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Steel Pan History

Articles on the Internet
Videos on Pan History
Oscar Pile - How Steelband Started
Oscar Pile Steelpan Pioneer and Steelband Historian talks about the origins of the steelpan. An excerpt from the film The Rhythm in Steel
The birth of the steel drum - presented by Kevin Martin at TEDxChesterRiver
Kevin Martin, musician and instructor, has a passion. For years, he has been studying, performing with, composing for, and building the only instrument created in the 20th century: the steel drum. Kevin's talk and performance gives us insight into the social history, the musical potential, and the future of this melodic, percussive instrument.
Music from Oil Drums (1956)
The film presents Pete Seeger (who wrote a manual for playing steel drums) visiting steel drums makers and players in trinidad.
Kim Loy Wong interviewed by Pete Seeger
In the early 1940s, Kim Loy Wong was a member of the first teenage steelband in Trinidad, East Side Kids. He later moved on to other steelbands before starting the HiLanders in the 1950s. In 1956, while with the HiLanders, he was approached by famous US folklore singer, Peter Seeger, who was interested in how the steelpan was made. [Information about Kim Loy Wong supplied by "Best of Trinidad".]
Ellie Mannette - Father of the Modern Steel Drum
Smithsonian Folklife Festival has published a Youtube video where pan pioneer Ellie Mannette presents his involvement in the beginnings of pan.
Ellie Mannette, born in Trinidad in 1927, is considered "the father of the modern steel drum." Mannette worked for 75 years to develop and popularize the steel drum, creating seven of the ten instruments used in steel drum bands today.
Videography by Charles Weber, John Wetmore, Marinna Guzy, Michael Headley, Andrea Curran. Edited by Julia Narrow. Published on YouTube 19 Apr 2013
From the book Steel Pan Tuning

The steel pan, the tuned steel drum, is one of the few genuinely novel acoustic instruments invented in the twentieth century. Its origin is believed to be dustbins, used as rhythm instruments by the traditional Carnival bands of Trinidad & Tobago in the 1930's. During its 50-year history the steel pan has evolved from a multi-pitched percussion instrument to the mellow-sounding melodic-harmonic instrument of today.

The history of the steel pan is a story of prohibitions and compulsion. Its invention was in fact induced by the ruling colonialists trying to suppress the strong rhythmic heritage of the black Africans. Here are some milestones in the history of the pan:

The use of drums in street parades was outlawed since the colonialists feared that passing of secret messages by means of drumming might become the impetus for social unity and revolt among the black. Riots and conflict between the natives and the authorities led to the banning of drum processions after the carnival this year.
1900 - 1934
The ban of drums led to the use of tuned bamboo sticks in street parades. During the 1930's biscuit tins were included as rhythm instruments in the Tamboo Bamboo bands.
Tamboo Bamboo bands were forbidden due to street clashes among rival groups.
1935 - 1938
A gradual change to steel instruments in street bands.
1938 - 1939
Are considered to be the "birth" years of the steel drum. Tamboo Bamboo bands finally switching over to steel. Alexander's Ragtime Band, led by pioneer Carlton Forde, is said to have been the first known band with an ensemble exclusively consisting of steel instruments.
Carnivals forbidden during World War II for "security reasons", which gave people more time for acoustic experiments with the emerging "steel drum".
1939 - 1945
The first melody pans with three to eight tones was introduced. The pan crafting process was improved by sinking, grooving and tempering. Sticks damped with rubber tubing were starting to be used. The instruments were grouped into categories as iron, boom, dudup, ping-pong.
In a spontaneous Carnival at the end of the war there were several bands consisting of only steel pans - the first real steelbands.
The Invaders steelband, led by Elliot "Ellie" Manette, was reported to be the first steelband to participate in organised "mas".
The last years of the small melodic steel pan; in 1948 the 55 gallon oil drum finally replaced the biscuit tin as main raw material. The first fourteen-note steel drum with chromatic tones was developed.

The early rhythm steel drums were usually made from paint tins or biscuit tins, one foot in diameter and two feet long. It was discovered that bulges of different sizes in the bottom of a tin could produce sounds of various pitches. Some of the more inventive players started to tune the tins and play melodies on them. Several sources point out Winston "Spree" Simon as the inventor of the first melodic steel pan.

An oil industry as well as an U.S. naval base had been established on the island of Trinidad. Leftover oil drums were often cut in two and used as dustbins. These dustbins successively replaced the biscuit tin as the raw material for pan making. The bottom of the dustbin was hammered outwards to a convex shape (i.e., the opposite to a modern steel pan) and then small dents for the different notes were made in it. In the later part of the 1940's, pan tuner and arranger Elliot "Ellie" Manette changed the design to concave with convex note-dents and increased the number of notes in the pan.

Through the fifty years following the second world war, the steel pan has been further developed by panmakers through sophisticated experimentation with the physical parameters of the metal, using intuition, trial and error experiments and a good musical ear. The development is still in progress; refinements are made and new crafting techniques and constructions are tested. A number of pan types with different layouts have evolved from this experimentation. Some problems that have not yet been finally resolved are the standardization of the note layout on the various pan types and the evaluation of the effectiveness of the different existing crafting techniques.

Read more about the steel pan in my book: Steel Pan Tuning - a Handbook for Steel Pan Making and Tuning