When you think of the steel drum, you might picture yourself relaxing on a tropical vacation. But did you know that the steel drum was born out of poverty and a local ban on drums? The steel drum originated in the late 1930s on the island of Trinidad and was played as part of a steel band, a percussion ensemble contrived by lower-class rebellious teens. Learn more about the steel drum’s complex history, development, and current form with our ten fun facts below:
- The steel drum is a tuned idiophone traditionally made from an oil drum, but today is made of high-quality steel. To make a steel drum, or a pan, the bottom of an oil drum is first pounded into a bowl, then shaped and tuned with hammers to form distinct resonating surfaces.
- Steel bands are stylistically versatile, but the most common steel band conventions of melodic phrasing and rhythmic structure are related to Calypso music.
- While the first steel bands included instruments such as soap boxes, biscuit tins, and dustbins, modern steel bands include vibraphones, cow bells, congas, bongos, triangles and other percussion instruments.
- Drums are made in families: bass pans, rhythm pans, and tenor pans.
- The steel band developed directly out of bamboo stamping tube ensembles, which provided carnival music for the lower-class in Port of Spain after a British colonial law restricted the use of drums with skin heads.
- “Band wars” between rival steel bands emerged in Trinidad, complete with street fighting. Membership in a band soon became interpreted as hooliganism signaling creole disdain for European norms.
- Manufacturing steel drums is a highly specialized skill. Pans are not standardized, as competition between rival bands fostered innovation in tuning and design.
- Winston ‘Spree’ Simon of the John John steel band is credited with making the first pan. In 1946, his band performed Ave Maria and God Save the King for an audience that included the British Governor.
- As of 1992, the steelpan is Trinidad and Tobago’s national instrument. However, the notion dates from the 1940s when the steel band’s musical transformation was driven by competition between bands as well as by the efforts of progressive middle-class individuals to promote what they viewed as an indigenous art form unjustly maligned by colonial cultural standards.
- Popularity of the steel band has grown. They are now plentiful in Caribbean diaspora communities as well as non-Caribbean communities all over the world. While Trinidad and Tobago continues to be the center, countries like Sweden, Switzerland, and Japan are now hubs of steel band activity.
Do you have any other fun facts about the steel drum to add to our list?
Featured image: oberlin steel drum 1. Photo by istolethetv. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.