Just like the emergence of the tango in South America in the 1890s, or the explosion of rock and roll in the US in the 1950s, Trinidad and Tobago’s steelpan bands have a rich and compelling story, mixing poverty, rebellion, humour, creativity, musical skill and the islands’ redefined national identity.

Canboulay Riots

During the 19th century the tradition of Carnival celebrations – initially a rather aristocratic affair introduced by French plantation owners – spread throughout the population and became just too exuberant, as far as the authorities were concerned, with occasional outbreaks of disturbances and, in some cases, full-scale riots.

The Canboulay riots of 1881 and 1884 took place when the British colonial authorities cracked down on celebrations by the descendants of freed slaves. This was followed by a ban on the unlicensed playing of all percussion, string and wood-wind instruments. In one of the initial attempts to circumvent the ban, local residents innovated by creating the Tamboo-Bamboo, an instrument made from bamboo cut to different lengths (“Tamboo” is a corruption of the French word tambour, or drum). Striking the bamboo pieces against each other or against a flat surface created music. The Tamboo-Bamboo became the instrument of choice in the Carnival processions for half a century, but by the 1930s it too was banned, triggering a new wave of musical innovation.

55-Gallon Oil Drum

Someone discovered that the standard oil drum, a product of Trinidad’s fledgling oil industry, could withstand the energetic drumming of a percussionist without splintering like the bamboo variant. More importantly, heavy drumming created dents in the drum, and these dents produced different tonal variations. This quickly unleashed further experimentation and creativity. The traditional 55-gallon metal container could be adapted with a concave metal surface, giving birth, around 1939, to what is now known as the steelpan. The discovery of the musical qualities of the concave surface is often attributed to Ellie Mannette, a musician who went on to found a steelpan producer.

These developments further opened the creative musical floodgates. One breakthrough was the creation of the “ping-pong”, a steelpan that can play an eight-note scale. The invention of the ping-pong is credited to Winston “Spree” Simon. Along came frontline pans (high tenor notes, a further development of the ping-pong), midrange pans (equivalent to the guitars and cellos of a classical orchestra), background pans and the formidable engine room instruments, such as congas, trapsets, bottle-and-spoons, irons and toc-tocs, which provide the steady percussive beat of the band.

Steelplan Bands

The scale of the musical show also grew. Initially pans would be worn with a strap around the neck of the individual musician (known as “pan-round-de neck”). However, very rapidly large and mobile steel bands emerged, pushed around on carriages or large trucks. A typical large steelpan band can now involve 120 musicians. It is generally led by a captain and section leaders, including the “iron man” who leads the engine room and perhaps flag women dancing to the beat. A band will generally have a home base and a place to practice, known as a panyard – typically a community centre.

Bands & Gangs

In the early days, steelpan bands reflected life in the deprived urban areas of Port of Spain. Some of the early bands took their names from American movies, among them Destination Tokyo, Casablanca, Rising Sun, Tripoli and Desperadoes. There was also a link, not unlike what existed in some US cities at the time, between the music and a youth and gang subculture. It was not uncommon for supporters of rival bands to become involved in violent territorial clashes, some immortalised in calypso lyrics, like “Steelband Clash”, a famous song by Lord Blakie. Another calypso legend, Mighty Sparrow, referred to the involvement of the Invaders band in one of the last clashes in 1972 in his song “Outcast”. Because of the clashes an area of Port of Spain (Wrightson Road to French Street) was nicknamed the Gaza Strip. However, there were also forces at work making the steelpan culture more respectable. In 1951 Trinidad sent a steel band to the Festival of Britain in London, a development that led to the formation of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra, with members drawn from the different domestic bands. Talks between some of the main fighting bands led to a truce.

Official Recognition

In the 1960s after independence the bands began to be hired to perform at official functions. Some bands attracted corporate sponsorship, reflected in their official titles: the Amoco Renegades and Coca-Cola Desperadoes, among them. In 1986 an act of parliament created PanTribago, a union “representing the interests of steelpan players” that gave the steel band community formal representation.

The organisation said, “We are not only a national organisation, representing the largest cultural group in our country, but an international organisation which is active in the promotion of a new and vibrant musical form that is fast achieving universal recognition and acceptance.” The organisation has also stated, “Panmen are now regarded as the cultural ambassadors of the land and the steelpan has been officially recognised as the national instrument.” Women, previously excluded or fought over by steelband men, were admitted to the ranks of percussionists and some all-female bands (such as the Girl Pat orchestra) emerged. There are currently about 100 steel bands operating in the country.


In 1963 the newly created Carnival Development Committee launched an annual steel band competition, known as Panorama, which has now been held for more than half a century. Every band taking part is required to play a 10-minute calypso piece, with the winning band receiving significant prizes, such as a funded overseas tour or engagements for domestic performances. The Panorama heats are held in January and February each year in five regions across the country, during the run-up to Carnival. The finals are held in Port of Spain’s Savannah Park on the Saturday before Carnival, heralding the celebration’s Sunday beginning, known as “Dimanche Gras”. There is a range of other steelband competitions including Junior Panorama, the Jouvert Bomb Competition (where bands must perform rapid musical transitions from one melody to another) and the Pan Jazz Festival, usually held in November each year.


The 2015 Panorama was won by the Massy Trinidad All-Stars Steel Orchestra in the large band category, with its performance of “Unquestionable”, arranged by Leon ”Smooth” Edwards. Emphasising how far steelpan has developed since its early “bad boy” days, one of the causes for its musical success in 2015 has been listed as the fact that no illicit drugs, disruptive behaviour, or obscene language are allowed at Hell Yard, the home of Trinidad All Stars”. Its preparations were also reported to include motivational talks and a prayer circle.

Some big name bands such as the Desperadoes, have played at London’s Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall in New York, as well as other prestigious venues around the world, some as far afield as Japan. Steel bands can play highly sophisticated classical pieces. Liam Teague, winner of the T&T National Steelband Festival Solo Championship, has been described as the “Paganini of the Steelpan” and is currently head of steelpan studies and associate professor of music at Northern Illinois University in the US. Demonstrating the range of steelpan, Teague performed a concert with classical pianist John Covelli in March 2015 in Binghampton, New York, including pieces like Gershwin’s “Sleepless Night” and Paganini’s “Moto Perpetuo Op 11”. Adding to this versatility, the Codrington Pan Family Steel Orchestra was the first of its kind to play at the annual SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas in March 2015.