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Pan Player During the 1930s, Trinidad was still a colony of Britain. Africans were denied all the benefits of civil society. They had no rights and were unequal before the law. The British made every attempt to strip them of their culture. In their quest to find instruments to use in their festivities, a few Africans, who resided in the surrounding urban districts of Port of Spain, invented the steelpan. The steelpan evolved out of the climate of white supremacy, racism and colonialism that existed in Trinidad in the 1930s. In the early 1930s, the Africans attempted to create a musical instrument by using discarded biscuit drums, caustic soda drums, dustbins and any other steel drum they could get their hands on to accomplish that goal.

The early creations were simple. Due to the panists' lack of musical training, the early steel drums carried only a handful of notes. At first, the panists created a crude instrument with limited notes. The instrument was tuned to whatever upper pitch they could get. It became known as 'Ping Pong'. Later on, more notes were added and it was called a tenor pan. The early association with the steel drum's development has enshrined in the local language the term 'pan'. But, the steelpan instrument that we know today was created from discarded oil drums. And, its correct pitch is in the soprano range.

In the early 1940s, the United States had an Army base on the island of Trinidad. The Army would discard their oil drums after use. Since the Africans were prepared for this opportunity, they took those discarded oil drums and used them to fashion and develop the steelpan. They soon got another opportunity to display their new instruments. After the end of the Second World War, Trinidad celebrated the victory over Japan (VJ Day) with a large carnival festival.


On VJ day the nation awoke to the sounds of steelbands like Invaders, Rising Sun, Hell Yard, Desperadoes and Free French. That celebration provided the impetus to the Africans to merge their creation with the national carnival celebrations. They came on the road with their crude instruments created from the oil drums and played them to large onlookers.

Later, in the early 1950s the steelpan was refined and tuned properly by Ellie Mannette. Ellie Mannette, then leader of the Invaders Steel Orchestra, based his styling on musical 4th circles and added more notes to the steelpan making it the instrument that we know today.

Today, the steelpan plays all types of music, including classical, reggae, jazz, latin and calypso. It has been a part of jazz ensembles and has accompanied popular singers.


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