The Legacy of the Steel Drum
“It seems probable that the steel drum is destined to spread through still other parts of the world than the West Indies, perhaps in each country adapting itself to local popular-folk traditions.”
—Pete Seeger, 1958
While the sound of steel drums may evoke feelings of leisure for many around the globe, their history is deeply embedded in protest, oppression and poverty. In their relative youth, having only been invented in the mid-20th century in the slums of Trinidad, the question remains about the nature of the legacy of the steel drums as a form of protest and symbol of resiliency. Has the popularization of the steel drum, or steelpan, led to a silencing of the true history and implications of the use of the instrument, or has the popularization of the steel drum led to a broadcasting of this sentiment on a whole new scale? In my research, I have sought to analyze the steel drum’s origins, the ways popular artists have thought about the use of the steel pan in their own music, the way communities in Trinidad and elsewhere have adopted the steelpan into daily life, and the intentions of those who have sought to popularize the instrument. In this way, I am able to more accurately gauge the level of protest-related symbolism that was originally associated with the steel drum.
Trinidad, while at times occupied by Spain, the Netherlands and France, was eventually overtaken by British colonizers around the turn of the 19th century. Prior, though, a huge amount of French colonizers immigrated to the island, bringing with them many African slaves. Thus, the island was deeply entrenched in French culture, and the annual celebration of Carnaval was a major staple of French occupation. However, African slaves were not allowed to partake in these celebrations and were forced to create their own alternative celebration, named Canboulay. This celebration was highlighted by the burning of sugar cane fields, street festivities, and African drumming. Following emancipation by the British government in 1834, these festivities became larger and larger, transforming into what were deemed riotous and disorderly functions by the 1880’s.
It was in this context that the British government banned the use of drums in the 1880’s- some sources suggest partially “out of fear that they were being used to communicate secret messages”. The colonizers attempted to push melodic instruments on the lower class, whose subsequent rejection symbolized the dawn of the Tamboo Bamboo movement. Four separate instruments were developed out of bamboo sticks, whose creation and use were both symbols of revolt for the Trinidadian underclass, an “art form [that] remained a nucleus of musical and political expression throughout the 1930s”. These sticks, which were beaten against the ground percussively but also often used violently by street gangs, were also outlawed by the British authorities, and thus they served even more as a symbol of resilience, non-compliance and impoverishment. Following the banning of these sticks, many sought to create instruments out of anything they could find on the street, including garbage lids, metal dust pins and old car parts. With the construction of US military bases and oil refineries on the island during World War II, there became a large supply of empty 55-gallon oil drums, which were then modified by young members of the Trinidadian underclass to create a 12-tone instrument, the steelpan. Immediately the instrument became an important part of street festivals and soon “ascended from the most depressed areas of society” as foreign audiences discovered their sound. In the context of colonial suppression of Afro-Trinidadian culture, the steelpan’s protest value lied in its symbolism of resistance and resiliency against the banning of other drums, and in its ability to communicate, loudly, the sentiment that their culture could not be squashed, but would only take new forms.
Though the steel drum was born out of impoverished oppression and symbolized a defiant attitude towards authority, it is unclear if this legacy lives on, or if the use of the steel drum in other contexts has voided the significance of its history. An obvious first place to look was at Trinidad’s most emblematic musical tradition: calypso. Calypso, one of the main vehicles for the use of the steel drum in music, has a long history of being massively political. Calypso itself, a tradition far older than the steel drum, is rooted in the use of storytelling through song, “offering social commentary through praise, satire or lament” that often times mocked slave-masters or politicians. These stories were often recited in music at Canboulay, serving a political purpose much like Bamboo sticks or steel drums had. With the advent of recording technology, artists like Attila the Hun and the Mighty Terror carried on this tradition to wider audiences, serving as both “a means of communicating and interpreting political events, and a primary news source for many islanders”. Thus, the music was a form of protest both in it’s message and in virtue of its general ability to inform people of current events; as Douglas McAdams would point out, this was a helpful strategic framing effort insofar as calypso artists were able to control and shape narratives to their liking.
This tradition of Calypso as a political force is highlighted by the first three winning songs of the Calypso King Competition founded in 1939, which were named “Trade Union”, “Rise and Fall of the British Empire”, and “Adolf Hitler” respectively. Even today the tradition of Calypso as a political music tradition lives on in Trinidad. While there is skepticism about the way in which calypso music is interpreted by many Western audiences (and perhaps misappropriated), as recent as 2003, songs like Contender’s “More Elections the Better” have been popular in Trinidad. This reflects a rebellious spirit which is still ostensibly alive in Calypso music. The extent to which steel drums, a central feature of Calypso music since the instrument’s inception, are symbolic of this rebelliousness requires further investigation.
The story of calypso in American popular music suggests that the steel drum has largely been silenced as a form of symbolic and communicative protest. Calypso entered the American mainstream with the Andrews Sisters 1945 rendition of a Trinidadian folk-song “Rum and Coca-Cola”, which was written as a protest song against prostitutes servicing American military personnel in Trinidad. The Andrews Sisters, though, make no mention of prostitution in their version of the song, and lines such as “both mother and daughter/ working for the Yankee dollar” take on entirely different meanings in the American context. This is reminiscent of the analytical framework of Michel-Rolph Trouillot in his Silencing the Past, where he argues that language itself is inherently subjective and can be manipulated for different purposes in different contexts. Even America’s biggest calypso sensation, Harry Belafonte- an artist celebrated for his political activism- was written off as “Manhattan Calypso” by contemporary Trinidadian artist Geoffrey Holder, despite his use of steel pan accompanyists. While a commercial success, Belafonte’s version of Calypso typically focused on sunny, romantic adventures as opposed to political or satirical musings. Some speculate that “the use of pans may have been primarily symbolic” for Belafonte insofar as he utilized them in live performance but very little in studio recordings. Whether it was meant to symbolize resistance or ‘fun in the sun’ is unclear, and perhaps it symbolized either one for specific audiences. In any case, the political affiliations of Belafonte do not necessarily seem to extend his music or his use of the steel drum.
This probably has to do in part with the slow adoption of the steel drum into middle and upper class life in Trinidad itself. The stigma of the steel plan as an instrument of the underclass was originally so intense that Cliff Alexis, a steel pan pioneer and builder/tuner for the US Navy Steel Pan Band, lied to his family about his involvement with the instrument, explaining that “a decent person would not be caught dead with steel drum players”. As David Graeber suggests is common in his Possibilities, this status as a form of dissent led to “constant police harassment” for pannists; the police were frequently “summoned by decent and respectable citizens of society”, which furthered the instrument’s symbolic value as a form of resilience from such authority. However, this all changed in the 1950’s, when middle and upper class people began to accept the steelpan as a legitimate cultural tradition. This process happened partially due to a desire among elites to forge a new cultural identity at a time when Trinidad was slowing moving towards becoming an independent nation. Further, the performances of popular dancer Beryl McBurnie, who had adopted the use of all-steel percussion orchestras in the mid 1940’s at the Little Carib theatre in Trinidad, led to an intermingling of the underclass and elites. McBurnie was widely popular and attended Columbia University, and thus her acceptance of steel drums led to a legitimation of steel drums and their “pure intentions as a cultural expression”. In this scenario, the steel drum was used to bridge a gap between the slums and the upper class through a common appreciation; perhaps its status as an instrument of dissent may have been lost during this time period, insofar as the context of active elite suppression was beginning to fade.
However, a class divide still persisted within the usage of steel drums. Not all members of society accepted the instrument; one critic wrote in the Trinidadian Guardian that “There is a terrific amount of rot talked about “culture” these days, and if steel bands are to fall into this category, I prefer to remain a savage and listen to Mozart.”. Such harsh reviews were undoubtedly part of the media’s broader attempt to silence the steelpan in tandem with the state, a phenomenon that David Graeber lays out in his Possibilities. However, these attempts perhaps only worked to further embolden the steel drum as a form of protest, insofar as they sought to religitamate the class divide that was perhaps beginning to crumble for the steelpan during this period. All that aside, with the formation of the Trinidadian All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO), an orchestra which traveled to England and beyond during the 1950’s and was partially funded by the Trinidadian government, it seemed that all class levels had begun to see the value of the steel drum. For the underclass, it was a valuable form of expression and protest, for the Trinidadian elites it was a marker of their culture in a global context, and for the English it was one of the many cultural gems of their global empire. Many middle-class pannists were taught how to play by their underclass counterparts in the 1950’s, but most of these new players chose to “form steelbands of their own” so as to disassociate from the impoverished (Martin). Thus, the steel drum did not fully bridge a gap between these two facets of society, but was in some sense appropriated by the Trinidadian middle class, again posing problems for the symbolic and communicative protest value of the instrument.
This had political implications for the working-class Trinidadians who had invented the steel drum in the spirit of revolt and dissent. As the steelpan began to garner greater social importance, politicians recognized the value of the steelpan in gaining support in marginalized areas. In the early 1950’s, politicians would offer jobs and instruments in return for pannists campaigning around them and spreading the word to their families and communities. This practice was perfected in 1956 by Eric Williams, the leader of the new People’s National Movement (PNM), an Afro-Trinidadian political party whose primary political goal was decolonization and independence. William’s movement promoted ideas of “self-government in internal affairs, internal economic development, and the refashioning of the educational system” in Trinidad. While the party had middle-class support and leadership, it was deeply popular among African communities and had a grassroots appeal for many poor areas of society.
Williams regularly visited panyards in underprivileged areas and employed steelband leaders as his personal assistants. He established work programs in steelpan neighborhoods plagued by gang violence, using this new labour to clean up potholes and other defective infrastructure in said communities. Panmen were often recruited for protection while campaigning, as well as to perform at rallies themselves. One of these panmen, Bertie Marshall, explains that him and his bandmates were even named ‘PNM’ “simply because we performed at everything the PNM had…”. Thus, the centrality of panmen and the steelpan in the ascent of Trinidad’s first successful African nationalist and anti-colonial political movement can not be understated. While the use of the steelpan was sought after by politicians only as the instrument gained broader support in Trinidadian society, it does not take away from the fact that the symbolism of the steel pan as a form of protest against elites and British colonialists was central to communicating an authentic message for Afro-Trinidadian unity, power and independence. Further, it doesn’t take away from the fact that pannists themselves were able attach themselves to the People’s National Movement itself as a form of protest against that status-quo of colonial dominance, and thereby support programs that would better their own communities.
Thus, in the 1950’s we see a dichotomy between the legacy of the steel drum in Trinidad and for Western audiences. With the growing popularity of ‘Manhattan Calypso’ in the US, artists like Harry Belafonte created steel drum music which was seemingly stripped of its political content, both lyrically and musically, in a deliberate attempt to commercialize. However, in Trinidad, the steel drum was arguably alive as ever as a symbol of protest against colonial elites, despite it’s adoption into middle and upper class life. For some audiences, the pan’s history is silenced in virtue of its commercialization and lack of context, and for others it’s history is as amplified through the hopeless intertwining of pannists and the People’s National Movement. The question of the steel pan’s resonance as a form of protest as whole is still, then, largely inconclusive.
To dig deeper into the legacy of the steel pan, one must also address the nature of the steel pan within the “hundreds of college, primary school, and community-based steel drum ensembles spread throughout the country” in the United States. While such bands exist largely in suburban, middle-class neighborhoods, their inception and function is rooted in the spirit of protest and dissent. The introduction of the steel drum into American life was not just done by Harry Belafonte and Trinidadian migrants; American folk-legend and social activist Pete Seeger played a crucial role in the popularization and accessibility of the instrument in the US. After being blacklisted by a number of music venues for his radical politics, Seeger traveled to Trinidad to capture the plight and culture of pannists, as well as instructions for building steel drums, in a short film entitled Music From Oil Drums (1956). Seeger promises to the natives in the video to “tell the true story of Trinidad, as true as I can tell it, wherever I go”, likely alluding to the largely fraudulent commercialized image of the Caribbean in the US. The steel drum intrigued Seeger because he believed in its value as a protest instrument in the context of the US, claiming in a letter to that it was “something for a gang of young people to latch on to, and let the whole world know that they are around”. Seeger makes clear his knowledge of the “political nature of steel drums in Trinidad and their function as a vehicle for protest and cultural awareness for the oppressed classes” and his belief in its ability for “the elevation of the poor and working class”. Thus, the use of steel drums by youth in America was at least intended to serve as a platform for protest, and to be accessible by all regardless of socioeconomic stature. This legacy is unclear, but seems to be diminished insofar as steel drum orchestras and music programs in general are less common in underprivileged areas in the US; it seems Pete Seeger’s vision of making the steel drum a protest instrument for the American underclass has largely gone unrealized. Perhaps this relates to Seeger’s narrow perception of the steelpan as a protest instrument in virtue of its accessibility and communicative qualities, as opposed to the specific context of cultural suppression which enhanced the effectiveness of said qualities.
It is perhaps inappropriate to equivocate the use of the steel drum as a form of protest in the Trinidadian slums with the use, or attempted use, of the drums for state-sanctioned programs or even for use in political campaigns in Trinidad itself. As illustrated by Erin Pineda’s article comparing the civil disobedience of the Civil Rights Movement with the actions of Edward Snowden, context matters heavily when considering such comparisons. The poor communities in San Juan or Port of Spain created and used the steel drum because of historical conjecture; Afro-Trinidadians had a long cultural history of using rhythmic instruments, colonial elites had banned other types of drums, and there was an abundance of oil tanks around during World War II. Their use was only legitimized as a form of protest in the context of the colonists’ attempts to thwart their access to drums and subjugate their culture. Had the elites simply given up and accepted the use of drumming in these areas of society (as they slowly began to in the mid-20th century), the drums would have (and arguably had) lost much of their symbolic protest value. While a certain symbolism may exist in recognition of the history of the drums prior disparagement by authority, it is inherently different from a situation where the drum is actually actively disparaged by authority. Thus, it is fair to question the futility of these comparisons, given the context of acceptance of the drums themselves.
The next place to look in was at the intentions of the artists who are creating music featuring the steelpan today. The steelpan is a common instrument in Western pop music, featured in hits such as Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” (2015), Beyonce’s “Hold Up” (2016), and Drake’s “Take Care” (2011). As these songs suggest, many modern artists who use steel drums do not themselves come from Trinidad or the Caribbean in general. Pop-star Nicki Minaj stands out as the sole contemporary international megastar hailing from Trinidad, and while she makes use of the steel pan in songs such as “Pound the Alarm” (2012), she has never publicly acknowledged her use of the instrument. Another contemporary international star from the Caribbean is Rihanna, who comes from Barbados. Rihanna has been noted for her activism, having been awarded Humanitarian of the Year by Harvard University in 2017 for her scholarship foundation and help building medical facilities in her native country. Despite her activism and use of the steelpan, like Harry Belafonte, Rihanna has never made public mention of the meaning or use of the drum. This suggests that the steel drum is not being used deliberately by modern day Caribbean stars in an attempt to symbolize some sort of protest or plight of the world’s underclass. The use of the instrument by such artists seems to effectively silence the steelpan as a symbol of resistance.
So has the steelpan, an instrument founded in society’s underbelly, made from trashed oil tanks and in retaliation of the banning of drums by colonial elites, truly been silenced as a form of protest today? It seems that the remnants of this legacy still exist within Trinidad and perhaps other nearby Caribbean islands which foster heavy calypso/steelband traditions. That being said, even in such places, the instrument is often used to attract Western audiences via tourism industries. The official website of Trinidad gives a history of the steelpan, but then ends with a call for the need of “finding a marketing niche that could exploit the vast commercial potential of both instruments and music” within the steelpan tradition. To the extent that tourism programs understand the Western association between the sounds of the steel drum and ‘tropical paradise’, they have branded the instrument as such, and done even more to silence it’s legacy for foreign audiences.
Within the island, though, we have seen that the tradition of Calypso and other steelband-heavy genres still keep a heavy emphasis on protest and dissent, and are vastly popular. Further, there are programs within Trinidad, such as The Tobago Youthbuild Programme, which offer steelpan classes and a stipend to unemployed youth to foster “creative expression” and “anger management”. Such programs are reminiscent of the steelpan’s creation by members of the youth, whose communities were plagued by such unemployment and whose constant innovation of new percussive instruments highlighted their remarkable creativity and need for an expressive outlet. Similar programs with similar intentions were founded in the U.S. due in part to the work of activist Pete Seeger, though his vision largely failed.
Thus, the answer to the question of the steelpan’s legacy is far from black and white. It can probably be most aptly summarized as follows: the steelpan’s legacy as a form of protest and dissent for society’s underclass against elites is effectively silenced in much of the world due to commercialization, appropriation by the middle class, and the inaccessibility of the instrument for underprivileged youth- that being said, the tradition has been kept alive to some extent in its native Trinidad through various social programs, and the creation of popular protest steel drum music in general. The retelling of this story may help us to understand the ways in which context matters when trying to understand any protest or movement, and the ways in which changing contexts can effectively void the value of a once valuable form of protest. Perhaps the better question to ask is broader- how can protesters maintain certain forms of protest and prevent them from losing their effectiveness via the forces of appropriation and commercialization? The parallels in American musical traditions are clear- middle class America has a long history of appropriating and modifying music of resistance to be effectively dead as a form of protest, from folk to rap platforms. Research into the ways in which oppressed people can keep a more firm grasp on their ownership and the utility of such forms of protest may bear a more fruitful and practical answer than I have delivered in this paper.
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