Steel Pan music originated on the island of Trinidad. The two most important influences on the Steel Pan – or ‘pan’ – were the drumming traditions of Africa and India, which came to the island at different points in its history.
The Africans first came to Trinidad in the grim period of slavery. Many of the enslaved came from the Yoruba-speaking peoples, whose worship of the god Shango, Lord of Thunder and Lightning, involved the skilled use of special sacred drums. Drumming became a part of Christian church festivals such as the ceremony of Cannes Brules; the burning of the sugar cane, creolised to ‘Camboulay’, that involved a torchlight procession accompanied by drummers bringing a tradition which eventually became part of the annual explosion of colourful national exuberance called Carnival.
After emancipation, many impromptu methods of music-making were eagerly seized upon. Even old tins, graters – called ‘scratchers’ – and tin kettles were pressed into service, while the versatile gourd or calabash was put to many new ingenious uses. It was transformed into various instruments including the ‘Banjee’, the ‘Chac-Chac’ and the ‘Toc-Toc’.
Once slavery was abolished, the ‘East Indians’ were introduced as indentured labourers. Unlike the slaves, they were allowed to keep their religious festivals and music. As a result, the Indian tradition of drumming came to play its own part in the development of Trinidad’s culture.
“Behind the Bridge” refers to the area on the lower east side of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad. After slavery was abolished in 1837, Trinidadians of African heritage settled in the area east of the “Dry River”, which was connected to the rest of the city by a solitary bridge. This neighbourhood was home to the Orisha religion, culture and drumming. This way of life flourished despite drumming being banned by the British Colonial authorities who thought that people would send messages and incite social unrest.
The people, deprived of their drums, started to use bamboo sticks which produced a rhythmic sound when pounded on the ground. These were known as Tamboo Bamboo. A century later in the 1930s the Steel Pan was born when people began to use tins and cans and discovered that if you hammered the surface to different degrees you could create a variety of notes. Pan Music developed rapidly in the 1930s and 40s and produced such legendary figures as Winston “Spree” Simon, Neville Jules, Rudolph “Fish Eye” Olliverre and Rudolph Charles. Today, some of the most outstanding Steel Bands still come from “Behind the Bridge”.
Today, Steel Bands perform at the major concert halls around the world, including The Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall. It is an amazing phenomenon as there are Steel Bands in Japan as well as in most European countries including Finland and Switzerland, where there are over sixty active Steel Bands.