Pan. Who knows about the pan evolution?

by | Oct 21, 2017 | 0 comments

….exactly, I didn’t. I had the inspiration to write this article after speaking with a close friend, who comes from a family of Metronomes steelpan players from London, UK. For years, I would come to see and my friend and her family at panorama, carnival and at other events with the band. However, pan was of no real interest to me as I grew up with playing mas but never once connecting or understanding the significance of pan and its carnival roots. So, curiosity getting the better of me, I embarked upon serious research into steelpan history and have provided all research links, for those who would like further reading. Exploring a myriad of information, I found each article contradicting the next at times so my accounts may vary from what other people know, read or learnt. There is an abundance of interesting information in relation to the history of pan, that I felt it necessary obviously touch upon the impact of slavery, the significance of the Canboulay riots and the importance of Tamboo Bamboo in the evolution of pan.

The Birthplace of Steelpan

“Pan as an item was not invented by any person. It evolved and there are a number of people, including myself, who advanced it through certain stages of that evolution.” (Elliott Mannette, October 25, 2000)

Laventille is said to be the birthplace of pan innovators and world-renowned tuners, housing the creators of one the century’s most revered acoustical musical instruments. It is the heart of the steelpan world, where pioneers such as Winston “Spree” Simon lived and home to the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra, one of the world’s oldest steel bands. A community of pioneering and expert steelpan players and one of the first bands recognised in the formation of steelpan bands. It is still in existence today and a band that one of my uncles played for and today, is still very much active with. So much history is steeped in Laventille and it is somewhat ironic as my Trinidadian side of the family are from Laventille and that’s where I stay when I go for the carnival. Right there, residing in the midst of pan history and until now, I had never thought about the relevance and the impact of pan.

Research points to Laventille as probably the oldest community in East Port of Spain and had read that whenever the enslaved people escaped from slave masters, they headed to the hills of Laventille. A poor and an extremely impoverished community, it provided habitats for the lowest echelons of society. An article in the Trinidad & Tobago Guardian that stated, ‘until a leper asylum was opened at Cocorite in 1840, Laventille was the place where those unfortunates resided, being outcasts of society’. They lived in barbaric and almost inhuman conditions imposed by British colonisation. Despite being a haven for the outcast, Laventille provided the roots for some of the most revered players in pan history, but it also bred violent gangs and subsequently fuelled local riots and attacks from the police over the years.  Notably the Canboulay Riots in 1881.

The Canboulay riots 1881

The history of Trinidadian carnival goes back centuries and started when the island of Trinidad & Tobago was largely settled by French colonists in the late 1700’s but eventually ended up in British hands sometime after 1814. Findings from research revealed that the French colonists brought their West African slaves, who had always expressed their culture, celebrations and traditions through music, often played on drums. The French, known for their own celebrations of carnival traditions, had unwittingly passed their festivity cultures onto the slaves, who subsequently formed their own festivals. Carnival themes were brought in, fuelled by drum music and parody of their slave masters. Festivities were then held around the burning and harvesting of the sugar cane (this was known as cannes bruleés, anglicised as Canboulay or Canboulay). The harvesting of sugar cane was a labour-intensive process, involving forced marches of slaves from neighbouring plantations in order to more efficiently harvest the cane.

Conditions prior to the Canboulay riots were brutal and oppressive, but even under such conditions, slaves had dealt with their struggles utilising music, using improvised instruments to express themselves rhythmically and musically.  After the abolition of slavery in *1834 – 1838, it became one of the most important and deep-rooted festivals of the black people and was marked by ribald dancing and the lighted flambeaus carried in the street. Canboulay celebrations back then, involved stick fighting, drumming, dancing and both parodying and lampooning their elitist white counterparts, simulating the horrors of slavery in a playful but a deeply provocative manner. Such spectacles caused a great amount of indignation amongst the white elite who vowed to end it. The Canboulay celebrations, unfortunately, turned into violence in 1881, when Captain Baker, who was the head of police at the time, tried to stop the Canboulay, at a time when it had then become an integral part of carnival’s pre-celebration. Trinidad’s British police forces clashed with revellers in Port of Spain, who had banded together against the police. This caused resentment amongst the people of Trinidad, who valued the festival despite the clashes. The British government’s attempt to ban Canboulay in 1881 resulted in open riots between the communities and police, events that caused a deep, lasting divide within Trinidadian society.  The open resistance of the revellers caused concerns among government officials over this potential threat to public order and led to an alternative strategy. Sometime between **1880 – 1883, drumming and percussion instruments were banned. Furthermore, the riots had also extended to the southern cities of San Fernando and Princes Town in February around *1884, when British forces tried to ban Canboulay there too. However, the effect of the Canboulay riots and the subsequent rioting in the south led the government to finally relent and remove the ban and allowing the pre-celebration to co-exist with the carnival.  This led to a raft of changes, and once again Tamboo Bamboo bands were allowed to take part with the inclusion of drums or percussion instruments as part of the main celebrations. The percussion instruments used back then, evolved into what we know today, the steelpan.  The Canboulay riots impacted history so much, that it is now an annual commemoration event where you can experience the re-enactment of the Canboulay Riots.

*Dates vary according to sources
**several references point to the banning of drum skins between those years but no date as yet substantiated. References also point to the ban of drumming and bamboo sticks after the emancipation of slaves in 1834.

A brief history of Bamboo Tamboo

A substitute for the drums and sticks, called Tamboo bamboo, was introduced in the 1890s when drumming and stick fighting had been banned. Tamboo actually comes from Tambour, the French word for drum, so Bamboo Tamboo literally means Bamboo Drum. Bamboo Tamboo (also known as Tamboo Bamboo) originates from Trinidad and Tobago and has been heralded as the precursor to the evolution of the steel pan. Tamboo bamboo could consist of three different instruments, each cut from the bamboo: boom, foulé, and cutter. These bamboo sticks were cut into different lengths, in order to provide the user with varying sounds.  The sticks were then hit on the ground with the other sticks in order to produce the sounds and tones. Percussion instruments were then added, for depth biscuit tins, oil drums, bottle-and-spoon or anything else was utilised, that could produce a sound. The three types of instruments combined beat out rhythms that accompanied the lavaways (short carnival street songs). Tamboo Bamboo first performed at carnival in 1891 and it was not long before the brass bands and the string bands were playing next to the tamboo bamboo bands. This union led to the inclusion of many other metal objects, which enhanced the overall sound of the bands and were a staple for carnival celebrations for many years before being rendered obsolete by the steel band.

By the early 1900s, Tamboo bamboo was at its peak but problems had arisen in the ranks of the Tamboo bamboo bands, as festivities were associated with stick-fights, held at weekly events and at wakes. Fundamentally, they featured prominently at J’ouvert and at Canboulay, where they would come out en masse, chanting lavaway. The names of the then Tamboo bamboo bands were fashioned on their names on their own neighbourhoods, as in Charlotte Street, George Street, John John, Laventille Hill, Newton and St James (names as such, John John Tamboo Bamboo, Laventille Hill Tamboo Bamboo and Hell Yard Tamboo Bamboo to name but a few).  Rivalry was keen and led to frequent gang wars and petty skirmishes among the various bands. The bamboo sticks more often than not sharpened to a point that it could be and were predominately used as weaponry between rival gangs and at the stick fighting events that were popular.  Women would sing at local events and actively enticed the competition of the stick fighters and fevered Tamboo Bamboo players, playing to the crowds. With the stick fighters hyped and other illegal activities rife, the Tamboo Bamboo bands grew rapidly throughout the poorer communities of Trinidad.  Moreover, the Tamboo Bamboo had begun its unpopular journey with an intense dislike from society and government from the increasingly violent attacks, through the use of its unintended weaponry

A Lavaway
“We want a thousand gen-er-al, to follow de Kaiser fun-er-al” o“Dingo-lay-yo, tie me monkey down town”

Laventille was an oppressed community, but despite this, the unemployed youth possessed an insatiable musical appetite; the yearning to make music and to rise above the daily struggles. The 1930’s experimentation with metal objects to produce sound began when the impoverished communities of Laventille could not purchase the materials needed for the conventional instruments. The fact is that the dire conditions governed the way for social identification amongst the young residents. The discouraged youth actively experimented with everyday objects to make sounds, using car hubs, pots, garbage cans, milk cans, washtubs, small tins pans or biscuit drums.  The police and the white elitists in Trinidad, at the time, scorned the then ‘pan’ community and treated these youths with nothing but contempt. This is because Tamboo bamboo was not accepted, it was considered to be of the poorest communities, whom always flouted laws at the carnival.  That form of carnival and the apparent violence that Tamboo bamboo bands bought, was scorned and vehemently derogated.  The result of which, was a ban in *1934-1937 when the government finally stepped in and banned Tamboo bamboo.

*Dates vary according to sources

So was the biscuit tin then the first true pan?

“The steelband music is very sweet, You get a rhythm with every beat.”  Kitchener

The 1930’s saw a radical transformation from Tamboo Bamboo into metal bands, research points to 1935, generally accepted as the year bamboo transitioned to metal.   As the biscuit tin, certainly became the preferred object of use. Hung around the neck, you struck the base struck with your palm or fist to produce required sound.  However, there are many various persons that are given credit for the invention of the pan, with notable pioneers with stories such as:

Winston “Spree” Simon: It is said that Winston provided the link from biscuit tin to steelpan. You see, Spree was a kettle drummer with the John John band, his first pan was a simple one-note kettle drum. However, after once loaning it out, it was returned to him misshapen.  While pounding it to restore its shape, he noticed that on different points, with varying strengths, he could produce varying sounds or pitches (the ping pong). Spree also worked in a manufacturing area that became of an infinite source of discarded tins.  Spree then went on to experiment with the tins and noticed the different sounds the different tins produced when struck with different objects. These items went on to become a source used in their drumming sessions.  He was also able to create 4 distinct musical notes and over time developed into 8 notes. By 1946 it had evolved from 8 to 14 notes. Spree had opportunities to travel the world bringing pan to a wider audience and is accredited to being the first pan man to provide credence for pan as a musical instrument.

Oscar Pile: Oscar Pile reckons it was by coincidence that the pan was invented and maintains that no ‘one’ person invented the pan.  From his versions, he stated that during the period of 1935, they were practising beating the Tamboo in “Tantie Willie’s” yard (the yard they used to practice in). The yard contained a car chassis and in practice, they used to knock the bamboo against it for a more effective sound. By coincidence, the bamboo split, when it was knocked against the chassis and in the heat of the riddim *Touki Boudicin wanted to carry on. So looking for something he picked up a pail pan and as he starting pounding the pail, it sounded so much more melodious than the bamboo. From there, they started using dustbins and for a time were known as the ‘dustbin band’.

*Not substantiated – could not find any other reference to this name and unsure of spelling

Carlton “Lord Humbugger” Forde: Forde, from the Newton Tamboo bamboo band stated that the band was moving down the street and a bamboo stick had broke.  According to different versions Forde or another person picked up a paint can and started beating it instead, others joined in and thus the biscuit tin phenomena started.

Other researchers maintain that other panists, such as Sterling Betancourt, Sonny Roach, Leonard Morris, Neville Jules, Ellie Mannette, Dudley Smith, Randolph ‘Fisheye’ Olliverie and Wilfred Harrison also contributed to the early development of what is now considered the national instrument.

The Second World War and its effect on Pan

When the war was declared in 1939, a US construction company came to build a base in Chaguaramas, Trinidad, which created the demand the oil that was bought over in 45-gallon drums. Leaving them discarded, the early pioneers took advantage of those drums and experimented with the tones by cutting the drums, creating cavities and tuning to produce a new type of sound.  These drums increased the musical range for pan by the variation, the cavity and size on different drums, complete with scales ranging from the lowest bass to the highest treble.  Due to the war, carnival in Trinidad & Tobago was banned from 1942-1945, but the ban did not deter the pan men. This inevitably led to trouble with the police, as they just took to the streets whenever they felt like having a jump. The pan men of the East Dry River area (Laventille) used to set up in the narrow alleyways, crowded yards and even the riverbed itself to defy the police, who were thuggish in their attempts to deter the jump ups! However, success did not come easy for the steelpan, but the impoverished and young drenched in the culture of music and dance, wholeheartedly embraced the steelpan. The colonial oppression also caused the steel band movement to suffer the stigma of being low class and violent adding to the reasoning of why the steelpan became of such importance to their lives. A rebellious and often violence stand against society and government over the years thus ensued.

At the end of the war in 1945, Trinidad celebrated this victory with a carnival. The rival bands of the Port of Spain ghettos took to the streets to celebrate V.E. and V.J days and introduced to the world a new, exciting and exotic sound of the pan. The celebration provided the platform for the steelpan to merge with national carnival celebrations and subsequently came on the road with their oil drums, playing to onlookers.

The large celebrations gave way to the sound formed by steelpans such as:

Calvary Bamboo Band (Alexander’s Ragtime Band).

Hell Yard Bamboo Band (Cross of Lorraine, and then Trinidad All Stars Steel Band).

Dead End Kids (Desperadoes).

However, the carnivalists never revelled in, the inclusion of steel bands within carnival and it caused much rivalry. It was not until 1951, to calm and unite and musicians it was decided to send one band (the only band in Trinidad) to Britain the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) in 1951, to compete in the festival of Britain. Everyone from Trinidad donated for them to attend and they travelled on a banana boat called the San Mateo. Trinidad’s new steel bands put forward their best players, including Betancourt, to join TASPO for the Festival of Britain. “We went over with our rusty pans. They weren’t painted or chromed or anything – just dustbins, ’Betancourt says. “People didn’t know what to expect, but they liked it they said it was ‘black magic’.

Finally, steelpan recognition

The festival of Britain changed the face of the steelpan and was the platform to introduce a new sound to the world. Although, it was not until 1992 that the steelpan was formally recognised as the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, acknowledging the progress over the years in its own country and the worldwide recognition. As these were the bands that provided the medium for the dispossessed descendants of the African slaves to survive, by the consistent pursuit of their love of music and rhythm.

Suffice to say, that the steelpan is now much more than just an impoverished memory and has developed into a legend, where fact and fantasy have been interwoven because it has been difficult to work out.  The various claims and legends about the origins of the steelpan just cannot be verified and have subsequently shrouded the birth and earliest development of the steelpan into a web of mystery.  Arguably, just as difficult it is to pinpoint an original steel band, it is unlikely that any particular individual can be designated as the first person to tune notes on a pan, but only to note significant contributors. The steelpan is imprinted in patriotic recognition and not just as an entertainment vehicle for a Caribbean themed party, but as artistic performers in their own right. Steelbands are now a complex orchestra consisting of hundreds of steelpan members, playing any style of music from traditional classical to dynamic and original compositions. The steel pan, is possibly the only instrument made out of industrial waste, to go on to become an icon of Trinidadian culture.


Lavaway– French: la voix – was the leggo music or street song for people who wanted to “let -go”. The Calinda, or the Lavway would be sung at the Canboulay festival – the precursor to the now Trinidad Carnival. It was improvising rhymes in a certain rhythmic style. It is also associated with the call and response setting of stick fighting that was assimilated into calypso.

Ribald – vulgar or indecent in speech, language, etc.; coarsely mocking, abusive, or irreverent; scurrilous. Interestingly enough it linked to the German word r?ben; to copulate, be in heat, literally rub

Flambeaus – this was essentially just a large flaming torch used predominately during the Canboulay festivals to light the way.


The origins of pan Tamboo Bamboo

Historian Oscar Pile on how steel band started in Trinidad in the 1930’s and 40’s.




Next Carnival

Houston Caribbean Festival

Houston Caribbean Festival

Fri, Jul 3, 2020

Vincy Mas Carnival

Thu, Jul 9, 2020

Huddersfield Carnival

Fri, Jul 10, 2020

Acton Carnival

Sat, Jul 11, 2020

Like Us On Facebook

Facebook Pagelike Widget

YouTube Video

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This