History Of The Steel Drums or Pan Drum

Warm sun, palm trees swaying, warm breeze, the Caribbean and Margaritas, Well that’s what I think about when I hear the sound of steel drums playing. That wonderful calypso sound that takes you back to those beautiful tropical islands.

The steel drums, or otherwise known as, (Pan drums), were created on the Island of Trinidad in the 1930s, but the pan steel drum can be traced back to the African slaves who were brought to the island during the 1700s. During this time, the steel pan was not taken seriously. The instrument and their creators were looked down upon by the upper class of Trinidad society because they were made and played by persons from the ghettos.

Hand drums were always a large part of the African culture. They were used in ceremonies, ways to express themselves and in their worship. Playing of the hand drums became the main percussion instrument in the annual Trinidadian carnival festivities.

British Ruling

In 1877, the British government ruled against the playing of drums and banned them in effort to suppress parts of the Carnival which were considered offensive. Bamboo stamping tubes were used to replace the hand drum, these produced sounds comparable to the hand drum when they were pounded on the ground.

Eventually, these tubes were played in ensembles called Tamboo Bamboo bamboo bands. Now that’s a mouthful!

Anything To Bang On

In the 1930, metal instruments dominated the taboo bamboo bands. Materials like scrap metal, metal containers, grater and dustbins were also used in these bands. These early metal pans were a combination of a wide variety of metal containers and kitchen utensils which were struck with open hands.

The metal pan players called, panmen, discovered that when they hit the high part of the metal, they made a different sound than the flat parts of the container. Through trial and error, the panmen realized they could raise areas of the pan to give them different sounds.

The steel pans were still in early development, could not deliver the music with integrity. The panmen could not read music and would memorize the melodies from recordings, and create their own harmonies. This often led to arrangements quite different from actual composers.

Initially, arbitrators recommended that the steelbands stick to their own way of playing and not European classical music. Not offended at all by the arbitrators comments, the panmen used the criticisms to asses and develope a more strategic methods of arranging and composing for steelbands.

New Innovations

According to renowned pan innovator and arranger Anthony Williams, the festival “caused improvement in making and tuning the pans, improvement in arranging and orchestration, improvement in playing the pans, and improvement in the appearance of the instruments.”

The early pans had a narrow musical ranges and could not fit in with most classical music. New pans with wider ranges were developed but were much bigger and could not be hung around the neck. This development lead to pans being hung on stands. This not only freed the player from carrying the instrument, but they were now able to play more complicated and involved music.

Steel pans involvement in the festival also gave way to the acceptance of steel pan as a valid instruments by the middle and upper classes of the Trinidad and Tobago.

Time To Move On

The steelbands eventually outgrew the Trinidad music festival and in 1964 the National Association of Trinidad and Tobago steel bandsmen, held their first steelband Music Festival. This new festival concentrated on performing European classical music.

As the steelband festival moved forward, the independence of Trinidad and Tobago from Great Britain caused a period where the steel bandsmen were told that the Steelband festival should only focus on the indigenous music. The Panmen however, did not see the festival as a rejection, but as an opportunity to create local music of surpassing quality. The festival remained unchanged despite the objections.

Steel Pan Innovators

Some innovators throughout steel pan history, have made a significant contribution to the development of this wonderful instrument.

Winston ‘Spree’ Simon-created the first ‘melody pan’ which carried only eight pitches. This was the first pan that could accommodate an entire melody.

Anthony Williams-invented the ‘spider web pan’ which was designed in a circle of fourths and fifths which produced a better quality of sound. This layout is now the most popular and accepted design for the tenor (lead) pans. Mr. Williams is also credited with being one of the first in steel pan history to use 55 gallon drums as starting materials. A tradition that is still practiced today.

Bertie Marshall-Invented the double tenor pan, and recognized the effects the sun had on the steel pan and was the first to place canopies over the instruments when played outdoors.

Ellie Mannette-First to wrap the playing sticks with rubber, which softened the strike and produced a more defined tone. He was also the first to sink the surface of a pan into its now characteristic concave shape. This allowed for more pitches to be placed on the playing surface.

In August 2018, Ellie Mannette passed away at the age of 90. He will fondly be remembered as the Stradivarius of Steel. According to Pannist Andy Narrell of Mannette, “it is very difficult to overstate the importance of Ellie Mannette to the development of the steelpan. He was there at the beginning, when a steelband was an assortment of paint cans and biscuit tins playing rhythm. His early innovations were pivotal in the transformation to a pitched, melodic instrument, and he has spent over 65 years relentlessly pursuing perfection. His instruments stand apart, a standard by which all steelpans can be measured, and he is one of the world’s truly great artists.”


Though the steelpan wasn’t a recognized instrument originally from Trinidad, they are one of the most beautiful instruments you hear today. Through trial and error the steelpan has impressed it’s way into a good deal of musical choreography, that is highly recognized today. You will find these instruments in orchestras, schools and especially on the islands.

Today the steel pan is now the national instrument of the republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Steel pan and it’s innovators are now held in high regard by all levels of society in Trinidad and Tobago.

Remember, the sun, warm breeze and swaying palm trees, will always come back to you when you hear the steel drum. 

Happy Drumming!!

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