Trinidad & Tobago

Steel Pan Music
By Mark Rogers

It’s amazing how many musical forms were born in Trinidad. There’s soca, the music that powers Carnival; calypso, which provides sharp and humorous commentary on island life, and then there’s steel band music, which in a heartbeat can switch from gentle melody to hard charging orchestral percussion.

Steel band music is referred to as steel pan music on Trinidad. The form came about during World War II, when empty 55 gallon oil drums were easy to come by, being abandoned by U.S. forces. A rhythmic and melodic music was born by making convex and convex dents in the oil drum, which in turn supplied different musical notes when tapped by a pair of rubber-tipped sticks.

Trini’s love of steel drum music took fire, and soon there were groups ranging from a few players to large symphonic orchestras of 100 musicians. When the music is heard outside the Caribbean, most listeners are transported back to island life, with its balmy breezes and relaxed pace. While there are now steel band contests around the world, nothing compares to the thunderous sound that takes over Port of Spain during Carnival, when over 100 steel orchestras try to best each other during Panorama, the largest steel band contest in the world.

“People can also listen to steel pan music throughout the year, not just during Carnival,” says Allison Mason, a Trinidadian who is currently the marketing and public relations manager for NYC-based Travel Span Vacations. “I would tell visitors to drop by some of the steel pan yards to hear the groups practicing. It’s free – you just walk in. You might even be invited to give it a try yourself. Some of the steel pan yards have little refreshment stands and they sell souvenirs – it’s a little business.”

Click HERE for a slice of 2010 Carnival in the streets of Port of Spain, with people chipping along to the rhythm of a steel band.