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Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

Above all, the steelpan

By Sunity Maharaj
Re-published with the expressed permission of the author

"... Why do we need to plan our lives and educational strategies around a divisive concept like multiculturalism which, contrary to its benign 'many cultures' facade, is intended to emphasise differences rather than celebrate commonalities?"

—Henri Muttoo, Guyanese

stage designer/director

It is good that school doors are being opened up to the great variety of musical instruments available to our children. For too long they have been locked out by a curriculum that still refuses to recognise the validity of so much that is of such importance to us as a people.

But as we make way for the Indian dholak, the African djembe, the Chinese chaozhou dagu, the Syrian darbuka, in addition to the European violin and piano and the American trap set and whatever else, let us remember the special gift of the steelpan that is truly and completely ours to embrace, to understand, to develop, to promote and to represent to the world.

There is a worrying sub-text to the government's argument for elbowing aside the Pan-in-the-Classroom Unit in making room for the new and expanded Multicultural Music Programme Unit. Underlying the case is a view that the steelpan is merely one of the broad range of ethnic instruments of our multi-cultural society. The view is based on the false notion that the steelpan is an African instrument, as the dholak is an Indian instrument and so on. It is not. The steelpan is a Trinidad and Tobago instrument, both by origin and by culture. One might even insist that it could never have been invented anywhere else but in the Caribbean and, quite possibly, only in this country. In what other place in the world could the precise set of circumstances have existed to have given birth to the steelpan?

Despite the NAR government's designation of the steelpan as the official national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, pan remains a subject of great ambivalence in the land of its birth—and not only among Trinidadians of East Indian extract.

Like Bob Marley on whom Jamaicans were so divided during his lifetime, we are yet to come to terms with pan. Indeed, we had an Afro-Trinidadian prime minister who was so uncomfortable with this invention by the sufferers from up Laventille Hill that he was willing to spend big money to re-invent it, adorn it in the cloak of professorial science, and re-christen it. For him, the steelpan had to be stripped of its history and re-formulated as a university-sanctioned, modern scientific instrument for it to be accepted as valid, legitimate and worthy of representing his warped idea of T&T as a sophisticated modern society. The problem, of course, was not the pan but the man.

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Excellent article which captures the essence of where we are, with respect to the lack of appreciation for (a) the potential of the instrument, and (b) the creativity inherent in the people of T&T.   In the meantime, we are losing pioneers and not making use of people with so much talent,knowledge and experience, in a world that is by no means standing still in its music creation, R&D, education, etc. 

And, Mark, how does telling the true history of the racial make-up of the steel band's "inventors" do that? Please explain how omitting the African influence and slave-class origins, benefits the "pan industry". PLEASE!!!


I think it is quite a leap to say that the writer intended to omit the African influence. If this is being extrapolated from the writer saying the instrument is not an African one, then I would say my reading was that the instrument is invented in TT and not Africa. That is not to say that we should omit the origins or inflences. I clearly do not subscribe to the view that the history of the people and inluences should be lost. i wish we could even learn more of the instrument, people and historical linkages in schools. The point I took from the story, was that clearly succesive governments and even our own people have yet to recognize and appreciate what we have. This extends to the people who invented the instrument, and many orhers. I am proud as a Trini to be associated with such a magnificent invention, which is why I conrinue to be associated with several aspects of pan, and walk with it wherever I go, including Africa where I reside and work for the last years. I do hope however one day that the instrument, its pioneers, its history and people is appreciated as it deserves.

SIDDS, you are all about semantics. That IS MY POINT, said differently. How is something of "African descent" different from something "African"? We already previously exposed your "Dougla" issues, and your detachment with reality (remember tuning into snakes in the morning, and coming back as an African slave if you "sin", etc. etc.) Maybe, if we exposed the truth about the African-descent origins of the steel drum, more of them would be interested, but then again, maybe that IS they latent agenda - to remove ALL traces of African-descendant influence, now that others see how it can be exploited for financial profit on the global market. Maybe, if we marketed to more African-descendants, like African Americans, for example, we would see more "African-descendants", but then again, that may also be by design -the attempt to "whiten" the image of the "panman and panwoman". No one has accused East Indian-descendants for being racist, for keeping their East Indian traditions, and being proud of their contributions to Trinidad & Tobago society (like chutney), and I await the day that East Indian-descendants change their names, release their religions and East Indian cultures, cut-off blood relations with those in India, and start marrying as many African-descendants as they do European-descendants (especially those from Canada), so that I can believe that their "race", "culture" and "history" do not matter to them, and that we are all one happy Trinidad & Tobago society.

FYI - A prejudice is a "pre-judgement", or coming to a conclusion prior to experience. As African people, we have a historical relationship with Europeans (from chattel to, now, institutionalized slavery), and as Trinidadians, we experienced East Indian racism (rooted in Hinduism) against "Black" skin, and are aware of East Indian opinions and attitudes against Trinidadians & Tobagonians of "African descent". If anything, I am more "post-judgmental", and I do not see how it is prejudicial to speak the truth. Ironically, my daughter, just last week, told me how separated the East Indians in her high school are, and her closest friends are White and Latino. About two weeks ago, my teenage son got his first "girlfirend" and she is "white". My first daughter is "mixed"; actually ALL my kids are, because my wife is also a Trinidadian of "mixed" ancestry. I have posted my views on racism for all to peruse at their leisure , and SIDDS' attempt to project his own issues on "race", is not a new tactic to me, or ANY "Black" man or woman who knows themselves. My steel drum students have been of every racial, national, age, gender, economic, and sexual orientation, and ANYONE who "knows" me, know how extremely liberal my political views are. SIDDS, you have no credibility when it comes to the subject of "history", pan-related, or otherwise, for you are NOTHING more than a lonely sociopath; a kook with internet access, and a hunger to feel important. Do you even understand what "racial profiling" is? Google "Trayvon Martin", and educate yourself. And, please, please, get a dictionary; it will help in your understanding of definitions of terms you like to use, such as prejudice, race, racial profiling, etc. And maybe you conveniently forgot, but as to my views on "history", I will again quote one of my "babas", Dr. John Henrik Clarke:

"The events which transpired five thousand years ago; Five years ago or five minutes ago, have determined what will happen five minutes from now; five years From now or five thousand years from now. All history is a current event."


BTW - My African name (as an African descendant) is Jabari Baruti Osaze.

Thank you, Sunity Maharaj for a very  thoughtful and thought provoking article. 

I've been waiting for a non- African Trinidadian, particularly of East Indian decent, to step forward and claim the pan as their own.

The pan has African roots, since it came out of the African tradition of drumming via the tamboo bamboo etc.

But the pan is a distinctly Trinidadian creation.

One only has to browse Kim Johnson's book "The Illustrated Story of Pan" to see the contributions made to the development of the pan by Trinidadians of all ethnicities - predominantly African, but also East Indians, Chinese and even Europeans.

In spite of the regressive attitudes of ethnic leaders like Sat Maharaj,( "Africans like to best pan, Indians like to beat book"), who aggressively argued against pans being taught in "their: schools, the pan belongs to all and should be embraced by all, and taught in all schools.

The comparison to Bob Marley's acceptance in Jamaica by some in the upper classes is an apt one; I know middle class Jamaicans who are still ambivalent about Marley because of his poor Rastafarian roots.


"the steelpan had to be stripped of its history and re-formulated as a university-sanctioned, modern scientific instrument for it to be accepted as valid, legitimate and worthy of representing his warped idea of T&T as a sophisticated modern society"

I do not know if this criticism of Dr Williams is valid, though I do believe he used the steel bands for political purposes as a politician would.

I do believe however, that the criticism applies to many today , who would even change the traditional language associated with the pan, to make it more sophisticated.

I sometimes fear that in the effort to make the pan even more respectable, one of the major functions of the steel band may be forgotten.

That is the steel band's traditional role in the community of providing a viable outlet for poor, sometimes unemployed youth, especially at Carnival time .

All in all though, with minor caveats, I think this is an excellent article.

Sidd don't flatter yourself.  The drivel you write is by no means anywhere in the same arena with what this woman has honestly written about.  You, have an agenda. She calling a spade a spade.  She even takes on the concept of multiculturalism and the dastardly under-cover deeds of this current administration in what it has blantely put into motion. You have no such transparency. Moreover you are disingenuous.


Sidd you simply lack the capacity to embrace what this woman is talking about. Forget all that mombo jombo you are talking.  You are no different than those people Sunity speaks of that need to redefine the invention of pan to tolerate it's existence.

You are singling out what serves your purpose from her article. Sunity's article needs no editor or narrator. Particularly from you.


Thanks for telling him. A bunch of frauds on WST with hidden agendas. But then again, that's the entire pan fraternity, and that is what is "killing it". I have no problem shring Black invention: pan, jazz, or otherwise. Just don't ask me to remove myself from my part in its history. Even if it started with me. BLACK 100% African 24 x 7, 365!!! With NO apology. So what, I got to give up my African heritage and cultural contributions, forget my history (including the abuse of slavery), and be a "good Negro" (i.e. Oreo, black on the outside and white on the inside), just to get along in Trinidad & Tobago, and make people like me. You still would not like me, but you would also lose all the rest of the respect you have for me. And my African pride, I will die for...


I stand corrected  about the Afro Trinidadian Prime minister..That 's why it pays to be specific since we had more than one Afro Trinidadian PM.

However , my comment about "using the pan for political purposes" still stands.

And Sid, this is NOT the discussion you guys were having, else I would have taken the same position then.

Where or from whom did you get your history or opinion about the relationship between Eric Williams and Rudolph Charles?


Good article, but we, the majority of pannist must take some of the blame for the stagnation of the Musical Instument of Trinidad & Tobago. We still treat pan as a hobby, so the econominal value is oblivios to most of us. We sometimes treat our instuments without respect. How many times have you seen expensive chromed pan on the ground like garbage, or rain water on backgroung pans. As I said in my book, "We must train our young pannist so they do not make the same recurring errors. They must be taught the history of the pan and the band they choose.  I recently asked a manager of a large Steel Orchestra if Ican quiz some of his young players. The question was, "Can you name the Steel Orchestra who never won a Panorama, but has been in the top-three spots on 5 occasions?" None of the players knew the answer although the answer was their band. I said, you all should blame the manager (lol). We also must get involved in reading. 

By the way; Is anyone out there interested in investing into a Pan Chrome Shop. And do you know if it's factual that, 25% to 35% of the cost of a pan is due to the chroming.  Please advise. I am in T&T at (868) 624-9317 or 316-9483. As always Love, Peace and Pan.

This is one of the most honest articles to date about pan in Trinidad and Tobago.



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