The Making of a Steel Pan | Discover Trinidad & Tobago

Originally written for and published in the 2008 edition of Discover Trinidad & Tobago travel guide

The steel pan (it’s really a bit of a faux pas to call it a steel drum!) is one of Trinidad’s proudest exports. It distinguishes itself by being the only acoustic, non-electric instrument invented in the 20th century, and one incubated right in and around Port of Spain during the second world war.

Origins of the Steel Pan

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for emancipated black slaves living in and around Laventille. Rhythm was an ancestral right and necessity to all celebrations.  When the colonial government banned drumming, bamboo branches were used in what came to be known as tambu bamboo bands. During World War II, the government banned both tambu bamboo and Carnival. So tucked away in the Laventille hills, more alternatives were sought out.  Biscuit and paint tins tended to produce single notes when hammered, and enterprising youngsters then took to discarded oil drums to develop the sound.

Steel bands debuted in the streets of Port of Spain in 1945 after the war ended.  Since then pioneering men like Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, Ellie Mannette, Bertie Marshall, Anthony Williams, Rudolph Charles, Clive Bradley, Len ‘Boogsie’ Sharpe and many others have continued to improve upon processes of making, tuning, transporting, arranging for and playing pan.  All were affiliated with some of the top bands who have dominated the Panorama competition – Desperados, Renegades, All Stars, Phase II Pan Groove and Exodus.

How a Steel Pan is Made

Pans are usually made through a time-tested and delicate process, though more mechanised versions have been emerging. Pans traditionally begin as 55-gallon oil drums, carefully selected by their crafters and tuners.  The first step is sinking the pan, or stretching the base by pounding it repeatedly; it is a noisy and laborious process which can last hours.  The pan’s skirt is then cut depending on the kind of pan it will eventually become – the longer the skirt, the lower the pan’s register. Next the pan is tempered or fired, which builds the strength and resilience of the metal, and prepares it for tuning and playing. Individual notes are then painstakingly marked out and grooved into the pan.  From beneath, the tuner then begins to pound (or “pong”) the pan, so that each note bubbles upward. The pan is then ready for tuning, as the notes are then delicately hammered so that each is precise in pitch in relation to the other. Once the pan is properly tuned, it is then either chromed to make it shine silver (after which it must again be retuned!), or dipped in paint.

Full steel orchestras now match the range of notes that can be played in instrumental ensembles anywhere else in the world.  And the innovation continues.  In 2007, a new pan called the G-Pan (Genesis Pan) was unveiled by a team of innovators at the University of the West Indies (UWI). The G-Pan is a successor to the current Tenor Pan, or lead pan that carries the melody. Current tenors can play 29 notes over 2.5 octaves in the higher register, and the new G-Pan can now play 37 over four octaves. Two other pans to replace the current mid-range pans (seconds, double-tenor, guitar and cello), and a new incarnation of the bass pans have also emerged. The team has also been quick to apply for a patent of the new pans, as a United States company ludicrously obtained a patent for the steelpan some years ago – much to every Trinidadian’s chagrin (though it has been successfully challenged).

And there is more pan to come.

Trinidad Steelbands

No other population lives and breathes “pan” quite the way this country does. At no time is this truer than during the Carnival season, which nurtures steelband the way the NBA nurtures basketball, producing a steady supply of players, a steady supply of high-quality instruments, and an informed and interested audience.


Panorama, the national steelband competition, is one of the Carnival season’s major highlights, and until you’ve heard a steel orchestra on the Panorama stage you haven’t heard half the story of what steelpan is all about. The 100-person orchestras (steelbands) start practising their arrangements of the season’s calypsos right after Christmas. Most bands are community-based, and their practice arenas, known as panyards, are often important meeting places and great places to visit – no Carnival itinerary, in fact, is complete without a panyard tour or two. In addition to the conventional orchestras there are also small, traditional groups knows as “pan round the neck” sides.

The various legs of the Panorama competition take place at venues throughout the country, with the semi-finals and final happening at the “big yard” of the Queen’s Park Savannah. The Panorama shows are a great place to hear music, of course, but also – in true Trini style – an occasion to party and lime. The finals are also televised.

Steelbands at Carnival & Beyond

Steelbands are also a traditional part of the street proceedings on Carnival Monday and Tuesday, especially during J’Ouvert. Many orchestras also have accompanying mas’ bands which often play traditional themes like sailors and wild Indians.

Outside of the Carnival season, steel orchestras are kept busy practising for the events like Pan in the 21st Century, Pan Jazz in de Yard, The World Steelband Music Festival and Pan Ramajay. But the true cradle of the steelband is Carnival: the opening bars of a Panorama arrangement are often startling in their volume and intensity, and the sound of an 100-piece steel orchestra on the Panorama stage has no equal in the musical universe.

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