Steel band, also spelled steelband, Trinidadian music ensemble, particularly associated with Carnival, that is primarily composed of steel idiophones—called pans or steel pans—made from the bottoms of 55-gallon oil barrels. The barrel bottoms are hammered inward, different areas being shaped to yield distinct pitches. When struck with rubber-tipped mallets, the instruments produce bell-like tones. A steel band typically includes pans of various pitch ranges as well as a number of nonmelodic percussion instruments.
The steel band originated on the Caribbean island of Trinidad about 1940, an invention of poor people in Port of Spain who played music during Carnival to represent their neighbourhoods and to compete with rival bands. Initially, metal buckets, cans, and other containers were integrated into ensembles of bamboo stamping tubes, called tamboo bamboo, which provided percussion accompaniment for masquerading and singing. One of the groups that was widely recognized for this line of innovation was Alexander’s Ragtime Band, from the Newtown neighbourhood of Port of Spain, which paraded on the road for Carnival with all metal, nonmelodic instruments in 1939.
Carnival was suspended for several years during World War II (1939–45), but the musical innovations continued. When street celebrations resumed for Victory in Europe (VE) Day in March 1946, Winston (“Spree”) Simon presented a landmark performance of several popular melodies on his “ping pong”—a single, tuned steel pan. This event, which was documented in the Port of Spain Gazette, affirmed the status of the steel pan as a melody instrument, qualitatively different from its Carnival predecessors.
By the late 1940s steel bands had become a prominent feature of Carnival in Trinidad, and by the early 1950s the tradition had spread to other islands of the Caribbean, most notably Antigua and St. Thomas. In addition to the ping pong—the highest-pitched, main melody instrument—steel bands included second pans, cuatro pans, grumblers, and booms. Frontline pans (the ping pong and, sometimes, seconds) played the melody while background pans sounded harmonies rhythmically (a technique known as “strumming”). Vehicle brake drums, or “irons,” played “braided” (interlocking) rhythmic patterns that cut through the noise to hold together a large steel band. Until the late 1950s, steel band musicians in Carnival processions used single pans suspended from the neck by a strap. After that time, wheeled carts enabled players not only to take stands on the road but also to use background pans tuned in multiple sets, which allowed them to play a greater range of pitches.
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Meanwhile, musical competition between steel bands in Trinidad grew in intensity and frequently erupted into violence. This prompted the government to establish a commission to study the steel bands in an effort to find a solution to the problem. The result was the formation in 1950 of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), a government-sponsored ensemble that brought together prominent players from different neighbourhood bands. Most of the musicians were well-known pan tuners, including Ellie Mannette of the band Invaders, Anthony Williams of North Stars, and others. The TASPO members enjoyed productive interaction, and, with advice from formally trained musicians, they developed fully chromatic instruments and standardized the use of the 55-gallon drum. The group played a diverse repertoire that included renditions of Johannes Brahms’s “Lullaby” (“Wiegenlied,” “Cradle Song”), Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz,” Cuban musician Pérez Prado’s “Mambo Jambo,” calypso (a type of Caribbean folk song) melodies, and other popular tunes, as well as Western classical music. Moreover, new instrument names—tenor, guitar, cello, and bass—reflected the aspirations of the pan men to be taken seriously as musicians.
TASPO’s performance at the Festival of Britain in 1951 received enthusiastic reviews in British newspapers and bolstered the status of the pan at home. In 1952 a steel band category was added to Trinidad’s biennial music festival, dedicated to the performance of Western classical music. Middle-class people began to follow steel bands at Carnival, and boys from well-to-do families formed their own steel bands or even played in grassroots bands. By the time Trinidad gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1962, the pan had become an important symbol of Trinidadian culture.
Following independence, the government established a Carnival steel band competition called Panorama in which steel bands were required to play local calypsos. Steel bands responded with elaborate symphonic-style arrangements, creating a grand spectacle that attracted business sponsors. Such sponsorship, along with prizes and fees for appearances, gave steel bands new financial resources with which to procure instruments and equipment and to pay arrangers. Arrangers such as Anthony Williams (North Stars), Earl Rodney (Harmonites), Clive Bradley (Desperadoes), Ray Holman (Starlift), Jit Samaroo (Renegades), and Len (“Boogsie”) Sharpe (Phase II Pan Groove) helped to create a new style of steel band music for Panorama, and by the end of the 1970s the Panorama competition had eclipsed fetes and Carnival masquerades as the major venue for steel band performance.
Panorama continued to dominate the repertoire and activities of steel bands in Trinidad through the late 20th and early 21st centuries. During that time the tradition underwent a number of important developments. Steel bands began to perform “own tunes,” which were pieces not only arranged but also composed by the ensembles’ arrangers. The first band to win Panorama with an own tune was Phase II Pan Groove, which played Sharpe’s composition, “This Feelin’ Nice,” in 1987. Many steel bands subsequently adopted the practice of creating original music, which ultimately allowed arrangers more creative control over their material. Although composed by steel band arrangers, sometimes with the help of a lyricist, own tunes were also recorded by calypso and soca singers. These vocal versions were played on the radio alongside calypso songs of the season, thereby priming their audiences to hear the same tunes performed in steel band arrangement at Panorama.
Another significant change came with the incorporation of steel bands into school programs in Trinidad, which began in the 1970s. This shift in context somewhat softened the rebellious and dangerous image that the bands had acquired during their violently competitive years. The institutionalization of steel bands coincided with increasing participation by women, in both school and neighborhood groups.
About the same time, expatriate Trinidadians in the United States and Europe also began to teach pan in grade schools, colleges, and community centres. In 2005 tenor pan virtuoso Liam Teague was hired at Northern Illinois University (DeKalb) to codirect, with tuner Cliff Alexis, the first degree program in steel pan performance at an American university. Such work within the formal education system exposed pan to new audiences and created new markets for Trinidadian tuners and arrangers. By combining performing with teaching and arranging, a number of Trinidadian pan players managed to forge solo careers, most notably Sharpe, Holman, Teague, Rudy Smith, Ken (“Professor”) Philmore, and Robert Greenidge. Some artists, including American pannist Andy Narell and Trinidadian Othello Molineaux, made recordings that combined pan and Caribbean rhythms with jazz. Although steel pans also made sporadic appearances in other popular music recordings, they had not yet found a significant place in the commercial music industry in the early 21st century.