In praise of pan

THE EDITOR: Pan, the queen, the king, the supreme, was created, originated and manufactured in TT (1930s) and emerges as an innovation of high significance. Pan, a collective title for instruments of the steel orchestra, was born out of cultural resistance to the State’s utter neglect of depressed areas at that time. It is the world’s only percussive instrument created in the 20th century.

Rising from the underprivileged class, this invention is wrapped in mystery because undereducated people devised methods to tune metal material (discarded steel drums) to make notes of musical equivalent to organs, pianos and other orchestral instruments.

Pannists’ competence is extraordinary because they use their ears to collect and transfer melodies, without scientific knowledge, to a discarded metal surface.

Today pan’s musical status is its high capability of sound to reflect a conventional orchestra. Pan’s creation has disrupted the notion of cultural superiority.

Pan adds to the monumental role of Carnival, as it builds and strengthens community. Competitions among over 150 bands take place during many weeks prior, creating space for the society at large to accommodate worshipping audiences. Outstandingly entertaining, steel orchestras appear in several sites in TT, giving easy access to the population.

Pan is a survivor. In spite of stigmatisation and social pressure, it has deeply affected the music scene nationally, regionally and internationally. Because of its increased popularity, by the end of the 20th century it had made full alliances with calypso music and its offshoots, along with western music, to create unique musical arrangements specific for its use.

There was encouragement by the State to build communities of pan players to the point that a national steel band was formed, Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (1951), which represented our country at the Festival of Britain. Pan’s success was assimilated throughout the Caribbean.

On a global basis other countries’ involvement with pan was marked not only by the development of a network of steelbands but by their citizens’ participation in local Panorama competitions. The most noteworthy of these is Japan. However, Canada, the UK, the US, France and other European countries exhibited their attraction to pan. As a result, TT was the first to host an international conference on pan in 2015.

Pan also showed its ability to embrace academic consciousness. The Steelpan Development Centre at UWI St Augustine, as its name speaks, became a viable entity for the study of pan. Both UTT and UWI subscribe to courses in steel pan performances.

In 1963, Elliot “Ellie” Mannette (1927-2018), one of its creators, migrated to the US. An advocate of pan innovations, he specialised in tuning and teaching there. He taught at West Virginia University for more than 20 years where he was known as the “Father of the Steel Drum.”

This brief information of the pan experience serves in part as an entry into important knowledge which identifies musical cultural heritage in TT. Knowing the roots and process of development of our music provides an incentive for us to appreciate its significance for collection, preservation and dissemination.

This heritage of pan is strongly linked to others of our country’s musics. It needs to be comprehensively acknowledged beyond the circumference of disparate collections. We are encouraged by narratives such as this one to focus our thinking of the role of a progressive national music museum to assess all dimensions of our musical legacy, sound and rhythm, derived through conquest and colonisation as they survive in modernism.


Cultural Heritage

Preservation Agents of TT


"In praise of pan"

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