Bringing harmony to the UK with steelpan

February 27, 2023

Shakira performing with her fellow steelband members

Shakira Dyer shares her love for an instrument from her Caribbean culture

Over the past few decades there has been a change in how the instrument steelpan is perceived and valued, particularly by the ‘white British high class’ but also by pannists themselves.

Beginning life as a working class instrument from the ghettos of Port-au-Spain in Trinidad, steelpans have developed from the many-noted, undefined dustbin lid, to the ping-pong with four notes, expanding in the range of resonance provided as they gained due recognition from those who matter.

Steelpans featured, for instance, as part of the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace in 2022.

The steelpan came from Caribbean countries such as Trinidad, Antigua and Jamaica. At the beginning, steelpan was used as a protest instrument (having replaced the tamboo bamboo, a percussion instrument).

[authquote text=”In Antigua, due to snobbery, the government sought to pass a law giving the police the right to confiscate the pans”]

In 1939, steelpan was used in the first Calypso songs, which served to bring news to the ‘lower classes’ in a melodic and satirical way. Steelpans were so associated with the lower class that early pan pioneers and tuners, such as Cliff Alexis were told “a decent person would not be caught dead with steel drum players”.

However, this didn’t stop these pioneers from playing and, by the 1950s, steelpan became more accepted by the middle classes in the Caribbean.

During this time the steelpan also spread to the UK, after Caribbean people were invited by the British government to come work after WW2, arriving on ships such as the Empire Windrush and the SS Arriga. People brought their instruments with them as well as the knowledge to make and tune them.

As steelpan became even more prominent, it has been taught and played in other countries around the world. So the steelpan is fairly widely used and appreciated, unlike what some may claim.

I think the steelpan became and stayed prominent because, aside from the fact that steelbands can play a variety of musical genres, British and American people could associate a ‘new’ sound with the Caribbean they may never have heard before.

Today we steelpan players perform in churches all the time, and many people love our music

Of course, some authorities did not like this type of music, including within Caribbean countries, as well as in London. For example, in Antigua, due to snobbery, the government sought to pass a law giving the police the right to confiscate the pans.

However, local steelbands created an association, and wrote in the local newspaper that the government may just as well ban other types of ‘classical’ orchestral music. This caught the attention of the then governor, Oliver Baldwin, who argued for the steelpans to continue. By the 1950s steelpans were allowed in church, and to promote products and events, though only sporadically. For example, the prominent St John’s Cathedral in Antigua only allowed steelpans in 1963.

Meanwhile, similar arguments were happening in the UK. Today we steelpan players perform in churches all the time, and many people love our music. It’s strange to think this wouldn’t have been allowed in the 1950s.

We can play calypso, Lord Kitchener – Trouble in Arima, Yellow Bird (originally, Couchane Twi Zazo, a Haitian creole) and Toots and the Mayals – Monkey Man (ska).

A video clip of us playing is below:

Our teacher, Harry was in one of the first steelbands to come to the UK called The Merrymakers. Steel orchestras have many more players than just the four we have in our band, sometimes 50 or more.

In Caribbean countries, as well as in the UK since 1978, there have are steelpan competitions called Panoramas every year. In several Caribbean countries these competitions are actually judged by the Prime Minister of each island. In the UK there is also a judging panel, and the competition between steelbands is real, with each trying to be better than their rivals. I’ve never been to a Panorama, but I’d like to go one day.

I’d like people to know that steelpan has a long history and not everything has been written down. Although it was misunderstood throughout its history, starting as a ‘working class’ instrument not being allowed in certain spaces, steelpan is now accepted and celebrated in mainstream UK society.

By sharing the musical and societal development of the steelpan, I want to prove that steelpan is a serious instrument. While not being immediately associated with protest or the working class anymore, it is still evocative of artistic creation of Black Carribeans that has now gained worldwide recognition. Musical development and ‘fine-tuning’ has increased tenor, guitar pan and basses capabilities, and led to both co-operative and band rivalry.

Steelpan is very interesting to learn. If you want to start you can. There are also steelpan apps for both Android and iPhone (like Steel Drum Piano) which I found useful to practice with during lockdown.

You can read more about steelpans here.