Take a rusty, discarded oil drum, a heavy cannon ball, a blazing fire, a hammer for the fine-tuning, plenty noise, a pair of strong arms and a pair of good ears, surrounded by a bunch of "youts" from the neighbourhood - and you get a sound that is so soft and tinkling that it could be the soundtrack to Peter Pan's flying fairy. Or, it could be a thundering sound, pounding in your ears like a horde of Mongols thundering with their horses over the steppes of Tadjikistan.
The steelband is, in the best sense, a child of the oil age, both as a musical and as a social phenomenon. It is a 20th century phenomenon, and as such has become a part of history. But let us go 8 decades back, to the 1930s.
It was a hard time in Trinidad, as it was elsewhere in the world. The great depression in the United States had also affected the British crown colony. The British Empire dragged on like a wounded elephant. England's economy was not buoyant, which meant that her raw-material producing colonies saw their markets dwindling.
In Trinidad, thousands of people had no work. Tens of thousands of others were employed at hunger wages by sugar companies or in the oil fields. It was hard for the local population to see the foreign managers live in relative wealth and distinctive comfort, whilst Trinidadians saw their children hungry, without shoes or not able to afford school books.
However, people were far from being apathetic. For about 50 years now, the local reform movement had been attracting brave hearts and bright minds, who tried to walk the fine line between illegal sedition and necessary speaking up for His Majesty's subjects. Inspired by the Russian Revolution and Marcus Garvey's black nationalism, the reform movement and the budding union movement was relevant for Trinidadians of all skin tones and many social backgrounds, who sought social justice for themselves and for their countrymen and women.
They called their demonstrations "Hunger Marches", bringing to a point what it was all about. Retrenchment, undignified and unsanitary housing conditions, a lack of education and future prospects were things that the majority of the people had to live with in those years (not only in Trinidad, it must be remembered, but in the western world all over). It was not only workers who took to the streets, bringing sugar production and oil production to a halt, but also members of the educated black and coloured middle classes, who had been the true Creole backbone of the colony for many generations.
People like Elma Francois, Captain A.A. Cipriani and Uriah Butler emerged in the political arena. Civic courage was contagious: the calling for local representation gave birth to a whole artistic movement, a first independent Trinidadian expression, in particular in the writing arena: C.L.R. James, Alfred Mendes, Ralph de Boissière to name just a few. A couple years later, also Albert Gomes, who excelled in both, the political and the writers vocation. Free-thinking newspapers came on the scene, first and foremost "The Beacon".
The emergence of the steelband towards the end of the 1930s can be seen as a noisy, rhythmical, carnevalesque interpretation of what was left for local people: scraps (in this case scrap metal). At the beginning, it was not more than percussion, getting together and making noise with brake pads, biscuit tins and other metal pieces. But quickly, the tins got “tuned”, and the bigger oil drums started to be used.
Steelband became yet another musical expression of the African diaspora, and as such a part of that 20th century musical phenomenon that influenced popular music like no other. In the Caribbean, African musical expressions mixed with the relevant European administrative culture, creating such distinct genres like merengue and rumba in the Spanish islands, bele and compas in the French Antilles, and reggae and calypso in the British West Indies. With the exception of reggae, it is interesting how localised those artforms remained: just listen to your radio in Trinidad and try to find Cuban mambo or Martiniquan zouk!
Steelband, however, is not a musical genre, and was able to “travel”, so much so that the whole Caribbean now identifies with it as a folk artform. It seems to have been just what the tourist industry and the media needed!
The emergence of the Steelband is closely linked with Carnival. Carnival, a Catholic custom, was brought to Trinidad by the French settlers in the 1780s. At first, the African slaves were not permitted to participate in the celebrations and masked balls of the French families. However, they were allowed to celebrate “canboulay”, when lit torches were carried through the street to mark the end of the sugar cane harvest - a custom which has been recently adopted in the popular “Crop Over” Festival of Barbados.
Before the abolition of slavery in 1834, the life of the African slaves did not take place in a cultural vacuum, however. The dominant culture of Trinidad was French, albeit the fact that the administration was British since 1797. Syncretic cultural expressions like Shango, Santeria and Voodoo (mixed of Catholicism and the African pantheon) are as much part of this syncretism as are Carnival, stickfight, bele dancing and other folklore that have their roots in the first decades of the 19th century. Steelband can be seen as a 20th century extension of that syncretism, albeit with other parameters: trash from the industrial society was used in a rebellious movement against a ruling ethnical minority.
With emancipation, Carnival changed dramatically. The former slaves and their offspring started to participate in it. The first “noisy” devices were added to revelries: kettles, salt boxes, chac-chacs etc. Carnival definitely lost its “polite” upper class touch immediately! The Europeans started to shun this kind of Carnival, which they called “Jamette Carnival”, the Carnival of those beyond the circle of polite society. Stick fighters, shantwells, drummers, prostitutes and bad johns! This was only to change towards the turn of the 20th century, when the “upper classes” once again took part in the festival.
With this, the Trini Carnival was quickly approaching a format that was to last for another century. Competitions were held in the various categories, and the raucousness of the street festival often clashed with the ideas of the British authorities as how His or Her Majesty’s subjects should behave!
Steelband started in 1937 or 1938, when “Alexander Ragtime Band” from Newtown, formerly the Calvary Tamboo Bamboo Band, came out to play. Their leader was “Lord Humbugger” Forde. The pans were made of paint tins, biscuit tins, linseed oil tins, carbide pans, zinc buckets and dustbin cover. Tuned into two notes, they were beat furiously and rhythmically together with the tamboo bamboo. What a novelty! What a spectacle! No wonder it caught!
A year later, the pan craze brought forth many more steelbands, all from depressed areas with great poverty. Inspired by the American cinema, the tradition of bombastic names was started: Destination Tokyo, Sun Valley, Hellyard, Cross of Lorraine, Red Army. It was the eve of World War II, which also was reflected in the steelband names.
From 1942 to 1945, Carnival was banned due to the war. It seems to have been a gestation period for the steelband. When in 1945 victory was celebrated by the allied forces and Trinidadians had a spontaneous Carnival in the middle of the year, steelbands joined in the street party with much refined instruments. The dudups of the pre-war days was joined by the first tenor pans made of oil drums, called “ping pong”.
From then on, there was no turning back for the development of this instrument. Socially, the steelband went the way of a lot of popular music of the second half of the 20th century. Much like ragtime, jazz, rock & roll, it all started with a couple rebellious youths from depressed urban areas, and ended up some 50 years later in dignified symphonic orchestra halls, carrying Trinidad’s indigenous musical genre (calypso) far beyond the island’s shores.