When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music

by Roger Gibbs

published with the expressed permission of the author

‘Everybody wondering how the steelband start
When you get to know, well it’s going to break your heart’
Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts)

The Grandmaster sang this classic calypso road march in 1975, a tribute to Winston ‘Spree’ Simon, anointing him the one “who invented pan”. This moving tribute should not be taken literally. It was in reality a plea from Kitch to his countrymen to show more generosity to the aging veterans of the steelband movement, of whom they were many, in particular, members of TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra). In 1951, TASPO hurriedly assembled the top tuners / players from various emerging steelbands in Trinidad and sent them to represent Trinidad & Tobago at the 1951 Festival of Britain Exhibition in London, U.K. TASPO members were all highly talented individuals worthy of high honour. Barely in their 20s, they were a few outstanding names – Ellie Manette, Tony Williams, and of course, Winston ‘Spree’ Simon. What we do not generally know about this first initiative to represent Trinidad’s cultural identity internationally through the steelband, was that it was spearheaded by a Barbadian musical maestro – Joseph Griffith.

Joseph Nathaniel Griffith brought a vision and musical rigor to the steelband concept. In 1951, steelbands were basically rough musical percussion collectives, fit for street Carnival but little more. The top steelbands of the day were made up of a number of lead pans or ‘ping-pongs’. These lead pans played melodies in unison with limited alto versions adding a few harmony notes. The rest of the band was made up of biscuit tin drums with 2-3 notes each adding some basic lower parts and accompanied by an assorted percussion. The sound of this early steelband music was raucous, lively, spontaneous, polyphonic, polyrhythmic – but also very uneven in tones, lacking instrumental clarity and pitch, and with inconsistent balance and blend. Add to that, steelpan protagonists had reputations as hooligans and lawbreakers and were not considered respectable members of society. Band rivalries were fierce and violence was common when bands clashed. There was a deep stigma of shame and revulsion towards the steel drum community from the wider society, a legacy of colonial attitudes.

At this seminal moment in 1951, Joseph Griffith was brought to Trinidad to lead TASPO. He was recruited from St. Lucia where he was then working as Director of the St. Lucia Police Band. He had an impressive resumé and earlier on had spent many years in the 1930s and 40s in Trinidad teaching music, forming several musical groups and presenting concerts. He was a virtuoso musician who played sax and clarinet and with an extensive musical education. Griffith had spent his younger years cutting his teeth from 14yo with Barbados Police Band, and later in Harlem, New York in his 20s as a freelance musician. In addition to his stint in Trinidad, Griffith had a fascinating career leading bands and orchestras in Martinique and St. Vincent. Put in charge of TASPO, Griffith implemented a vision of the steelband we recognize today. He was a no-nonsense type of guy who was also known to love a drink and had a good sense of camaraderie. He transformed the ragtag sounding steel percussion band into a full Western European styled concert orchestra. He took the street bacchanal steelband sound of the late 1940s and re-imagined it as a concert presentation.

To do this he needed instruments in each section that could play all the notes, pans which sounded more uniform and blended better. Here’s what happened. Working with gifted tuners from TASPO like Tony Williams, Ellie Mannette, Spree Simon, and others, over a few months he oversaw the creation of a whole new set of instruments in preparation for the group’s trip to London. The biscuit tins tune-booms were ditched and replaced by steel drums to provide fully functioning alto pans, cello pans with longer skirts were created to play tenor parts, and full-length drums were added to play the bass parts. When challenged by the tuners that a drum could only hold 3 or 4 bass notes, he suggested using several drums to create the bass pans we see today. He further insisted that all drums be tuned to concert pitch and not undetermined as before.

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No wonder why there was always  some unexplained parts when talking about who really invented the steel pan.  Thank you to Mr.. Gibbs for providing us with this piece of history. The excellent detail that was given certainly brings my memory back to those early days of our daily life.  Maybe we could still find some seniors who could attest to this epic.  It is time we start paying acknowledgement to those early players.  Kitchener's son came forward.  George Goddard's son came forward but up to today there is no acknowledgement of the task his father undertook to help organize the steelband movement. 

Brenda E.C.H.

Lord Kitchener - Steelband


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