Steel Pan: Music From the Caribbean

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When people could not play the music they wanted, they invented a new kind of music. Adam Navis and Katy Blake look at the history of Steel Pan music.

Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Adam Navis.

Voice 2 

And I’m Katy Blake. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

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Voice 1 

In the past 100 years people have invented only one popular musical instrument that does not use electricity. Do you know what it is? It sounds like this.

Voice 2 

Have you heard music like this before? It is called a steel pan. There are hundreds of different groups playing steel pan music. It is played for presidents and for kings. It is played in famous music centres. But steel pan music is connected most closely to one place: the island countries of Trinidad and Tobago. Today’s Spotlight is on steel pan music.

Voice 1 

The history of Trinidad and Tobago is full of struggle. Over the years, many countries have occupied Trinidad and Tobago. At different times, Spain, The Netherlands, France, and Britain have each controlled these islands. People also came to the islands to escape from trouble or trial in their home country.

Voice 2 

While many people came because they wanted to, many did not. The French brought African people to the island as slaves. Soon there were more enslaved people than free people. Around the year 1800 there were about 17,000 people on the islands. Ten thousand of these people were enslaved. Several years later, Britain took control of the islands and banned the slave trade.

Voice 1 

The French did not only bring slaves to the islands. They also brought the tradition of Carnival. Carnival is also called Mardi Gras. It is a celebration before the Christian season of Lent. As they did in Paris, French people marched through the streets singing, dancing, and playing music. The former slaves joined the parade too. They brought their own drums and began adding their own beats to the celebration.

Voice 2 

People usually make drums by stretching animal skin over an open container. On the islands, people used these drums to communicate across great distances. Although the British ruler had banned the slave trade, the British would not give up control of the islands. And they were afraid the people would use the drums to send secret messages of revolt. So, in 1883, Carnival was celebrated but the government banned the drums.

Voice 1 

Many people did not want to give up their drums. The enslaved people had lost many things – their families, their own languages, and their religion. Music was one connection to the past. And drumming gave them a way to express their emotions without words. Also, they missed out on taking part in celebrating Carnival.

Voice 2 

So people found a way to keep drumming. Every time the government banned one kind of drum, the people found a new one. For example, people started to use bamboo. This plant grows in a large tube shape. The people would cut different sizes of bamboo and strike them together or hit them on the ground. This was called Tamboo Bamboo.

Voice 1 

The Tamboo-Bamboo groups soon became large. They even began to fight over who was the best. Some even made their instruments into sharp pointed weapons. Also, many people were harvesting bamboo illegally. So in 1934 the British government banned Tamboo-Bamboo instruments.

Voice 2 

This did not stop people from inventing more new drums. In 1936, a music group brought new steel drums to Carnival. This was the beginning of steel pan.

Voice 1 

People made these first steel pans from bread containers, paint containers, or waste containers. They were so popular that soon the young people of Trinidad were stealing every waste container they could find. Young people even took locked waste containers!

Voice 2 

Sterling Betancourt grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. He told the BBC how people invented the steel pan. It was never a plan. He says:

Voice 3 

“It was a very slow process. Everyone got together and invented the steel pan by using pots and pans and testing them out. The sound and the notes came. But we did not think about it — we just did it.”

Voice 1 

They made steel pans by shaping the bottom of the containers with heavy tools. They shaped different thicknesses on different parts. This created many notes on a single pan. The steel pan was now able to play whole songs! It was still a drum, but a new kind of drum.

Voice 2 

During World War Two the music of steel pan became popular with American soldiers. They were living at a navy base in Trinidad. The navy base also brought a new resource for making steel pan instruments: oil containers!

Voice 1 

The navy ships needed oil. The oil came in large 208-liter containers. When the containers were empty, they were perfect for making steel pans. The oil containers were thick metal and lasted much longer than other materials.

Voice 2 

After World War Two began the most popular time for steel pan music. Music groups set up steel pan music celebrations. Different steel pan groups would gather and compete against each other. As Trinidad and Tobago became more independent, steel pan became a more respected kind of music.

Voice 1 

In 1962, Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation. Steel pan music was played at the national celebration. This was an important event for steel pan as well as for Trinidad and Tobago. This music was once banned street music. But now it had risen into a respected music form. It was part of Trinidad and Tobago’s national character.

Voice 2 

Today, steel pan music has travelled around the world. Now people outside Trinidad and Tobago play it too. There are more than 800 steel pan groups in the world. Three hundred are in Britain. There are 240 in the United States. In Switzerland, there are 130 groups and 70 percent of Swiss pan players are women.

Voice 1 

Even while it is popular around the world, steel pan music is still closely linked with the culture of Trinidad and Tobago. Steel pan was the music of the poor, of the oppressed, and of former slaves. But like the people of Trinidad and Tobago, steel pan music rose up and demanded to be heard.

Voice 2 

Do you enjoy steel pan music? Is there a music in your culture that has a special meaning?  Tell us what you think. You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at radio@radioenglish.net. You can also comment on Facebook at Facebook.com/spotlightradio.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Adam Navis. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Steel Pan: Music From the Caribbean’.

Voice 2 

Visit our website to download our free official app for Android and Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

Do you like steel pan music? Is there a kind of music that represents your country? Write your answer in the comments below.

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