The history behind Trinidad’s iconic drum, the steelpan.

The steelpan plays the sounds of the Caribbean in thunderous unison.

Steelpan Trinidad & Tobago

Caribbean people use metal pans for two main things, to jerk chicken and play music. While these two functions are opposites, they both show the diligence and can-do attitude of a people who will do absolutely anything to express their culture.

On the twin isle of Trinidad and Tobago, metal oil drums became objects of musical expression when ex-slaves and their descendants turned fighting sticks into musical instruments. What started as folks innately banging pots, pans, or anything to make a beat has become one of the most iconic sounds of the Caribbean, especially T&T - the steelpan


Nothing says tropical getaway like the sound of waves crashing, palm trees rustling in the breeze, and sweet music playing on the pan. Let’s be honest, many rom-coms or tropical-Esque films set in the Caribbean feature the sounds of the steelpan somewhere in the movie, like in Club Paradise (1986) or Cool Runnings (1993). 


However, the sophisticated chrome-painted steelpans we see now were not always appreciated by the masses. The evolution of the steelpan dates back to the 1880s.

Steelpan history


The history of the steelpan


The 1881 Canboulay riots sparked a new age of cultural expression for people in Trinidad as they fought for their right to celebrate their annual carnival festivals. As the British sought to quiet the “rebels” by banning their stick-fighting traditions and African percussion music practices, the people found other ways to make sweet sounds. 


The first piece of the puzzle in the steelpan’s history was the use of tamboo bamboos, which were tunable sticks made of bamboo wood. Revelers would hit these sticks onto the ground and with other sticks to make beats. Soon they added metal percussion to their bands, and by 1939 the first all-steel band, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, emerged, making steel instruments a preferred carnival accompaniment.


By 1951, the newly formed Trinidad All-steelpan Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) attended the Commonwealth Arts Festival in England as the first Steelband with instruments made from old 55-gallon oil drums.

The steelpan band


Some 60 years later, pannist still play those same drums, but now they have fancy colors and come in different shapes and sizes to create various pitches and sounds for seamless harmony. 


The Single Tenor (Ping Pong), Spiderweb Lead, and Invader Lead produce Soprano, while the Double Tenor creates a Mezzo-soprano sound. The Double Second serves as the Alto. The Double Guitar, Quadrophonic (four pans), Quadduet, Triple Guitar, and Cello play Baritone. Finally, the Tenor, Six, Nine, and Twelve Bass provide the low-pitch needed to give arrangements body. 

Steelband stage

But it’s not enough just to know the names and functions of each pan. Hearing them play in thunderous unison will take you back to Savannah Grass with every knock and tap. And since 1963, that’s what has happened at Trinidad and Tobago’s annual Panorama music competition.

Duvone Stewart
https://duvonestewart.com/ Duvone​​ Stewart. Photo by Maria Nunes

Every year droves of pan fans spread across Queen’s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, to heart their favorite bands. They get to rock, groove, and balance as steelpan orchestras play popular Calypso songs they have arranged with original introductions and variations. 


Winning songs like “More Sokah” by Nailah Blackman, Sekon Sta & Anson Soverall, played by Desperadoes, or “Year for Love” by Aaron “Voice” St Louis, played by the Renegades, while more modern, continue to maintain the essence and spirit of Panorama winners in the past including North Stars, Trinidad All Stars, and Phase II Pan Groove.

Enjoy steelpan anywhere 


Still, the sound of the steelpan goes beyond listening to big bands on Savannah Grass. Trini lovers and Caribbean music fans can now bring that iconic sound with them anywhere they go, thanks to one man, Michael Cooper, and his company, Panland.

Now the go-to spot for all things steelpan and more, Panland has become synonymous with creating and distributing steelpans, sticks, and stands for introductory and music education markets, a concept unique to his brand. Now anyone who wants to learn how to play pan can! 


What’s even better is that now anyone living in the United States or Canada, whether Trini or not, can shop for all the supplies they need at Caribshopper.com. You can start playing pan in less than a week when you order your sets of drums today!