A player in a steel orchestra performs on a ‘pan’, the world’s youngest acoustic instrument, indeed the only brand new one created in the 20th century. It was born in Trinidad, into a musical heritage derived from the cultures of its Amerindian, European, African and Indian peoples.
During the Second World War, many Trinidadians and Tobagonians journeyed to Europe to fight beside British soldiers on the side of the Allied forces. When victory was declared for the Allies, the islanders were delighted and onto the streets they rushed to begin the celebration.
There was no time to cut and cure fresh bamboo for the ‘Tamboo Bamboo‘ bands, so old bamboos were brought out of cupboard. These bamboos were old and tired and soon burst and broke. Then the bands turned to anything they could lay their hands on, dustbins, cans and biscuit tins were beaten to accompany the happy crowds and the first ‘steel band‘ was born.
There are many stories about the birth of the pan, and it would appear that the pan developed in Arima, in San Fernando, in Port of Spain and in Scarborough (Tobago) all at about the same time. When the steel objects and tins were hit, they became dented. A musician called Spree Simon noticed that these dents developed different tones, and by making different sized dents with a hammer, he could make different notes. It did not take long for the players to experiment. Soon many notes were formed and the first simple tunes were performed. These early pans had a harsh, crude sound and it was found that dustbins and biscuit tins were too thin to keep the notes in tune.
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’, and the islanders were not slow to take advantage of seemingly useless material they found lying around. During the war, the British Government had given a large area of the island of Trinidad to the American forces, who built a military base there. By the time the war had finished, the Americans had abandoned many of their fuel containers and these oil drums were found to be made of perfect material for shaping notes. In the beginning, these ‘pans’, oil drums cut short and hung round the neck, were hit with pieces of iron, spoons or bottles. Ellie Manette of the Invaders band introduced sticks wrapped with rubber to improve the sound.
Gradually better ways of treating the metal and tuning the notes were devised, and new instruments of varying sizes were invented. Today, the 100 strong, chromium plated steel orchestras that grace the streets of Trinidad and Tobago at Carnival time are very different from the dustbins played in 1945. Many people were responsible for the development of this sophisticated instrument, capable of playing any music asked of it.