The West Indian Labor Day Carnival Parade in New York takes place in the borough of Brooklyn, and draws millions of participants and viewers each year. With that in mind, let’s spend this #BlackMusicSunday traveling to Trinidad and Tobago, to explore the roots of steel pan bands and the instrument that has made carnival band music a global phenomenon—while also moving off of the streets and into concert venues.
When looking at this year’s event schedule, I saw the steel pan event is on Saturday. Sadly, I knew I wouldn’t be able to attend, so instead I pulled up some videos from other pan celebrations. As I listened, I realized that of all the many instruments I’ve featured in this series, I have never highlighted the steel pan, which has a fascinating history, and a global appeal. So allow me to correct that oversight!
If your spirits need a lift today, you are in the right place. Join me for a celebration of steel pan.
While steel band groups and playing steel pan instruments were developing in Trinidad and Tobago, the white European world knew nothing about it. Then the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) formed on the islands, and was sent to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Noted musician and arranger Sterling Betancourt, MBE (a high British honor) tells the story in this clip from the BBC2 documentary The 1951 Festival of Britain - A Brave New World.
Here’s a recording of their early foray.
As noted by YouTuber Glenroy Joseph, those sent to England were just a portion of the TASPO family.
Here some selections from the historic TASPO steel band that attended the Festival of Britain in 1951.
These are the eleven members chosen to attend the festival:
Theo Stephens from Free French -- San Fernando
Belgrave Bonaparte from Southern Symphony -- Oropouche
Andrew De Labistide from Chicago -- East Dry River (Port of Spain)
Philmore Davidson from Syncopators (later became City Syncopators) -- Quarry Street (Port of Spain)
Patsy Orman Haynes from Casablanca -- East Dry River (Port of Spain)
Winston "Spree" Simon from Tokyo -- East Dry River (Port of Spain)
Dudley Smith from Rising Sun in Belmont
Ellie Mannette from Invaders in Woodbrook
Sterling Betancourt from Crossfire
Granville Sealey from Tripoli
Anthony Williams from North Stars
The latter three bands [are] from St. James. According to Pan Jumbie, Granville Sealy did not make the trip. The players on this album, which also included a saxophone and vocalist are not identified in the liner notes. The 45 rpm album was produced in England by Collector Records.
Though I have attended West Indian celebrations in the Caribbean, my first exposure to live steel pan bands took place in Brooklyn. Here’s some history on the event, from the West Indian American Day Carnival Association:
During the 1920s in New York, a Trinidadian immigrant, Ms. Jesse Waddle, began to organize a carnival celebration to take place before Lent in the months of February or March. Due to New York's cold winter weather, these celebrations originally occurred indoors at places like the Savoy, the Renaissance, and the Audubon Ballroom. Eventually, the indoor locations became a problem because of their confinements on the movement and freedom that defined the carnival. Waddle applied for and received a street parade permit in the 1940s and shifted the celebrations to a warmer time of year, Labor Day.
The Harlem permit was revoked in 1964 due to a violent riot. Five years later, a committee organized by Trinidadian Carlos Lezama obtained another permit for a parade on Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn. The parade has been held there ever since, beginning at Eastern Parkway and Utica Avenue and ending at Grand Army Plaza. Under the guidance of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association, the parade, now known as the West Indian Day Parade, has expanded and grown into one of the biggest parades of the New York City, attracting 4 million spectators and participants from around the world.
Back in July, a Google Doodle featured steel pan. As the tech giant explains:
Today’s video Doodle takes you on a journey of the creation of the steelpan—a percussion instrument made of metal, created and influenced by Trinbagonians. It’s the only acoustic instrument invented in the twentieth century, but has origins dating back to the 1700’s. On this day in 1951, the Trinidad All-Steel Pan Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) performed at the Festival of Britain, introducing the steelpan and a new music genre to the world.The video—set to original music created by Etienne Charles and Lennox "Boogsie" Sharpe—celebrates the cultural significance of the steelpan.
This animated short (1:10) video is a delightful watch.
Google went further in-depth on the instrument’s roots in resistance, with the concise “Celebrating Steelpan.”
When enslaved Africans were brought to Trinidad by colonialists in the 1700’s, they brought over their African heritage and traditions of rhythmic drumming with them. When slavery was abolished between 1834 and 1838, Trinidadians joined in on Carnival festivities with their drums. However in 1877, government officials banned their drumming because they feared that the drumming would be used to send messages that would inspire rebellion. In protest of this ban, musicians started to pound tuned bamboo tubes on the ground as alternatives to mimic the sound of their drums. These ensembles were called Tamboo Bamboo bands.
Another ban came in 1930, when rival Tamboo Bamboo bands would cause disturbances during Carnival and other street festivals. These bands then looked to a new alternative to carry their rhythm: metal objects such as car parts, paint pots, dustbins, biscuit tins and thus the idea of the pan was born.
During World War II, Carnival was forbidden due to security reasons, and musicians began experimenting with the unique instrument to improve the sound quality. Overtime, dents were hammered into the surface of these objects, which played different notes depending on the size, position and shape. In 1948, after the war ended, the musicians switched to using the 55 gallon oil drums discarded by the oil refineries. In addition to changing the shape of the drum surface, they found that changing the length of the drum allowed complete scales from bass to soprano. This formed the basis for the modern version of the pan. The steelpan grew and developed into a legitimate instrument through the likes of pioneers and innovators such as Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Mannette, Anthony Williams and Bertie Marshall. Many of their innovations and techniques are still used today.
This short, rapid-fire explainer from C-TV offers more detail on the steel pan as both an instrument and a national symbol of Trinidad and Tobago.
The story of the steel pan cannot be told without telling the story of Dr. Ellie Mannette. As the website for Mannette Musical Instruments, the steel pan company he founded, notes:
Ellie was born in Trinidad in 1927 and is widely regarded as the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum”- the instrument that he dedicated his life to developing and elevating. As a child in Trinidad, the steel pan art form had not yet been born. In his youth, Ellie had a vision of a musical instrument that could grow from the most humble origins - from discarded metal cans into tonal symphonic instruments. He pursued this vision with a rare single-mindedness, and achieved it through trial and error and invention and experimentation and epiphany. He was a powerful force and an integral part of the evolution of this musical steel drum - not just celebrated as an innovator, but renowned for his exceptional craftsmanship, the brilliance of his designs, and his unparalleled quality of sound.
In 2021, Zach Howard profiled Dr. Mannette for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
He started playing in local bands when he was just 11 years old. When he got older, he started making records with his band, The Invaders. But even more than playing the instruments, Mannette’s focus was on building steelpan drums. His parents were not enthusiastic, especially after he dropped out of high school to focus full time on drum-building.
The steel drum is now Trinidad’s national instrument but, when Mannette was growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s, pan men were viewed as ne’er-do-wells.
“They called you a vagabond. They called you a ‘bad John.’ They called you ‘no ambition.’ They don’t want to see you,” Mannette told filmmakers in the 2004 documentary The Stradivarius of Steel — The Ellie Mannette Story. “But something was driving me to do it. There was some inner sense saying ‘Keep going. Keep going. You’re going to make this work.’”
The National Endowment for the Arts, where Dr. Mannette became a National Heritage Fellow in 1999, tells more of his story.
When the British lifted the wartime carnival ban after World War II, Mannette became the leader of the Invaders. About the same time, oil drums became the standard source material for the instruments, and Mannette, a machinist by trade, became a pioneer of the new technology. He sank the lid to create a tensed playing surface and fired the metal to improve the acoustic properties. A variety of steel drums was created, and entire orchestras were formed. These changes helped to propel the instrument into wide popularity. Over the next several decades, Mannette brought an even more sophisticated approach to pan tuning, using a stroboscope to analyze and shape the harmonic blend.
In 1951, the Trinidad government organized the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra, a national steel band, to represent the country at the Festival of Britain. Mannette was among the musicians chosen to be trained by Lt. Joseph Griffith of Antigua's Police Band. Of the experience, Mannette said, "Look, we were 11 pan men who had no formal training in music theory. Mr. Griffith ... was a disciplined band director and insisted that we be disciplined musicians. We practiced for hours a day and, along with playing dozens of gigs to raise money, even had to build new instruments for the trip!... Mr. Griffith told me that I would have to build a bass pan from a 55-gallon drum. Now prior to that, we used only the light caustic soda barrels to make our bass, and only one barrel at that.... I told him I didn't believe I could build a bass from a 55-gallon drum; they were just too heavy and would not sound. I have to laugh when I think about this now, so many things in pan have come about — quite by accident. Anyway, he refused to take no for an answer.... I guess he knew what he was talking about, because I did do it."
In 2004, des-Sound Productions produced this aforementioned 50-minute documentary: Stradivarius Of Steel: The Ellie Mannette Story.
Dr. Mannette joined the ancestors on Aug. 29, 2018.
Dr. Mannette’s legacy lives on in Trinidad, where the Invaders still play. Jeannine Remy and Ray Funk told their story for Caribbean Beat.
The name “Invaders” brings back memories of the Mannette brothers, Ellie, Birdie and Ossie, hordes of Carnival celebrants and tourists congregated at the yard for the start of J’Ouvert morning, and the beautiful sound of their instruments, nicknamed the “Sweet Pans” and the “Golden Harps”.
But the band, one of the oldest in Trinidad, and a steelband of legend, is still active at its panyard at 147 Tragarete Road, in the heart of Woodbrook in Port of Spain.
Invaders received a national award, the Chaconia Medal (Gold), in 1996, for their contribution to culture. Many of the most important innovators in pan music came out of Invaders, among them composer Ray Holman; Trinidad’s first genius at improvisation, Emmanuel “Cobo Jack” Riley; and Errol Zephyrine, a man whose orchestration included extended chords and featuring different sections of the band equally. Their first records, such as “Liebestraum” in 1959, were legendary.
Here’s the 2015 lineup at the Steelband Panorama Finals (more on that in a moment). You can see the joy on their faces as they play and sing.
In 1977, The Metropolitan Museum of Art produced this fascinating one-hour documentary, Steel Drums in New York, 1977. The film explores the development of the steel pan in Trinidad, Dr. Manette and his move to New York, Pete Seeger’s early interest, and how musicians like Ralph McDonald incorporated it into their music.
Also, Trinidadian poet Erica Mapp introduces the film.
Steel pan is also competitive, and Panorama is the name of the game.
In 1963, the government of Trinidad and Tobago in conjunction with the National Association of Trinidad and Tobago Steelbandsmen (NATTS) launched a new steelband competition called Panorama.
The preliminary round of the competition was judged while the bands were in motion. The instruments were hung on racks and pushed past the judges while the panmen played an arrangement of a current calypso. However, the final round of competition was judged while the bands were stationary and positioned directly in front of the judges.
Crowds of supporters religiously followed their favorite Panorama band every year. Corporate sponsors seized this excellent publicity opportunity and began to pump money into steelbands. Sponsorship money meant the steelbands could now offer reasonable compensation to their arrangers and pan players.
Though the center of the Panorama universe is still in Trinidad and Tobago, there are major competitions held in the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and other parts of the Caribbean. Competition scores can be found on Panscore.
Here’s a sample from the 2016 Nottinghill (England) Carnival champions, London’s Ebony Steelband. Again, the joy is palpable.
The steel pan is also an instrument where a soloist can shine. Check out Robert Greenidge, whose Margaritaville bio notes:
Robert Greenidge grew up in the heart of the Caribbean, on the Island of Trinidad. He started playing steel drums when he was 8 years old. "My uncle Carl was a steel drum player, and made them as well, so it's a family legacy." Robert has become one of the most successful steel drum players in the world. He has toured with Taj Mahal, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, Harry Nilsson, and Brian Wilson, among others.
As YouTuber Discojones77 notes, this is Greenidge delivering “a completely off-the-cuff improvised solo on double seconds at Pan Masters Steel Orchestra's 20th Anniversary Concert.” It clocks in at over nine dazzling minutes.
To fully immerse yourself in steel pan, pay a visit to When Steel Talks.
When Steel Talks is dedicated to pan worldwide with particular emphasis on Pan In New York. The purpose is to highlight the genius and beauty of the instrument, its music and the people who play. It is a Basement Recordings, Inc. initiative designed to promote and educate the global community on, the culture of the Steelband.
I follow them on Twitter.
For those European classical music mavens out there, don’t be surprised that steel pan is also used in symphony orchestras! The 2013 short documentary film Classical Steel was directed by John Barry, and is available on DVD and streaming platforms.
Here’s the trailer:
As the YouTube caption notes:
'Classical Steel' features the steel band in the role of symphony orchestra, very faithfully reproducing the works of the classical masters. This documentary features pan players and steel orchestras from different parts of the world, calling attention to the growth of the steel band movement around the world and the acceptance of the steel pan as a legitimate musical instrument.
Finally, I guarantee you that this duet between renowned pannist Dr. Len "Boogsie" Sharpe and Joshua Regello will get you up and dancing!
I’m going to close here, but as always, there will be lots more music in the comments, so be sure to join me—and please share your own pan favorites with us.