History of the Steel Drums
Ancient history says that when man started his quest for music, percussion instruments were the first to have been created. It is a basic human instinct to beat against solid objects in search of sounds, if possible rhythmic sounds, which provide some food for the soul. So when you next listen to the heart thumping and face melting drum beats of an international rock band, do remember that its origin lie in some innocent effort centuries ago.
Steel drums or steel pans as they called and the subsequent steel drum bands, have a similar history. There was some form of ‘drumming’ within African tribes since some centuries, which were part of rituals or merry making. However it has its origins and evolution in the Caribbean island of Trinidad. The industrial revolution had European nations taking a large number of slaves from Africa to these Caribbean islands, to work in their coffee plantations. It formally took shape during the turbulent times of World War II. The frustration of slavery, the constant oppression and struggle again the colonial rulers and the melancholy of being away from their land and culture gave rise to the invention of the steel pan, the only probable link of the slaves to their roots.
The steel drum helped minimize the aggravation of slavery and was also potent means of communication within the islands. It started with the humble instruments called the “Tamboo-Bamboos” that required bamboo sticks to be beaten onto the ground to produce sound or hit against a gin bottle with a spoon. Slowly this gave way to more sophisticated instruments that involved some rejected metal piece from an automobile. Tamboo-Bamboo bands had taken shape by the 1930s; proper steel drum bands had sprung into picture by the mid thirties and by the 1940s one could not miss in them in carnivals for the lower strata of the society.
Since these were also used as a communication device, the colonial rulers of the slaves had their reservations against the usage of these, for the fear of revolt or passing of secret information through beat patterns. Strict laws and in certain cases even bans were imposed against the steel drum bands and the beat of the steel pan. These measures actually accelerated the evolution of the steel pan, since a ban one instrument gave way to the invention of another.
Gradually some amount of “rhythmic science” also got infused within the creation of the further variations of the steel pan. Musicians found out that the steel drum changed pitch after they are beaten for some time. These drum were a bit rudimentary instruments, convex in shape, but the changes in pitch were dynamic and not intentional.
Later Anthony Williams came up with a structured arrangement of notes that became the standard for steel pan notes. After couple of failed researches and initiatives, “PANArt” in Sweden researched and successfully productized steel drums using the fine-grain sheet technology. Today electronic steel drums have also been developed and steel drum bands have come a long way. They however owe the first steps to the persistent African aborigines that were there in Trinidad more than half a century ago.