The birth of the steelpan – a brief moment in Black history

By Lennox Borel

Lennox Borel

“And when de two bands clash, Mamayo, if yuh see cutlash

Never me again to jump up in a steel band in Port-of-Spain”

This was the environment in which the steelpan existed in its infancy, turbulent enough to make its parents abort it or declare it an orphan.  Yet it has endured to this day as the only acoustic musical instrument invented in the twentieth century and has grown to perfection, a musical instrument invented by black people in a black country.

This is significant as we celebrate Black History Month in which we need to be reminded about this remarkable phenomenon. Traditional history about steelpan informs us about the efforts of Winston “Spree” Simon, Ellie Mannette, Sterling Bettencourt, Neville Jules and others who have indeed contributed to the birth of the steelpan.  However, here is a significant historical fact, unseemly as it is, that cannot be ignored or dismissed.

Vintage Steelpan Band

In 1940 Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of England.  Franklin Roosevelt was the President of the United States.  England was in the middle of the Second World War, which was not going well for them.  They needed the help of the United States to defeat Hitler and the Germans.  Churchill made a deal with Roosevelt to exchange fifty warships for a ninety-year lease of some land in Trinidad where the Americans built a naval and air force base. 

When the Americans came to Trinidad, they used to transport oil in fifty-five-gallon steel drums.  That is about 208 litres.  The Americans still measure liquids in gallons.  When they no longer needed the drums, they threw them in the garbage. 

At that time, Trinidad and Tobago was a colony of Great Britain.  During the war there were a lot of young men who were unemployed.  Some of these young men took the discarded oil drums and made musical instruments out of them.  Ellie Mannette used to retrieve the drums from the garbage, and transport them, one by one, on his bicycle up to a yard in Port-of-Spain where he and his confreres converted them to musical instruments.

Many of these young men were from poor underprivileged families.   Some were delinquent, committing petty crimes, or even belonged to gangs.  They were even referred to as “badjohns”, which was a word used to describe a bully, a bad dude, a dangerous person.  These young men had little formal education and absolutely no formal musical training.  They simply listened to a tune and were able to play the notes on the pan. First they burned the drums for a few hours on a big wood fire to soften the steel.  Then they hammered the flat surface of the drum to make it a concave surface.  This way they were able to carve out more notes than on the flat surface.

Little did Churchill and Roosevelt know that that deal they made in 1940 would result in the birth of the steelpan.

Since the steelpan was associated with these badjohns, it lacked respectability.  It was only about a decade later in the fifties when middle class boys and girls began to play the pan, did it become accepted and turned into the musical instrument that it is today. 

What a marvellous transition from a crude oil drum to an extraordinarily amazing musical instrument, playing music from classics to calypso, all over the world by people, young and old, of all ethnicities!