Forged from sheet metal and the resistance of a resilient people, Trinidad’s steel pan music is enjoying a resurgence on the global stage. The genre has been seeping into mainstream music—pop, rock, jazz. And now a new generation of players keep the steel pan music alive and vibrant in the Caribbean, especially in intense competitions like Panorama. Overall, steel pan’s cheerful, intoxicating ting, ting, ting has come to define the sounds of island revelry.
BIRTH OF A SOUND
The steel pan became the most influential non-electronic musical instrument of the 20th century. International physicists have studied the instrument for decades to decode its harmonic complexity. However, these melodic modern sounds stem from old origins.
Africans who were brought to Trinidad in the 1700s, and they carried with them their tradition of melodic drumming. The practice was banned by the colonizers in the 1880s because the music seemed to incite street riots. In their defiance, the Africans’ descendants gathered into secret bands that used utensils, garbage can lids and other scrap metal to make music. Between 1935 and 1945, these ‘iron bands’ discovered that different rhythmical sounds emanated from raised parts of these metals in comparison to the areas that were flat, and a new instrument was born.
Experts credit Trinidadian instrument maker and pannist Dr. Elliot “Ellie” Mannette for creating he modern-day version. This features a 55-gallon oil container with a concave top on which to play the tones with rubber-tipped sticks.
PANORAMA AND CARNIVAL
According to Selvon Nanan, manager and member of Lauderhill Steel Ensemble, a winner of the 2019 Miami Carnival Panorama, “From the 1950s to 1980s, steelbands were the only bands on the road for Trinidad Carnival, then DJs took over. Now, only 10 percent of the music comes from steelbands.”
Even though pan music has declined in prominence during the main road march, the Panorama event remains a highlight of Carnival weekend at the Mecca of Caribbean carnivals—in Trinidad. Fans of the pan gather there annually to hear beautifully arranged renditions representing genres from calypso to classical. Musicians from Japan, Sweden, the U.K., Canada and beyond gather to compete with other bands in hopes of attaining international bragging rights by securing a win. As a live-streamed event online, fans around the world can cheer on their favorites.
The music is attracting renewed interest. “There has been a great transformation,” Nanan says. “Many more teenagers and young adults are playing than ever. More girls.” Public relations manager for Miami Carnival, Yvette Harris, agrees: “We have seen an evolution. Fortunately, more young people are participating and interested in delving into the culture.” With the reemerging popularity of pan music and Panorama, Harris says the Miami Carnival committee tweaked the 2019 lineup to accommodate more of it. “Normally, Kings and Queens are first, then Panorama. But this year, [Panorama] starts at 5 p.m. and goes on. It will bring in a diverse audience of people, non-Caribbean and Caribbean. A good showing of people who just enjoy music and have an appreciation for pan music.”
A GLOBAL PHENOMENON
Taught in schools internationally, the steel pan also echoes in pop hits by stars like Prince, 50 Cent and Nick Jonas. And celebrities like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Usain Bolt have brought Carnival music to the mainstream; their beautiful costumed dancing and appearances always accompanied by the steel pan’s unmistakable sounds.
More on Caribbean Carnival: