Steel Drum History: Everything You Need To Know

The steel drum history is quite interesting and fascinating. It is associated with Canboulay, African percussion music.

The history also reveals how people come up with an idea of an orchestra where only frying pans, oil drums, and dustbins were used to produce music.

It is an interesting tale that reveals how some talented individuals from Trinidad and Tobago decided to create something unique.

Steelpans are now an integral part of Trinidadian music. It has become a cultural symbol of the Trinidadian people and they are experts in playing this instrument.

The sound produced by this instrument often reminds a relaxing holiday in a tropical location because this instrument was invented by people who lived in tropical island countries.

Today, thousands of pannists across the globe use more sophisticated versions to produce amazing steel drum music.

History of Steel Pan

Most experts believe steelpans were introduced in 1930. Very few people know that this instrument has been around since the 19th century. Similar instruments were used during that age to celebrate carnivals.

French revolutionaries and their slaves brought this instrument to the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago. The African slaves used to celebrate their freedom by using their unique drums during the 1830s.

The colonialists were not happy about the drumming because they were worried that people could have sent messages through these drums.

They wanted to prevent social unity among the Black African People and that’s why prohibited the use of drums for celebrations during that era. 

However, it was quite difficult to prevent natives from following their passion and enjoying their freedom.

The natives found tuned bamboo sticks “Tamboo Bamboo” to create music once their traditional drums were banned. You might be wondering what a bamboo stick has to do with the history of the steel pan.

Well, these instruments are linked together since the beginning. The biscuit tins were played as rhythm instruments in the Tamboo Bamboo bands during the 30s.

These bands were banned during this time because of fights between rival groups. 

It was not possible to play drums and Tamboo Bamboo, so the street bands started playing drums, spoons, and other items to produce music.

These new bands were known as “Pan Bands” and people who played these pans were called Pannists.

The musicians soon realized that the pitch of their instruments is changing over time. There were no carnivals and public performances during the Second World War.

All the musicians could do is experiment with their new instruments. The leading pannists tried their best to improve the sound quality of their instruments.

Steelpan history in Trinidad reveals that the early ones were made of metal containers.

Even though those instruments were quite different than today’s drums, their notes and playing methods were not quite different.

People used to shape pans from 55-gallon oil drums, which were easily available during the time of the 2nd World War.

The pannists were able to get 12 notes of the Chromatic Scale from these drums. All the Convex-shaped steel drums were now turning into concave-shaped drums.

The only purpose behind this changed shape was to accommodate more notes. Pan sticks were covered with rubber to generate smooth and rich sounds with each stroke.

Expert pannists kept improving their instruments and tried to accommodate more notes into their drums.

Today’s design of this type of instrument may look a bit different from the early models of drums played during the 30s.

However, this instrument survived and become an integral part of the Trinidadian culture.

What was the steel pan originally made from?

It was originally made of oil drums and steel containers. People had no other source to create drums that they could play for entertainment.

The desire to have something unique for entertainment led people to create instruments out of used oil drums and steel pans.

Experts also say that this musical instrument is the only major musical instrument, which was invented in the entire 20th century.

This definite pitch percussion instrument looks much improved now, but the early instruments were not as appealing and tuned as today’s models of steelpans.

Who invented the steel drums?

The credit for inventing steelpans goes to Ellie Mannette. He was considered a pioneering pannist, who used 55-gallon oil drums to create this instrument. 

These drums were easily available around the oil refineries on the Island of Trinidad and Tobago.

He was able to create an instrument out of used old drums. The early steelpan models were used to produce 12 notes of the chromatic scale. Those early models laid the foundation for today’s amazing steelpans.

When did the steel pan become the national instrument?

The steelpan becomes the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago on 30th August 1992. It was invented, developed, refined, and matured in this Island nation.

Therefore, there is no other country in the world that can take credit for inventing the only major instrument of the 20th Century.

A steelpan is considered the national instrument in Trinidad and Tobago only if it is made in this country, it is musical, and if it is used to play songs composed in this country.

It means other steel drums played across the globe cannot be considered the national instruments of Trinidad and Tobago.

Where is the Handpan from?

The Handpan was invented in Bern Switzerland, where its creators Felix Rohner and Sabina Scharer had founded PANArt. 

It was originally designed to be played with bare hands and that’s why it is also known as “Hang” (Hang means hand in Bernese German).

Final thoughts

We have revealed many interesting facts about steelpans. This steel drum history will make you respect this instrument more due to the struggle faced by the creators of this amazing instrument.

The world was busy dealing with the death of millions of people across Europe when a person in Trinidad and Tobago decided to create a musical instrument out of an oil drum.

That musical instrument eventually became the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago and we call it the “Steel Drum”.