The Steel Pan

The 77th Session of the United General Assembly in New York, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) formally declared 11 August as “World Steel Pan Day”.  

Do you know the history of this unique instrument and its impact? 

The history of the “steel pan” or “steel drums” as it is sometimes referred to, can be traced back to Africans slaves who were brought to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago during the 1700’s.

Their drumming of any type of metal, pans, pots, dustbins, or tins gave rise to its rustic sound.  After World War II, around 1947, there was a surplus of used 55-gallon oil drums that were discarded by the oil refineries on the island.  Inspirationally, these drums were cut into small bowls, then pounded with a hammer to form various distinct resonating surfaces.  Much later, as competitions between various pan yards within local communities started to occur, inspiration gave rise to the innovative use of high quality steel to enhance the unique resonating sounds that are heard today.

The steel pan is now the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, which is quite fitting for an instrument that was forged from the resilience of a people that were subjected to suppression and hardship!  The steelpan is not only a musical instrument.  Its tonal ability is able to be adapted to a seamlessly broad range of genres from soca to calypso; reggae to jazz as well as classical music.  Its sound has delighted many an audience across the globe.    

The innovation of the steel pan characterizes the symbol of Trinidad’s cultural heritage as well as inspiring a sense of pride amongst its citizens.  It enhances gender equality as more women are visible playing ‘pan’ today.  It enhances educational opportunities as many a school curriculum includes learning to ‘play the pan’.  It promotes well being in the young unemployed who are encouraged to learn to tune and thus play the steel pan. It also promotes community sustainability both for rural and small communities and contributes to the socio-economic development by generating income for small businesses.  

Declaration of World Steel Pan Day is a global acknowledgement of this renowned traditional musical instrument, that had its humble beginnings in Trinidad, West Indies, in the 1930’s.  It was later embraced by most of the West Indian countries.  Some of Trinidad and Tobago’s talented citizens have played the steel pan in many countries of the world to generous applause.

The Assembly invited stakeholders to observe World Steelpan Day, through activities aimed at raising awareness of the cultural and historical significance of the steelpan as well as its link to sustainable development.  Acknowledging that the steelpan promotes inclusive societies, sustainable communities and the creative economy and can have a positive impact on mental health and well-being, gender equality and youth empowerment.

From the steel pan’s humble beginnings it has evolved into a world class recognized genre of music.  It will continue to be an adaptable distinctive renowned genre with world wide significance. 

Let us all remember on August 11 to celebrate with great aplomb “World Steel Pan Day”.

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