History of the Steel Drum (Pan)
"Everybody wondering how de steel band start
When you get to know, it will break your heart
I tell you now, it was founded by one Winston Spree
And this is how he started his first melody:
Be do be dom, tom ping, tom ping."
—Calypsonian Lord Kitchener
The sociological roots of Steel Drums /Pan go back to the 1800s, in Laventille, a community east of Port of Spain, Trinidad. Laventille was settled by freed African slaves with a strong tradition of drumming and percussion bands that paraded the streets during Carnival and other celebrations.
Colonial authorities were so afraid that the Africans were using their drums to pass secret messages encouraging revolt, outlawed the traditional drums. Riots and conflict between the natives and the authorities subsequently led to the banning of drum processions.
Not to be denied the expression of their traditional rhythms, the Africans crafted makeshift drums from hollow bamboo called “tamboo bamboo”. Around the mid-1930s, these street bands began to incorporate metal objects like garbage can lids, pots and pans, and biscuit tins because these objects were louder and more durable than bamboo. They became known as all-steel bands, or "steel bands" by the end of the 1930s.
By chance, it was discovered that bumps of different sizes in the bottom of a can, as a result of repetitive beating, could produce sounds of various pitches. Some players then started to experiment with tuning the cans and playing melodies on them.
Many historians point to Winston "Spree" Simon as the inventor of the first melodic steel drum pan.
It didn’t take long for other musicians to copy the instrument, and Trinidad’s rhythm drum bands soon evolved into music bands.
Ellie Mannette, a cohort of Simon’s, who was also a metallurgist, is said to be the first to start experimenting with the 55-gallon oil barrel (the standard for today’s pans). Soon steel drum pans with chromatic scales followed. By the 1950s, the musical range was extended to include low-note bass pans.
Today, some steel drum orchestras have more than 300 pans spanning five octaves. Steel drum bands play music of all genres, from calypso and jazz to the Beatles and Bach.