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In The Beginning

Steelpan music originated on the island of Trinidad. "Behind the Bridge" refers to the area on the lower east side of Port-of-Spain in Trinidad. After slavery was abolished in 1837, Trinidadians of African heritage settled in the east of the "Dry River", which was connected to the rest of the city by a solitary bridge. The neighbourhood was the home to the Orisha religion, culture and drumming and this way of life flourished despite being banned by the British Colonial authorities who thought that the drums would send messages and incite social unrest.

The people, deprived of their drums, started to use bamboo sticks which produced a rhythmic sound when pounded on the ground. The varied lengths allowed them to make different sounds. These were known as Tamboo Bamboo and bands of many players began to form. These bands were the direct forerunners of the Steel Band. A century later in the 1930s, the Steelpan was born when people began to use tins and cans and discovered that if you hammered the surface to different degrees you could create a variety of notes. Pan music developed rapidly in the 1930s and 40s and produced legendary figures such as Winston "Spree" Simon, Neville Jules, Rudolph "Fish Eye" Olliverre, Rudolph Charles and Ellie Mannette. Today, some of the most outstanding Steel Bands still come from "Behind the Bridge".


Winston "Spree" Simon
The two most important influences which helped to give birth to Pan were the drumming traditions of both Africa and India. It's not completely clear as to who was the first to have bridged the gap between "Bamboo" and "Pan" but the first "Melody Pan" was made in early 1940 by a man called Winston "Spree" Simon who was probably the first 'panman'. It had 8 notes, capable of playing simple tunes and was the forerunner of the eventual Tenor Pan. Experimentation continued; more bands were formed as breakaways from the original Tamboo Bamboo bands including Tropical Harmony, the Fascinators Steelband and the Crusaders Steelband, always the trend was to find newer, louder and more musical sounds. The main driving force behind the fascination with large-scale music-making was the Carnival.

The Carnival stems from the few times that African drummers were allowed to play to celebrate church festivals and during the ceremony of the Cannes Brulee, which was the occasion where sugar canes were burned before reaping began. There was a procession accompanied by the drummers. In 1945 Carnivals were taking place with drummers using un-tuned pots, pans, oil drums, biscuit tins, and even garbage cans and a primitive melodic line was introduced.

Further Musical Development

The biscuit tin was actually considered the first true Pan. The tin was hung around the player's neck upside down, and the base was struck drum-style with the edge of an open palm, or closed fist. Around this time a drummer called 'Fish Eye' from a band called Hell Yard found that by bending a piece of reinforcement steel into a triangle shape and hanging it from his thumb, he could produce such tunes as 'Mary Had A Little Lamb'. This piece of metal was named the 'Ping-Pong' from the sound it made.

By 1946 Winston "Spree" Simon who developed the 'Melody Pan' had a refined version capable of producing fourteen separate notes and was asked to give a recital during that year's Carnival which featured calypso music and hymns. The audience, which included the Governor, loved every minute of it and from this time on, Pan was taken seriously by the nation's musical circles. In 1951, Trinidad was invited to send a Steel Band to the Festival of Britain to the South Bank Exhibition in England.

In 1960, Bertie Marshall and Anthony Williams introduced harmonic tunings, extended range of orchestra, Bass Pans on wheels (entire bands on wheels) and Dixieland Steel Orchestra won the prestigious Island-Wide Music Festival. An international festival, the World Steel Band Music Festival, has been held intermittently in Trinidad since 1964, where Steel Bands perform in a concert-style ambiance a test piece (sometimes specially composed, or a selected calypso) a piece of choice (very often a "classic" or European Art-music work) and calypso of choice.

During Carnival celebrations in Trinidad, the largest Steel Band contest in the world called Panorama, takes place. A Panorama Band can be up to 40 musicians, larger than a symphony orchestra and is the world's largest musical ensemble! Steel Bands today perform at major concert halls around the world, including the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall. It's an amazing phenomenon as there are Steel Bands in most European countries including Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland.

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