The Origins of Steel Pan

Explore the creation of steel pans in Trinidad and Tobago, the popularisation of steel bands in Notting Hill Carnival, and the development of the UK National Panorama competition.

By Notting Hill Carnival

Tenor Steel Pan (2021/2021) by Marlowe McCaffreyNotting Hill Carnival

The History of Steel Pan

The steel pan (also known as steel drums, or ‘pan’) was created in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s. It was established in contexts of Carnival resistance, its history being traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the Caribbean in the 1700s. 

Ellie Mannette crafting instrumentNotting Hill Carnival

The Birth of Steel Pan

Following emancipation in 1834, former slaves were allowed to participate in Trinidadian Carnival activities. However, African-descended percussive performance was heavily targeted by restrictive government bills, sparking protests and demonstrations.

Ellie Mannette crafting instrumentNotting Hill Carnival

These protests facilitated the development of improvisational and non-traditional percussive instruments out of scrap metal, metal containers, dustbins and bamboo stamping tubes. These 'Tamboo Bamboo' bands are widely accepted as the precursor to modern steel bands.

Music From Oil Drums (1956/1956)Notting Hill Carnival

How are Steel Pans made?

In the 1930s, it was realised that the convex dent at the bottom of metal drums could be tuned to distinct musical pitches and could therefore produce recognisable melodies, marking the creation of the first steel pans. 

Here, watch a 4 minute video of how steel pans were made in 1956 in Trinidad and Tobago.

Ebony Steel Band (1992/1992)Notting Hill Carnival

The Development of Steel Pans

By 1955, pans had become standardised and were largely constructed from 55-gallon oil drums, being played by striking the metal with a wooden ‘stick’ or ’beater’. These developments set the stage for the popularisation of steel pan as we know it today. 

Steel Band (1951/1951)Notting Hill Carnival

How did the Steel Pan become popularised in the U.K.?

In 1951, the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) arrived in the UK to perform at the Festival of Britain, receiving overwhelmingly positive public feedback.

Watch archival footage of their performance below.

Sterling Betancourt by UnknownNotting Hill Carnival

The Introduction of Steel Pan to Notting Hill Carnival

Some TASPO players remained in the UK, establishing pan in Europe. Several individuals, including Russell Henderson and TASPO’s Sterling Betancourt (pictured) formed ‘The Russell Henderson Calypso Band’, who, in 1966, were approached by Rhaune Laslett to take part in a small event she was organising in Notting Hill.

Ebony Steel Band on the Road (1989/1989)Notting Hill Carnival

Steel Pan's Influence on Notting Hill Carnival

Steel pan ensembles, steel bands, are now an iconic fixture of Notting Hill Carnival. Pan soon became solidified as one of its ‘five key arts’, popularised on parade floats during Carnival Sunday and Monday. 

T&T Panorama Flyer (1963/1963)Notting Hill Carnival

Guinness Cavaliers Steel Orchestra
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Panorama

Panorama is an annual steelband competition which began in 1963 in Trinidad and Tobago. The UK Panorama competition began in 1978 and is famously associated with Kensal Road in North Kensington.

Here you can listen to a recording of the Trinidad and Tobago 1965 Panorama winners, the Guinness Cavalier’s Steel Orchestra.

Mangrove Steel Band (2018/2018) by Robbie JosephNotting Hill Carnival

The U.K. National Panorama Competition

In the U.K. competition, much like its Trinidadian counterpart, bands grow to 100+ players, performing a 10-minute arrangement of a soca tune. Unfortunately, Panorama was cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, however the U.K. Panorama competition is returning in 2021.

Listen to Mangrove Steelband's winning rendition of Kes' 'Savannah Grass' for the 2019 U.K. National Panorama Competition.

Notting Hill Carnival, Access All Areas 2020 - Steel Band Highlights (2020/2020) by Notting Hill Carnival LtdNotting Hill Carnival

Notting Hill Carnival 2020: Access All Areas

Here watch a compilation of some of the performances from Notting Hill Carnival 2020: Access All Areas, streamed online during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Explore our other stories to Meet the Steel Bands, and be sure to catch them on the road at next year's carnival!

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