History of the Steel Pan | The National Instrument of Trinidad & Tobago

Photo ©  PanTrinbago
This is the story of a magical instrument created in The 21 St. Century on the island of Trinidad (the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago); our beloved National Instrument: The Steelpan.

As a Patriotic 'Trinbagonian' living abroad for more than two decades now, I have to confess the sounds of the steel orchestras performing for Pan in the 21st. Century churned raw emotions into tears of joy! The pan orchestras sounded so sweet, and the accompanying arrangements were nothing short of superb. There is certainly a difference in listening to pan for our panorama competition compared to the use of the national instrument to showcase the music and instruments on the world scene - truly amazing!

These are the types of music that anyone, who listens to American Pop and R&B, can easily identify songs and appreciate the beautifully syncopated resonance of the steel pan as played by the pan orchestra that always has the citizenry of the World marveling at the ingenuity of the music arrangers and pan players. The Calypsos may be unknown making the scintillating renditions lost to the foreign listener.  So as a Trinbagonian I celebrate the beauty, the creativity of generations past to have created the only new musical instrument of the 21 Century – it’s we ting, shout it from the mountain tops- yes take dat! It is pan in ‘yuh pwefen, pan in yuh rukunkunk’ and no one in the world can do it like we do… But wait; is it really “we ting” as we boastfully chant in 'Trini' colloquialism? There are US and European Patents that say it is not “We Ting” but somebody else’s – how in heaven's name did this travesty occur?

You've got to know/understand your past to mold and truly understand your future, in other words, you have to creep before you learn to walk. Let us now take a look back to see how the pan, as a musical instrument, was born.  This will help us understand the journey that so many Trinidadians took to bring the steel pan to that which it is today.  It will also put into perspective the travesty that exists today regarding the ownership of the various patents for the steel pan.

First and foremost the history and development of the steel pan are Afro-centric – African slaves brought to Trinidad to work on the plantations used drums during their religious celebrations and religious practices. This was eventually banned because the slave masters believed that the slaves used the drums to communicate with each other from estate to estate. The British and the Catholics would not permit the slaves “to communicate” in this manner because the goal was to control and convert these subjects of the slave owners –as a result, it was banned. The end of Slavery on July 1, 1834, led to celebrations on August 1, 1834, the celebration of Canboulay with the burning of the sugar cane before harvesting. However, the British allowed the people to participate in a restricted celebration without the drums in what we know as Carnival beginning at the dawn on Monday before Ash Wednesday. So to fill the void the African slaves turned to bamboo cut to different lengths – tamboo bamboo. The biscuit tin replaced the tamboo bass eventually to avoid injury to the feet of the players.

Laventille and John John in particular then came into the spotlight. “Andrew Beddoe was one of the district’s finest Orisha drummers and the tamboo band’s best biscuit pan drummer in "John-John" sparked the critical transition from tamboo bamboo to pan with his magical drumming fingers.”

This is where the story gets muddled and claims of the true inventor come into play. However, everyone believes that Winston Spree is the one person who “provided the link from biscuit tin to steel pan.” This was the "bad john" era and rivalries between “bands” led to clashes that had people scampering away for their safety. Ping pong was born with four notes hammered out by Winston Spree Simon. By 1946 the pan had developed to 14 notes and it was beaten with sticks without rubber on the ends. Today the pan is not beaten but played with sticks with rubber on the ends.

There are many written documents that chronicle the history of the steel pan as a musical instrument. However, there is one written by Christopher D. Walborn that I found to be informative and a very pleasant read.  Indeed, there has been much controversy about who invented the pan but after reading several articles one can appreciate the multiple hands that went into the creation of the steel pan. Ellie Mannette had a very great influence on the development of the steel pan that I would choose to call him the godfather of the steel pan as we know it ("Father of the Modern Steel Drum").

Photo via Pinterest © Drums Art

I will now quote a paragraph from Mr. Walborn’s article that should put things in perspective, it is entitled: “Credit where Credit is due”:
“Ellie Mannette was not the only builder developing the steel drums, however. As already noted Alexander Ford was the first to bang on the garbage can and Winston "Spree" Simon was the first to get notes on his drums. Tony Williams introduced the Cycle of 5ths to the steel drum world. Bertie Marshall created the Double Tenors and was the first person to put the octaves and 2nd octaves into the notes. Rudolph Charles created the Quads. Though Ellie was not the only builder developing them, he has been one of the most influential of the early builders and is greatly respected for cleaning up the tone quality of the drums. Where the Carnival players went for drums that were extremely bright and loud, Ellie chose a mellower tone as a foundation to build upon, a palette of tones he felt could be used with greater complexity and subtlety.”

When one looks at the impact of Ellie Mannette on the development of the 55-gallon steel pan one has to give him credit as the creator of the steel pan as a musical instrument as we know it today. Just look at some of his achievements as chronicled in Mr. Walborn's article:

Following is a brief chronology of Ellie Mannette's drums:
First drum with a concave surf.
Lead (Ping-Pong)
Single Second
Single Guitars
Triple Bass
Double Seconds
Double Guitars
Triple Cellos
Tenor Basses
First drum from a 55-gal. barrel
The precursor to the Cellos
Grundig/lgth of the skirt - 15inch
The length of the skirt is 15inch
Four Pans/length of the skirt is 30inch
Amazing, isn't it?  There is so much history relating to the steel pan and it could take forever to research the development of the instrument to today’s Genesis pan that was recently unveiled to an audience in Port-of-Spain Trinidad. Now that we have had a glimpse of the rich history of the pan and some of the pioneers of the instrument we have to come back to where we are today.

I would like to think that this rich history and glorious instrument that was born out of slavery and given to the World by a people that were humiliated through slavery should always be part and parcel of the rich heritage of Trinidad and Tobago. This is our mark, it is our heritage and it will always be identified as belonging to Trinidad and Tobago. Our African brothers in our very cosmopolitan society gave us a gift that is now being claimed by so many through Patents issued in the United States and Europe. Now is not the time nor this is the place to lay blame on anyone for this misfortune. It is also said that the founders, the creators of the only musical instrument created in the 20th Century never really benefited from their creation as the so many people using it today. In the United States and Europe people who had nothing to do with the development of the steel pan as a musical instrument own patents for the life and blood of Trinidad and Tobago. Again, I have to say it, what a travesty!

I wonder if the people who own these patents know of Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Manette, Neville Jules, Anthony Williams (spider web pan better known as “fourths and fifths”), Bertie Marshall who was the leader of the defunct Highlanders steel band of Laventille in 1957 and creator of the amplified pans and the “Bertiphone” that combined tone control and amplification and Denzil “dimes” Fernandez who invented the "bore pan". So many Trinidadians played such an integral role in the creation and development of the steel pan, yet still, none of their names are etched on a Patent.  Well, you can’t blame these “so-called owners” of the steelpan for going after a good thing and one can understand the business aspect of it however people need to give credit where credit is due. We know that it belongs to the people of Trinidad and Tobago and that is etched in history.

The steel pan was born in Trinidad so if you are not a Trinidadian how can you own the patent for the pan? Well, that is a different story because there is so much that goes into the patenting of anything. An idea to do something different could land you a patent so we should be careful in our criticisms of these persons. As an example, I would like to cite Hydro Steel LLC founders George Whitmyre and Harvey Price along with their European counterparts Judith Spoo. They own a patent for the creation of the steel pan using stainless steel eliminating the need to chrome the pans. Wikipedia has this to say about this company: “Two Americans, George Whitmyre, and Harvey J. Price have secured a United States patent for "the process of formation of a Caribbean steelpan using a hydroforming press". This patent is being challenged by the Trinidad and Tobago Legal Affairs Ministry since many Trinbagonian drum makers have used similar methods for years.  Their pan-making company, Hydroforming, has gone out of business.”

It has always been said that Trinidadians don’t appreciate what they have – that is true to a point. However, I would like to point my fingers at the government of Trinidad and Tobago and that includes every manifestation of those political regimes. They have done very little to secure and protect the steel pan. Trinidad, the land of steel pan and calypso where we don’t and haven’t done enough, as a nation and government, to properly honor the creators and the instrument that is the buzz of the musical world in this era. The government of the day has invested in the creation and development of the Genesis Pan which is the rave of the island. We don’t know much about it other than it is a bigger pan that has more musical notes than the traditional pan and that it gives off a “bigger” sound that would cause the size of the orchestras to shrink in size.   Kudos is the order of the day and must be extended to the government and Prime Minister Patrick Manning for this endeavor and for securing the patents for the new instruments. We now also have the launch of the National Steel Symphony Orchestra that will be used to represent the country – the pannists are trained in music theory and receive a salary from the government – well done!

So where do we go from here? Recently WACK Radio 90.1 FM, on Damion Melville’s Bassa Bassa segment, asked a question regarding the launching of the Genesis Pan. He asked the listeners for their opinion regarding the fact that no calypso was played but several classical pieces along with local compositions (not calypsos) were used to showcase the versatility of the new pan. Do you think that the station was deluged with calls? If you guessed yes then you were absolutely wrong. As is the case and so typical of Trinidadians we always choose to complain but resist the desire to act. Maybe that is part of the problem and the reason that so many patents exist today for the original pan – none owned by Trinbagonians.

The discussion will continue and the arguments will abound but one thing is certain the steel pan belongs to the people of Trinidad and Tobago and regardless of the ownership of patents by persons who are not Trinidadians, nothing can erase the history and ownership of our national instrument, our National Heritage.

The link below gives a timeline history of the development of the steel pan. Please take a read:

No apologies and no compromise on "When Steel Talks" - so you just read a little history on Pan, now do yourself a big favor and listen to the 'niceness" - pan on the net at the link below:

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