There are not many working-class neighborhoods that can claim to have produced an original musical instrument recognized around the world. But Laventille, a hilly, low-income suburb just east of 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. 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.
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 had 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.
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. 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."
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.
There are pans tuned in at least 10 different registers–each with its own distinctive "keyboard," or note layout. Some pan manufacturers have steel drums made especially for them from specially formulated steel. A good chromed tenor pan costs upward of $750, and a full orchestra can cost more than $60,000. Most of the large steel band orchestras have corporate sponsors.
Despite the cost, there are today more than 190 steel bands in Trinidad (population 1.1 million), according to Internet listings, and more than 800 steelbands in dozens of other countries, including 300 in the United Kingdom, 240 in the United States and 130 in Switzerland, where 70 percent of the players are women. Pans are now manufactured in at least nine countries besides Trinidad. Steelband orchestras have played concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall, Washington’s Kennedy Center and London’s Royal Albert Hall. The "First European Steelband Festival" was held in Paris, France, in May 2000. A world conference on the "Science and Technology of Steel pan" was held in Trinidad in October 2000. Scientific American magazine has published an article on steel pan physics.
Pan players worldwide communicate via the Internet. There are dozens of sites from bulletin boards and individual steelband pages to listings of steel bands, tuners and manufacturers by country. Two of the best sites with links to other sites are www.pantrinbago.com and www.seetobago.com. A Swedish site has published a complete manual on how to manufacture and tune a pan www.musikmuseet.se/pan/tuning/
Laventille still claims to be the capital of pan. At least 15 steel bands have panyards (courtyard compounds where band members practice and leave their instruments), including the Desperadoes, one of Trinidad’s oldest steel bands and nine-time winner of the Panorama competition held in Port of Spain during each Carnival. When Rudolph "The Hammer" Charles, steel band innovator and longtime leader of the Desperadoes, died in 1985, his funeral rivaled that of Trinidad and Tobago’s first and much-loved prime minister Eric Williams. Laventille has started its own steel band festival in an effort to draw tourists. And several years ago the tops of two huge water tanks atop Picton Hill were painted with silver and pan notes, creating the world’s largest pans.