The Steel Drums were invented around the time of World War II. Its home is Trinidad and its roots are from Africa. When the British colonial authorities banned African drumming, the people made music from bamboos which they thumped on the ground. And they created “Tamboo Bamboo Bands”. Between the 1930s and 1945, biscuit tins, hubcaps and empty oil drums became a new sort of drum – steel, with distinct notes hammered into the surface. The steel banders call the music Pan and the oil drums on which it is played were called “pans”. Trinidadians have always believed that music should be made with whatever came to hand. The Trinidadians also claim that the steel drum is the only non-electronic musical instrument invented this century. Legend has it that Spree Simon was the first person to make a “pan”. He found a dent in his garbage can. The dent was no doubt the result of a game of cricket in the road, or a stone thrown by someone who never knew the contribution he was making to musical history. Spree Simon took a hammer to knock out the dent and suddenly became aware that each blow with the hammer created a different sound. He continued to add dents of various shapes and sizes and before long he made a scale of notes. And soon he was playing tunes on his garbage can.
Garbage cans were not suitable because they were hard to find and the metal was too thin. The war came and went and the oil drums left abandoned by the US forces became the ideal material for making pans. There were plenty of them plus the fact that Trinidad produces oil, meant that there was a continual supply oil drums.
The music that came out of the pan was the music of the poor and was not considered respectable in the early years. There was a history of violent behavior that went along with the music. Rivalry developed between the steel bands and battles between the groups were not unusual. In those years, the authorities still had a fear of primitive rhythms so if a youngster was a member of a steel drum band it was enough to label that person as a potential criminal.
In time, the steel drum gained in respect and today the groups range from small groups to huge symphonic orchestras of 100 players. They perform anything from western classics through jazz to calypso and original compositions. Today, the Trinidad government encourages major companies to sponsor bands and the Pan is today socially acceptable. The music has spread across the world. But the home of the steel drum band is still Trinidad where there are over 100 steel orchestras in the country and their great showcase is Carnival.