The Evolution of the Steel Pan


“They say to me they want a musical change in pan” said the Great Lord Kitchener in his 1987 calypso ‘Pan in A minor’. This line emphasised  that the evolution of pan was inevitable.

From the beginning, there was Carnival. An art form that was heavily influenced by the French who would play ‘mas’ in the streets, and later the slaves and their descendants would follow suit. Africans, with their rhythmic expressions of dance, flocked to engage in the act of Carnival. However, their musical instrument of choice, the skin drums, was taken away by the British authority who were fearful that by beating the drums the slaves would go into a frenzy. This was because the Orisha religion was about dancing and divination. The slaves, therefore resorted to the use of the Tamboo Bamboo.

The Tamboo Bamboo are various lengths of bamboo knocked on the ground or played with a shorter stick. It was a rhythmic, percussive instrument that the slaves would sing along with in order to give a melody.

Somewhere along the line someone picked up a garbage bin, which was an old oil drum, and provided bass sounds. The only bass one would get from Tamboo Bamboo would be from a large piece of bamboo being lifted and dropped to the ground in time with the rhythm. The garbage bin easily provided this extra bass. Incidentally, it was noticed that as the metal was stretched, by pounding on the surface, the bass got higher in pitch.

All musical sounds are due to vibrations and the vibration would be high or low depending on the thickness of the material.  With this knowledge, experimentation began on the tuning of the old oil drum, and what aws prouced was a two note bass drum known as a Duh Dup.

Experimenting continued and they got the first pan (tenor), second pan, guitar pan and a bass or grundig which was the name of a bass sounding instrument at the time.

In east Port-Of-Spain, there developed a pan competition, which is now called “On The Greens”. It was restricted to that area so as not to interfere with the Carnival of the more upper class of society, as well as because the poor tuning of the instruments made them rather noisy.

The police would always be on the heels of these steel bands. Early pan men would throw their pans into the dry river when they ran off in escape, knowing that the police would not give chase down the river. This caused the pannists to have to make new instruments every year, increasing their skill of tuning the instrument.

The era came towards the early 60s where it was found that the single drum was not adequate for the amount of notes pan men wanted to get. This spurred the introduction of more than one drum to spread the notes over them, hence producing the double tenor, double seconds, guitar, three cello, four cello, tenor bass, six bass, nine bass and twelve bass.

Winston Spree Simon is thought to be the first person to start pan though there were many people who contributed. People who have made a mark in the development and tuning of the instrument include Ellie and Bernie Manette from “Invaders”, Neville Jules, Allan Jervais and Bertie Marshall.

In 1963, a competition was introduced called the Carnival Panorama. It helped to further the evolution of the steel pan as pan men strived to put their best work out when it was being judged.

We have yet to see the end of the evolution of the steel pan since we now have the “G- Pan”. This instrument has a much larger surface to work with and produces a louder sound with a wider range than most pans. Also, there now exists the PHI or electronic steel pan, which allows for the electronic amplification of sound.

The steel pan is constantly evolving, and many new iterations are just around the corner 


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