What are Steel Pans ?

There are not many working-class neighbourhoods that can claim to have produced an original musical instrument recognised around the world. But Laventille, a hilly, low-income suburb just east of the commercial Port of Spain, Trinidad, justly prides itself in being the birthplace of one of the most popular musical instruments created during the 20th century - the steel drum or "pan," as it is more correctly called. Laventille was settled in the mid-1800s by freed African slaves. There, the African tradition of drumming evolved over the years into rhythm bands of young, often rowdy men, who paraded the streets during Carnival and other celebrations pounding skin drums and, when those were outlawed, hollow bamboo drums. This became known as Tamboo Bamboo. Click here to hear what it might have sounded like.


Garbage Can

In the mid-1930s, these street bands began to use metal objects like garbage can lids,automobile parts, pots and pans, and biscuit tins because they were louder and stronger than bamboo, and they evolved into all-steel bands, or "steel bands" by the end of the 1930s.

Biscuit Tin

Kettle Drum

Around 1942 or 1943, according to one legend, a 12-year-old Laventille youth named Winston "Spree" Simon, loaned his large iron "kettledrum" to a friend.When it was returned, his drum had been beaten concave and lost the "special" tone Simon liked. He started pounding the under surface of the drum back to its original shape and discovered that the pounding created different pitches or notes. He produced a four-note drum and, by this accident, started the transformation of the steel "drum" from a rhythm instrument into a melodic one.

Oil Drum


In 1946, according to steel band historian Felix Blake, Simon, using a small oil drum, developed a 14-note pan that caused a sensation when he played it during the first Carnival held in Trinidad after the celebration was banned at the beginning of World War II. The instrument was quickly copied by other musicians, and Trinidad's rhythm drum bands soon evolved into music bands.


Ellie Mannette, one of  Simon's friends, began using discarded 55-gallon oil drums (the standard for today's pans), which he hammered concave, trimmed, heated to make the metal stronger and more able to retain notes in tune, and then hammered from the underside to create convex notes on the concave surface. Ellie tried to copy Simon's design but could not get the notes to tune, so in frustration, he decided to reverse the process, and shaped convex  notes onto a sunken concave surface.

55 Gallon Oil Drum 



This was the first "sinking" of a drum, and it worked. Ellie began making his own drums and because of the shape of them people would tease him, asking him if he was building a tub in which to bathe his babies. His drums, therefore, became known as "Baby's Bath Time". Using this design, by 1941 Ellie was tuning in 6 or 7 notes on his drums. By 1947, he had perfected a drum with two octaves of a diatonic scale.





Pans with chromatic scales were soon developed. In 1951, the Trinidad All Percussion Steel Orchestra (TAPSO), a group of 10 all- star pan men that included both Simon and Mannette, was sent to represent Trinidad at the Festival of Britain in London. The group, which had increased the range of pans by inventing low-note base pans,  not only played Caribbean music but classical selections as well. The event put pan on the world map, and the group toured England and France and played on BBC radio and television. TAPSO panman Edric Conner wrote back home: "I don't want to hear any West Indian say we haven't got culture."



Chromatic Pan











Today, steel bands have from four to 10 players. Some are orchestras with more than 300 pans spanning five octaves from single "tenor" (soprano) pans of 24 to 27 chromatic notes to sets of nine bass pans of three notes each played by a single person. Steel bands play music from calypso and jazz to the Beatles and Bach. Since most players cannot read music, they memorize their parts, an incredible feat for classical "tunes" such as Rossini's William Tell Overture or a Bach fugue. Len "Boogsie" Sharpe is considered to be the world's best pannist, often compared to jazz vibraphone great Milt Jackson. Sharpe can play pan upside down and can harmonize his own melody with a third playing stick.

            Set of sticks