The steel pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. It is the most important acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. The steel pan owes its genesis to the carnival festivals of that era. It emerged as the product of the energy of the people directed towards cultural self-expression. The steelpan therefore became a cultural vehicle forged from the historical and social conditions prevailing at that time. Its development was moulded by the ethnic influences of our heritage.

Carnival celebrations in the late 1800’s were marked by disturbances which prompted the authorities to prohibit the unlicensed playing of all percussion, string and wood-wind instruments by way of legal ordinance. This led to the development of the Tamboo-Bamboo as a musical instrument. The Tamboo-Bamboo was made from bamboo cut to various lengths and its sound was produced by stamping onto the ground. Carnival celebrations in the five decades from 1884 to the late 1930s witnessed the growing rhythms of Tamboo-Bamboo musical ensembles in street processions with accompanying brass and string instrumental bands.

Several problems with the bamboo material, including its tendency to splinter easily, resulted in experimentation with other materials such as metal containers, to produce various sound effects. These experiments resulted in the discovery of the steel drum since it proved to be more durable than other material and capable of greater tonal versatility.

This drum, originally used to store petroleum, evolved into the steel pan by making cross-sections cut into the 55-gallon metal container. Through further experimentation, percussive sounds of various pitches were produced by indenting and tempering the concave metal surface. The steel drum therefore was used in the creation of what is known today as the steel pan, and although there have been several competing claims to its invention, it is generally accepted that the steel pan was first made around 1939 in Trinidad and Tobago.

Carnival of 1940 witnessed the first public appearance of the steel pan and it has since evolved through the ingenious innovations of various contributors. These innovations have resulted in instruments of different tonal ranges which now comprise the musical ensemble of the modern steelband.

The steelpan has risen from the deprived urban tenements of Port-of-Spain where it was forged, to acceptance and promotion by the international community. What has brought this instrument forward onto the world stage was the devotion, talent and industry of its early followers. This is a significant achievement in the face of the financial obstacles and disdain by society for the thuggery and violence once associated with it.


Over the six decades of its existence the steel pan has evolved into a musical instrument of great versatility. Combined into its own orchestra called the steelband, the steel pan can be tuned to play various scales within a diverse arrangements of music. The modern steelband or steel orchestra can successfully reproduce the compositions of pop, jazz, calypso, the work of classical European composers and other musical forms.

Also retained from the tamboo-bamboo bands in the evolution of the modern steelband is the ‘engine room’ or the percussive element which allows the band to keep its timing. The 'bottle and spoon', maracas (shac-shac) and various assortments of iron, make up the elements of the ‘engine room’.




  • The tenor pans or frontline pans consist of the high tenor (soprano), low tenor and double tenor. These instruments usually carry the melody of the band and have the highest pitch. The tenor pan has the shortest skirt length, is lightweight and can, if needed, be strung around the neck.


  • The guitars, quadrophones and cellos are known as the the mid-range pans. The chords from these instruments are used to support the melody played by the frontline pans.The single, double and triple guitar pans are the highest in this section and are used for strumming. The quadrophones are a set of four used for melody and harmony.


  • The background pans are the basses: the tenor bass, the six-bass, 9-bass and the high bass. These are the lowest pitched instruments, and provide the harmonic and melodic chords for the steelband.

A conventional steelband may have up to 120 members and instruments in the following categories as illustrated below:

  STEEL PAN or other Instrument TONAL RANGE
Frontline Pans High Tenor Steel Pan

28 to 30 notes
Tonal range: D4 to D6

Low Tenor Steel Pan

28 to 30 notes
Tonal range: C4 and G6

Double Tenor Steel Pan Tonal range: F#3 – Bb5
Mid-Range Pans Guitar Steel Pan 20 notes:
Tonal range: C3 and G#4
Quadrophones Steel Pan 36 notes:
Tonal range: B2 and Bb5
Cellos Steel Pan Triple Cell Cello: Tonal Range B2 to C#5
Four Cell Cello: Tonal Range G2 to D5
Background Pans 6-Bass Steel Pan Six pans of 3-notes = 18 notes.
Tonal range: A1 and F3
9-Bass Steel Pan nine pans of 3-notes = 18 notes.
Tonal range: G1 - C4
12-Bass Steel Pan Twelve pans of 3-notes = 18 notes
Tenor Bass Tonal range: F2 C4
Engine Room Conga Drums  
Guiro (scratcher)
Iron (assorted)


The early development of the steelband took place in the decades of the 1930 and 1940s. The steel pan was first played strung around the neck of the performer and is often referred to as a Traditional Steelband or 'Pan-Round-De-Neck.' Carrying the steelpan in this manner restricted the repertoire of the band to the lighter weighted instruments.

The growing need for mobility gave rise to the development of the conventional steelband with its wheeled, and sometimes canopied carriages, which were pushed by ardent supporters. These carriages are still used today by conventional bands which may number up to 120 musicians or panmen. Some bands however, have resorted to having their carraiges propelled by heavy duty vehicles.

The progression of the size of the modern steelband and the methods used to transport them has been attained through the inspiration and combined efforts of its innovators, and those who support and direct the artform, such as the fabricators, musicians (panmen and panwomen), pan tuners, musical arrangers, organizing bodies and sponsors - who make up the pan movement or industry. This combination of effort and devotion defines the present versatility of the steel pan in the ensemble of the modern steelband.


A typical steelband is normally led by a captain who, in addition to being an experienced player, has well-developed musical insight and ability. A large band may also have section leaders whose job is to support the captain by passing on his knowledge and skill to the other members of the orchestra.

A typical steelband musical orchestra can reproduce melodies from various genres of music. Once a composition or song has been written or selected for use by the steelband, the musical arrangement begins. This musical arrangement involves reproducing the melody of the chosen piece of music by adapting it to the interplay of the various sections of the steel orchestra.

In the case of the steelpan, there are musical arrangers, whose task is to determine the range of sound from the chosen composition. A steel orchestra may also have a musical conductor, whose task it is to harmonize the individual characteristics of each instrument from the musical score.

The list of those who have pioneered innovations in the steelpan is comprehensive. The most prominent on that list include individuals such as:

Winston “Spree” Simon, 1930 - 1976
A resident of John John in Port-of-Spain, Winston 'Spree' Simon is famous for his role in the development of the 'ping pong' which became the tenor pan of today. He was also a proficient player of the instrument, and showcased, through concerts, the possibilities of the instrument. He held performances both locally and abroad, playing calypsoes and classical tunes. It is believed by some that he was the inventor of the steelpan.

Ellie Mannette 1927 - 
Ellie Mannette is responsible for developing the concept of the concave sinking to the steel pan surface rather than convex. Skilled with the tenor pan, he is also the creator of the double seconds, as well as the concept of having rubber attached to the end to the playing stick. He currently resides in the United States and is the founder of a steelpan manufacturing company.

Online Resources: Mannette Musical Instruments


  • Ellie Mannette
  • Ray Holman
  • Ken "Professor" Philmore
  • Jit Samaroo
  • Len "Boogsie" Sharpe
  • Jim "Boss" Wharton
  • Andy Narell
  • Liam Teague
  • Robert Greenidge


The Trinidad and Tobago Steelband Association, the precursor to the present representative body Pan Trinbago, was establishment in 1950. Pan Trinbago was formed to promote the development of the steelband as a musical artform. In this regard, from 1950 onwards, concerts and festivals were organised and held for steelbands. Pan Trinbago is now the official body representing the local steelband industry.

Starting in 1963, the Panorama steelband competition was inaugurated as an annual pre-carnival event and today, it has evolved into the premiere steelband competition in Trinidad and Tobago. Open to conventional steelbands, a preliminary round of competitions is held in five designated zones throughout the country beginning in January and continuing to the weekend before carnival. During this time, steelbands from all zones vie for supremacy. The grand final of the competion, Panorama, is held on the Saturday before Carnival, heralding in Sunday's Dimanche Gras competition and the greatest show on earth - Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

Other steelband competitions include:

  • Junior Panorama competition, held for secondary schools steelband
  • World Steelband Festival: is a biennial event started in 1998. Last held in London, England in August-October 2004. It was held under the Auspices of Pan Trinbago and the Pan European and British Association of Steelbands.
  • The Jouvert Bomb Competition - usually held on Carnival Monday, it features steelbands doing rapid transitions from one melody to another.
  • Pan Ramajay, held each year in May
  • Pan Jazz Festival, first held in 1988, now held annually in November of each year

Bacchanal denotes the merry-making and noisy confusion of those engaged in any carnival activity.


See Savannah.


A ‘bottle and spoon’, refers to the musical effect of a glass bottle being struck with a metal spoon. It is a common element in the engine room of a steelband.


The slow mincing shuffle of carnival revellers following the rhythm of music from a mobile steelband or disc-jockey.


French for Grand Sunday' or 'Fat Sunday': Dimanche Gras is the Sunday before Carnival Monday. The Calypso Monarch Competition and the Carnival king and Queen Costume competition are held in the Savannah on Dimache Gras night.


The percussion section of a steelband which provides the timing for the musical rhythm.


The Flag Woman performs an enthusiastic flag-waving dance during the live performance of her steelband. This energetic task was formerly performed by a male.


The 'iron man' is the virtuoso percussionist in the engine room of the steelband. His enthusiastic rhythmic pounding of metal provides timing for the steelband musicians.


A lime is any informal socializing and/or recreation in a relaxed environment.


The stands on the northern side of the stage at the Queens Park Savannah favoured by the less inhibited, and sometimes more unruly audience because of its bacchanal atmosphere.


Pan Trinbago is the official body which represents the interests of the steelband movement.


Held since 1963 Panorama is the premiere steelband competition of the carnival season.

PING PONG The Ping Pong is another name for the tenor pan especially in the early stages of its development.

To ramajay is to improvise on a given tune in competition with other pannists.


The Queens Park Savannah, also called the Big Yard, is the venue for the judging the main events of carnival: Panorama, Parade of the Bands and Dimanche Gras. Located in Port-of-Spain it is approximately 199 acres in area.


The steel pan is the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago. Made from discarded oil drums, it is the only musical instrument invented in the 20th century.


[French: 'Tambour' for drum]. The musical instrument made from bamboo tubes used in Carnival during the period 1884 to the 1930s before the invention of theSteel Pan.