity of the steel band has grown. They are now plentiful in Caribbean diaspora communities as well as non-Caribbean communities all over the world. While Trinidad and Tobago continues to be the centre, countries like Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan are now hubs of steel band activity.
steelpan steeldrum


Musicians who play the steel pan are referred to as a Panist.
The early metal pan musicians used a variety of tools to create the sound of metal music – including kitchen utensils and metal containers.
When making a steel pan the bottom of the oil drum is pounded into the shape of a bowl. Further shaping and tuning is done with hammers that create surfaces that resonate to make distinct sounds.
Originally steel pan instruments were played in steel bands with instruments such as dustbins, biscuit tins, and soap boxes. Today steel bands include a variety of other instruments such as triangles, bongos, congas, vibraphones, other percussion instruments, and cow bells.
The most popular and well-known music played with the steel pan is Calypso music.
Early in the history of the steel pan in Trinidad steel bands competed with each other. Those who were members of steel bands were thought to be gangs members and street fighting was common. This resulted in steel bands being looked down upon.
In 1992 the steel pan became the official national instrument in Trinidad and Tobago.
Since the first steel pans and steel bands emerged the popularity of this music has grown. Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and many other non-Caribbean countries have steel bands featuring steel pan musicians.
The first ‘melody pan’ that could sound an entire melody was created by Winston ‘Spree’ Simon.
The first steel pan musician to wrap the sticks with rubber to soften the sound was Ellie Mannette. He also created the concave shape that still remains in the design today.
One of the first steel pan musicians to use a 55 gallon oil drum for creating the steel pan was Anthony Williams. He also invented the ‘spider web pan’ which is the popular choice for tenor pans.
The inventor of the double tenor pam was Bertie Marshall. He also recognised that the sun had negative effects on the steel pan and started using canopies for protection during outdoor play.
Steel pans only have about a one and half range octave which is not very much when compared to other instruments.
Bass steel pans are very large and difficult to move from place to place.
The World Steel Band Music Festival is held in Trinidad since 1964.
The largest competition for steel bands is held during Carnival in Trinidad – called Panorama.
steelpan steeldrum double seconds

Steel drum, tuned gong made from the unstoppered end and part of the wall of a metal shipping drum. The end surface is hammered concave, and several areas are outlined by acoustically important chiseled grooves. 

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

It is heated and tempered, and bosses, or domes, are hammered into the outlined areas. The depth, curvature, and size of each boss determine its pitch. The drums are struck with rubber-tipped mallets made from Wood, Aluminium or PVC.

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

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SteelPan facts


Several innovators throughout steel pan history have made significant contributions to the development of the instrument.

For example

  • Winston ‘Spree’ Simon – is credited with creating the first ‘melody pan’ which carried eight pitches. This was the first pan that could accommodate an entire melody.
  • Ellie Mannette – is credited with being the first to wrap the playing sticks with rubber (which softened the attack and produced a more refined tone).He was also the first to sink the surface of a pan into its now characteristic concave shape (this allowed for more pitches to be placed on the playing surface).
  • Anthony Williams – is credited with inventing the ‘spider web pan’ which was designed in a cycle of fourths and fifths. (Pans with intervallic formulas are easier to tune and produce a higher quality sound). This layout is now the most popular and accepted design for tenor (lead) pans. Mr. Williams is also credited with being one of the first in steel pan history to use large 55 gallon drums as starting material for the pans, a tradition that continues to this day.
  • Bertie Marshall – credited with inventing the double tenor pan. He also recognized the negative effects the sun had on steel pan and was the first to place canopies over the instruments when they were played outdoors.

SteelPan facts with Steelasophical


When steel pans first emerged in the 1930’s they were not taken seriously. The instruments and their creators were looked down on by the upper class of Trinidad society because they were made and played by persons from the ghettos.

Also, criminal elements had an unfortunate love of steel band music. Performances of rival bands often ended in violence and steel pans were considered the instruments of hooligans!

Time and exposure eventually eroded this stigma and the steel pan is now the national instrument of the republic of Trinidad and Tobago and a source of great pride for its citizens. Steel pan and its innovators are now held in high regard by persons of all levels of society in Trinidad and Tobago.

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

Steel Drum History:

Steel pans originated with the fighting slave bands of Trinidad. Spain gave the (mostly French) European plantation owners land in Trinidad as long as they were Roman Catholic and made their allegiance to Spain. Mardi Gras became a big celebration for the upper class Catholics of Trinidad. Slaves were not allowed to attend, but after their emancipation in 1838, the newly freed people overtook the upper class celebration of Carnival, flooding the streets on Sunday at midnight prior to Monday’s Carnival events of Mardi Gras.

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

Their celebration was not religious — they simulated burning the sugar canes of the plantation owners, calling it “CanneBrullee” or “Canboulay.” They beat drums and carried torches and practiced stick fighting, ultimately forming bands that roamed the streets like gangs during Canboulay, waring with rival bands.   In an attempt to instate sanity and regain their own Mardi Gras celebration,1884 laws were made banning drums during Canboulay.

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

However, the bands could not be stopped. The drummers substituted bamboo rods and the bands became known as Tamboo Bamboo bands.  Band members lived in barack yards where the main sport was fighting.  They also passed time gambling, drinking and playing drums. The fighting and obscenity of Canboulay was tamed, musical rivalry replaced the fighting, prizes were given, and the music competition was fierce. Bamboo made good drums, with different sizes offering a variety of pitches or tones.

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

By 1900, the upper class resumed Carnival celebrations for Mardi Gras. Though less violent, the African bands were still fighters, using a “kalinda” to taunt the rival gangs through song and brag about the fighting skills of his band as they roam the streets during Canboulay. Metal became widely available during the 1930’s and the drummers beat on anything to make music — garbage cans, automotive brake drums, biscuit and paint containers. Once again, Canboulay became too violent. In 1935, the bamboo drums were outlawed during Canboulay as the drums also made good weapons for the waring bands. By 1938, the youth of Trinidad scrounged up anything metal for drumming; garbage cans being very popular.

Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical

Port of Spain, Trinidad, held some of the largest Canboulay celebrations. Alexander’s Rag Time Band came to the Port of Spain Canboulay celebration in 1939 with an all-metal band and was an instant success. Tuners started putting notes into pans beginning with the ping pong. Credit is given to Victor “Totee” Wilson for tuning a two-note drum that mimicked the ping pong sound of the QRC clock tower. The best tuners became band leaders. and the rivalry between the bands remained intense. When oil was discovered on the island, oil drums became inexpensive and plentiful — perfect for the metal drums.  Pounding the barrel into a concave bowl and pounding the convex notes into the bowl was likely a collaboration of several different steel drum tuners. Whatever worked was soon imitated by rival bands.

Brief timeline of events:

  • 1763 – France loses Seven Year War. Many islands secede to Great Britain.
  • 1777 – French sugar cane planters exodus to Spanish Trinidad.
  • 1783 – Cedula de Poblacion.  Any Roman Catholic friendly to Spain given 32 acres, plus 16 acres per imported slave.
  • 1789 – French Revolution. Many more French relocate to Trinidad to escape the effects of the revolution.
  • 1791 – Haitian Revolution. Revolting against the British, they flee to Trinidad.
  • 1797 – British overthrow Trinidad.
  • 1816 – Merikan soldiers (African slaves offered freedom to fight Americans) brought to Trinidad, given 16 acres each.
  • 1838 – Emancipation. Plantations turn to India for labor.
  • 1860 – Upper class whites have mostly abandoned Carnival.
  • 1880 – Canboulay riots. Bands join together to fight against police.
  • 1884 – Drums outlawed at Carnival, begin Tamboo Bamboo era.
  • 1935 – Tamboo Bamboo drums outlawed at Canboulay.
  • 1939 – All-metal percussion band emerges from Tamboo Bamboo bands.
  • 1942-1945 – Carnival put on hold for war concerns.
Steel Pan facts with Steelasophical