When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music




            It is an accepted truism that necessity is the mother of all invention. Any active effort to fulfill a need or a necessity suggests the compulsion of conscious engagement and intelligent focus. A need arises because of limitations of one kind or another and hence the requirement for questioning, deliberate examination, scrutiny, observation, adjustment, with the end result being the positing of a new formulation or an invention that finally procures CHANGE that assures the intended satisfaction. But is the act of satisfying needs the only process or way through which people discover or invent things? Kitchener, probably T&T’s greatest ever calypsonian, said that from a very early age he began to “find out melodies” implying instinct or manifestation of the subconscious. However, there first had to be some deep-felt need or compulsive urge of his, in this specific cultural environment of T&T, to want to express his thoughts in song that led to this revelation of a special talent, and of course the intelligent focusing would come as Kitchener would seek to develop this talent as profession and to make calypso a personal tool of advocacy or in effect an instrument for some kind of social reconstructing and engineering. If that logic is extended into the realm of socio-political phenomena, one could then fully comprehend the oft-repeated references to progress and development that come as a result of “accidents of history.” It all starts with the requirement and the engagement to address needs in context of one’s own specific environment of CONTENTION. That in fact is EDUCATION in its broadest possible context. There is no education without invention and constant re-invention within a specific environment to satisfy needs or to settle contending issues. In reality, streams of intelligent, focused functioning and engagement with the aim to fulfill very specific needs sometimes bring entirely new revelations, or, to put it another way, in the course of the process, attendant things, not yet imagined or envisaged, are revealed or discovered by accident giving rise thereby to even further studied observation and scrutiny and adjustment. The Birth of Steel-Drum Music makes the point.


            It all began with the fear of the oppressors for the mystique of African drumming. Not only did this drum, crafted out of wood and animal skin, talk, communicate and send messages, but moreover this drum awoke and fortified human spirits, emboldened them to seize their freedom and was central to their way of life and all their rituals and ceremonies. The official banning of the drum forced the oppressed to fulfill the need by way of the employment of the ever present BAMBOO shoots. They invented Bamboo-Tambour, the Bamboo Drum, for open secular social activity while the original skin-drum was forced into the underworld or netherworld of banned African religiosity becoming even more frightening to the massa who would then only hear the sound of the skin-drums at night far off in the mountainous regions; in time those very drums and the religious activities associated with them would find cover in the very Bamboo-Tamboo yards giving rise to natural powerful, spiritual and rhythmic synergies.  The three basic elements of the skin-drums were the boom, the cutter and the foule, and the bamboo-drums were made to assimilate these three different functions and therefore three distinct sounds. When the African masses after emancipation intervened in the Carnival festivities of the Whites, the Africans brought their bamboo instruments and so posed a fundamental counter-point to the string-instruments – banjos, violins, guitars, clarinets, mandolins, cuatros etc utilized by the White elites and professional musicians across the board. The posing of that rhythmic counter-point was in effect a form of symbolic self-actualisation which the grassroot Africans would never compromise.  It is only in this context that the logic which underscores the birth of steel-drum music could be fully understood.

            There are three universal components to Music: melody, harmony and rhythm. In the early days the human voice and the cutter skin-drum provided melody, the foule provided harmony and the boom skin-drum provided the basic rhythm. With the introduction of the Bamboo-Drum, the Africans sought to assimilate the various sounds of the skin-drum. So the chanting of the human voice interchanging with the bamboo-cutter provided that melodic requirement, while the bamboo-boom kept the steady background rhythm and the foule-bamboo provided the harmonious nexus between the other two counterpoints. In time the Bugle would be introduced to provide even stronger melodic lines by way of extensive riffs. That remained the established settings for quite a while until the use of bamboo was prohibited by the colonial administration on the grounds that bamboo was being used as effective weaponry during riots at Carnival time; in fact the Carnival Proclamation of 1938 clearly prohibited any “procession or assemblage or collection of persons armed with sticks or other weapons of offence.” Now it is important to try to unravel the thought-processes of these Africans on the ground with this burning desire and this uncompromising, persistent need to make their own music in their own way, with their own forms and within their own format. They ban our bamboo, so we pick up pan and anything from which we could massage some sound and make background patterns of rhythm to synchronize with our voices and/or our bugles. In fact we were already accustomed to picking up dustbin and dustbin covers, old pots and pans, motor-car hubs, paint pans and biscuit drums, at first to augment or replace the fragile bamboo and thereafter to enhance the effect by providing that ringing, metallic sound that was outstanding amidst the intense noise levels on Carnival days. There is evidence of this as early as 1909 Carnival. In time a semblance of rhythmic organization emerged: the Cuff-Boom played with the open palm provided the basic background and the Du-Dup which was played with a stick and was named “Du-Dup” because you got from it two distinct tones: “du” and “dup” by striking opposite sides of the flat, cylindrical, metal surface. In essence, the Du-Dup provided linkage between the cuff-boom and the chant of human voices or bugle riffs. For sometime, according to witnesses, the Cuff-Boom, Du-Dup and other metal implements were intermingled with Bamboo until Bamboo was banned for Carnival and logically thereafter the very first all-metal band appeared i.e. Alexander’s Ragtime Band of Woodbrook and quite intentionally they defined themselves the first iron band with only rhythmic capacity. That is historically correct. Those pans carried no notes and did not possess the capacity to be a steel-drum orchestra. It is deliberate mystification to imply that Alexander’s Ragtime was the first steel orchestra. Those who have engaged themselves in such obfuscation have inveigled this country into projecting the quite absurd notion and the unfortunate conundrum that “the steel-band start in Woodbrook (Port-of-Spain – West) but the first person whom the society acknowledges to have played a Pan is Spree Simon of East Port-of-Spain.” It is essential to posit at this point that we must underscore the cognitive distinction between “pan” as discard utilized percussively and “Pan” as crafted musical instrument in order to procure coherency to the narrative otherwise the obfuscation continues unabated.

However, if the bamboo implements were sought to assimilate the African skin-drums, the use of metal pans as a percussive implement took a different path: the pans came to be used in a way to assimilate the sound of the military bands that had become quite popular. The prevailing environment had changed significantly. Why the attraction to the military bands? It is necessary to indicate that this change as is the case with all social phenomena, was not sudden, in fact it is suggested firstly that in the years just prior to Emancipation due to the intensity of Christmas celebrations and the involvement of a wide cross-section of the population, business usually came to a halt and the colonial administrators fearing possible insurrection used to declare martial law and all freemen were required to join a community militia unit; secondly, some historians point to the visit of the United States Atlantic Fleet in 1907 and the prevalence thereafter to “military-type Carnival masquerade”; and thirdly the locating of the American military bases at Chaguaramas and Wallerfield in 1939-1940. The old folks of Hell Yard (Hamil, Prince, Bully, Jim Bill, Jules etc.) also talked about their Carnival Band practicing “drilling” and doing “road marches”, duplicating the “route marches” of the military bands, and how this eventually led to the concept of the most used Calypso being dubbed the “Road March” of the year. John Edward Slater identified Neville Jules as the key person who influenced the change or transformation of the beat of the “du-dup”. The assimilation of the pans to the sound of military bands caused the “cuff-boom” to be used similarly to the military “bass-boom” while the change of the beat of the “du-dup” brought a change of its name, it was now also called a “bass-kettle”, but, most interestingly, in East Port-of-Spain in particular, a “three-note pan” or “tenor-kettle” or “chu-fak” (cf Slater) emerged. The tenor-kettle was a key to the process of transition from Pan as percussive discard to Pan as crafted instrument. It carried three upraised bumps or “notes”, was slung around the shoulders and was played with two sticks allowing the player the dexterity of fashioning rhythmic riffs using both hands. They played riffs like the buglers and the military kettle-drummers did. The individual first identified with the three-note tenor kettle was Carlton ‘Zigilee’ Barrow and he was dubbed the “master” of the tenor-kettle until Neville Jules upstaged him in the intense competitions in which they engaged each other; Zigilee coming down the Dry River leading Bar 20 and Jules coming up leading Hell Yard’s Second Fiddle. The speed of flashing hands and the rolling out of myriad combination of riffs in a twinkle of the eye would have spectators on either bank of the Dry River jumping in ecstasy. It was the intensity of that contestation between himself and Zigilee that prompted Jules to invent the Ping-Pong. It was the desire and need not only to make Pan talk riffs but to go one step further and make Pan voice melodies. The result was the Ping-Pong, with four notes, one-half of the eight-note musical scale. As a result of this on V-J Day, 1945, Hell Yard’s Second Fiddle was the only band on the road playing music. There is no evidence of anyone, anywhere in the world playing melodies on a steel-pan prior to V-J Day, 1945. None of the claims to the contrary have been substantiated. And Jules would tell you how at first he would change or alternate the fourth note to suit the piece of music he wished to play, until the addition of a fifth note and given the competition from other pioneers there emerged the full complement of the eight-note scale on a paint-pan utilizing by then the convex/concave method of note placings and formatting introduced by another rival, Ellie Mannette, and which because of its practicality quickly became the norm.  Between the years, 1945-1949, Jules, then on a roll, so to speak, put the entire “steel orchestra” together by way of creating his “family of Pans” i.e. Tenor Pan (Ping-Pong), Alto, Second, Guitar, Grundig and Bass. Steel-Drum music was given its birth in Hell Yard or the Yard of Hell, a point of vantage from where the most virile defense of the people’s culture came. For certain it was this ‘culture’, deemed jamette culture, that posited every single creative manifestation as counterpoint to elitist existence; and over and over again we would see the establishment at first seeking to destroy those forms created from below only to embrace them after they prove invincible with the diabolical intent to smother them into a social acceptance and ‘respectability’ that removed their poignant edge. So Hell Yard that withstood the most potent and frontal attacks on Pan could not be acknowledged as birth-place, it had to be somewhere like “Woodbrook,” forcing the greatest pan-pioneer and virtuoso pan-player of all time to suspiciously stay away from all the efforts of the establishment to form an umbrella association of early orchestras and to reject all the rationale that stipulated that Pan competitions be curtailed on the grounds that these contests “fuel” internecine violence rather than the  rapid development as evidenced before their very eyes. This stance ruled Hell Yard and All Stars out of the TASPO adventure and robbed the world of witnessing then the true prodigy of Pan. And with this continued trend, it would be “Girl-Pat” of Woodbrook who would be recognized as the first women to play Pan rather than “Ruby-Rap” and “Bubulups” of Hell Yard. Furthermore this trend has diluted the narrative of Pan for it ignored the role of women as the custodians of early Pans i.e. women hid Pans from the police who were on repeated “search and destroy” missions, and moreso minimized the function of women as nurturers of Pan development since they not only hid Pan-men and their instruments but fed them from their meager kitchens. It is imperative to note that many of those involved were in fact juvenile delinquents, probably individuals who were incapable of relating to the formal, official system of schooling, but the process of Pan invention in itself, as well as involvement as players in the “community” of a Pan-side, served to educate citizens of T&T, many of whom, through the Pan journey, came to know themselves, came to accept new levels of responsibility and came to understand themselves in relation to the rest of the Nation and the World as a whole.   

It was clearly known in those days who did what, when, where and how, until the mid 1970’s when suddenly T&T began to experience or suffer collective amnesia. It seemed to be almost a case of national conspiracy to satisfy some silly tourist oriented requirement and hocus-pocus – that no one person was responsible for the focused, disciplined engagement that brought the modern steel-drum orchestra into existence. According to one Mark Anthony Jones:  “History lives and can easily verify or nullify claims… One can say that steelband belongs to Trinidad & Tobago and give all credit to the people of Trinidad & Tobago. This is for tourist. We …must try to verify facts in order to leave a true account for posterity, for the children of steelbandsmen…” But it is that and more than that. To simply give credit to all the people of T&T for the only new and original instrument to be invented in the 20th Century, is a cop out that may be suitable and appropriate only for the pages of tourist brochures, but it does nothing for us. It is absolutely essential for our own well-being, for a true psychological understanding of ourselves, that the genesis of this particular journey towards self-actualisation be underscored and be fully marked by the doings of those who dared to be different and dared to act following the stirrings of their souls to fulfill needs nurtured by and within this specific environment. Only recently, Sunday November 20, 2011, there was a Dr. Roderick Thompson on “When Steel Talks” discussing the relationship between Calypso and Pan, the Classics and the concept behind the ‘Bomb’. He spoke in an authoritative manner about the Bomb conception while displaying an obvious ignorance of the genesis of the concept, so he ended up giving credence to the usual nonsense that suggests that everybody, as if by magic, suddenly began to parade “before judges” playing pieces of classical music that had been concealed up to that point, thereby diminishing the power of the narrative that indicates that the Bomb was the 1958 response of one person, Neville Jules, to a 1957 contending threat that was posed to his band, All Stars, by Crossfire of St. James. There were no official judges then, the masses judged, it was all about public opinion, and only All Stars practiced Bomb tunes with their bare fingers up in the Garret, section by section, while guards were posted downstairs Maple Leaf Club to chase away any inquisitive persons. The various sections only came to know what they each were playing when the Bombs were dropped with sticks on Jouvert Morning. It is the power of such romance in the Pan narrative that remains alien to Thompson’s discourse and to the discourse of so many.

 The society neither awoke to the development of Pan as crafted instrument quietly nor kindly. There was hell to pay. There were campaigns launched to curtail the involvement in what was considered to be “abominable” practice and behaviour. There was an urgent call for the country of T&T to be “saved from a retrograde step into the jungle”; it was even said that the very people who were “beating Pan in the streets” were the very same people who in an earlier time burned down the Red-House, the official seat of governance. There were calls to ban the parading of these Pan-bands and to make the use of “string and reed instruments” compulsory for the youths of the country. And there was intense ridicule: for example, a cartoon depicting a steelband emerging out of an abandoned junk-yard; also there were disparaging references to the Pans as “Dustbinolas”, “Lardpandolins” and “Paintpanatros.” But parading the streets and parading from house to house had become acceptable pastime of the Paranderos or Parang Bands who carried at Christmas time the message of the Birth of Christ. If that act of parading was socially acceptable and considered quite within the Law, then Panmen felt justified to parade also. All attempts by the Police to keep them away from the streets were openly defied by the early Panmen. Furthermore, they also played Christmas Carols and Baptist “Sankey Songs” (cf the Ira Sankey Hymn Book) to justify their parading the streets of East Port-of-Spain and over the Hills of Laventille. Neville Jules insists that whenever he made a new Pan back then he went on the streets with it to gauge people’s reaction to it and he only accepted the Pan as a finished product if the reaction to it was as expected. So firm were the Panmen in regard to parading that the Government even during the War allowed them to parade legally for 3 hours (6pm-9pm). This connection between “Parang” and the birth of Steel-Drum Music has yet to be fully recognized. Neville Jules conceptualised the “Tune-Boom” after paying close attention to the improvised “Box-Bass” utilized by a Parang Band while they practiced on Duke Street during the Christmas season, and as well his “Cuatro-Pan” was geared to assimilate the strum of the cuatros; thereafter it was Boots Davidson who renamed that Pan, Guitar-Pan, and the latter name stuck. It is indeed quite important to the narrative that at every given stage in the process of Pan development that the connection to all the prevailing influences at various times be properly contextualized; at that particular juncture, “Parang” held sway. However as the process unfolds it is important to keep in mind that it is in the solving of attendant problems and the resulting satisfaction of needs that brought new revelations to the agenda. For example, both Jules and Prince Batson were adamant that the playing of the ping-pongs and tune-booms with sticks resulted in the fraying of the edges of the sticks and to solve that problem Prince suggested to Jules to wrap the playing end of the stick with rubber; this was done and the result, they then observed, was an improved quality of the sound emanating from the Pans. Ellie Mannette, on the other hand, claims that he was the first to wrap the sticks with rubber to get a better sound, and we are left to wonder whether it was likely that Ellie found a solution before a specific need arose. It is the understanding of the process of invention that serves well to separate truth from untruth. Therefore, in the continuance of exploring this narrative, it is essential that one comprehends the process of cognition; how do we come to know what we know, and in the case of Pan Development such a comprehension of social engagement has quite far-reaching consequences. For example, while attending “Rock-Steady & Reggae Night” at the Montreal Jazz Programme in 2009,  I was stunned when Marcia Griffiths, an original member of the “I-Threes” called Nerlin Taitt, who lived then in Montreal, onto the stage and declared to the world that Lin Taitt was the mainstay behind the development of Jamaican Music; what, however, was not said is that Nerlin Taitt, now deceased, was a Trinidadian “double-second” pan player from South who settled in Jamaica and that it was in his efforts to transpose the “strum of the second-pan” onto the guitar that gave birth to the Ska Beat and the rest, as they say, is now history.


For more on the narrative of the invention of Pan look out for Bukka Rennie’s “The Birth of Steel-Drum Music and the Story of Trinidad All Stars Steel Orchestra.”

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Comment by Tony Blackman on January 22, 2012 at 12:48pm

Very informative..............The documenting and archiving of the history, origins etc. of the Steelpan, should be so large that it would take up a section of our national library, it should be taught in schools just as forcefully as they fed us Christopher Columbus discovered Trinidad, and have its own museum something similar to the Smithsonian types of Washington DC.........we are into the 21st century and nothing seems forthcoming

Comment by Pan'tum - The Ghost Who Talks on January 22, 2012 at 11:13am

THANKS FOR POSTING THIS! The reader would note:

(1) The African origins of the invention.

(2) The need to replicate African drum "polyrhythms", through the evolution from skin(drum), to bamboo(drum), to steel(drum). This explains the early names given to the early instruments. Of course,"pan" is our term of endearment, but that title came sometime after the invention. 

FYI - I knew Neville Jules personally, as he was our next-door neighbor in Malick, Barataria. His son, Curtis, was around our age. Mr. Jules (I still have to call him that) was just as strick as George; they were like drill sergeants! lol

Comment by S. F. Thomas on January 21, 2012 at 5:16pm

This is eye-opening stuff! Thank you, Bukka Rennie!

As always when a writer does good work, the reader asks for more. The piece that is missing for me is the basis of the information presented. Sometimes we are left to assume that Bukka is the direct witness to the events in question, but at other times it is not clear who the source(s) are.

The matter is important enough that I wish the story could be more fleshed out, with sources of information properly credited. I wish also that it would find the proper kind of publication it deserves, so that it would be a gift to our posterity.

I have to agree that it is important to de-mystify the history of pan. I had accepted the myth before that "all o' we" invented pan, but I must now accept Bukka Rennie's insight and contention that the real inventor(s) can and should be identified, pin-pointed, and credited.  We really do not  benefit from a lie, no matter how sweet.

- Big Sid

Comment by Andre-Roger Dellevi on January 21, 2012 at 3:49pm

And it inspires the continuation with the invention of the e-pan...

Comment by yvette johnson on January 21, 2012 at 2:37pm

Please keep publishing the information about the inter-connectedness of our music.  It will help our basic understanding of our Caribbean history - " I was stunned when Marcia Griffiths, an original member of the “I-Threes” called Nerlin Taitt, who lived then in Montreal, onto the stage and declared to the world that Lin Taitt was the mainstay behind the development of Jamaican Music; what, however, was not said is that Nerlin Taitt, now deceased, was a Trinidadian “double-second” pan player from South who settled in Jamaica and that it was in his efforts to transpose the “strum of the second-pan” onto the guitar that gave birth to the Ska Beat and the rest, as they say, is now history."

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