The Steelpan and its diasporic travels

DTS 403 final paper                                                                         Shaun Poon 996792350

Final Paper: Steelpan and its diasporic travels

Original Steelpan Group


-National Identity-
Trinidad and Tobago Stamp


-National Identity: Currency-
Trinidad and Tobago $20



Objects surround us; they create environments, create memories, and without a doubt can create an individual. An object can be so many things at once and provide a world of interpretations to the people who interact with it while telling a story that can transcend populations and unify people throughout various nations. This is what truly makes an object diasporic, its ability to carry meaning across various national boundaries and connect people from different places and spaces thorough different times while sharing a common perception. When we look at the work of Arjun Appadurai, and his interpretations in Commodities and culture of value he takes a focus on the cultural value that an object is infused with and the social life that is carried out as a result of this (Appadurai, 5). To place a diasporic context on this frame of thought, I intend to explore the history of the Steel pan, or Steel drum, a national identity to the country of Trinidad and Tobago, while focusing on the way that this object has truly become transnational. This instrument did not only forge a national identity but is responsible for the unifying of people of various ethnicities and social statuses within the country, which speaks volumes of the story that can be associated with this revolutionary instrument in the history of Trinidad and Tobago. As this object has evolved throughout time, adding only value to itself the steel pan has changed hands and crossed borders never once thought, making it representative of a group of people but also providing a series of connections for future generations of the Caribbean Diaspora across the world. But how can an object create a national identity? This is the question that I will explore further in my research as I outline the historic relevance of this object as a representation of a nation and as a people through a diasporic analysis.

Historical significance             

The Steel pan, originated in the country of Trinidad and Tobago, created out of necessity one could say, and its purpose was to fill the ears of the people with melodic and harmonious sounds during the time of Carnival. As an annual tradition, Carnival creates unity amongst the people of Trinidad for two days before the period of Lent. This street festival allows thousands of people to flood the streets dancing and playing music while parading in various costumes of amazing colours and styles. Prior to the steel pan, Carnival music was performed in the streets with an instrument made from bamboo, known as the “Tamboo Bamboo”, a hollowed out bamboo post that was tweaked to create a variety of sounds and was used in unison amongst the people in Trinidad during the festivities to create music (Aho 35). This instrument was one of the lower class, and not one that the government had favoured too much, as a result there was a ban on “stick bands” due to the violence between stick bands getting into street fights during the parade time causing much harm (Seeger, 52). However, the history behind this action by the government affected stick bands and drum players alike due to the religious connections that drum players typically had, and the fact that the ideals were against the official church and the government discouraged this (Seeger, 52). This action by the government did not discourage the people as they raided the scrap yards looking for alternative sounds ending up with garbage lids, brake drums and scrap metal to fulfill their musical needs. Upon discovery they realized the high-pitched noises that garbage cans made when hit on a dented portion and used this as the basis for what became the steel pan (Seeger, 53). After years of tweaking, reverting to oil drums (due to their strength), and adding new dents to incorporate various pitches, steel pans started to take the form they are currently known for.

The development of the steel pan in the 1930s was centered in the poorer districts of Trinidad by individuals who had very little to no education at all, and were predominantly Afro-Trinidadians. The people in these areas did not have much opportunity for recognition, areas of achievement or success in employment and education, as a result they channeled their energy into whatever was presented to them, in this case it was music and resistance against the “ruling colonial class” (Aho, 32). What creators of the steel pan and the steel pan itself represented was distinctive culture and creation of something of their own, an object to express themselves (Aho, 32).  The steel pan was able to give a status to those who were seen as lower on the social scale and provided opportunities for those who had no opportunity to begin with, it was seen as an object of meaning. This one particular object provided an attachment of the lower class to something tangible, it gave them something to call their own and as a result unified those who were involved in the process of creation and playing. A quote from William R. Aho places the steelpan in perspective “To them the steelband is not merely another local institution: it is a way of life” (Aho, 37).

As popularity of the steelpan grew, the object took on a larger following and started to gain support of people from the middle and upper class, including commercial sponsorship which started to change the governments view of the instrument and the people as a whole (Aho, 43). However, this is where a change in role players begins to take place for this object, the commercialization of the steelpan allowed for further intervention by the upper classes, the same people who had been against the movement from the onset due to its creation by the lower class. With that said, the social interactions of the object begins to change form, originally as the only way to provide a sense of belonging for those who were considered less fortunate, the steelpan begins to become more commodified as it picks up acceptance by the upper classes.

With this steady rise and acceptance of the steelpan by the greater population, coupled with the amount of outside interest, the steelpan began to gather international attention that can be traced to the Trinidadian and Caribbean Diaspora as well. Furthermore, to help harvest the legitimacy of the steelpan as an identity and symbol of Trinidad and Tobago, with the corporatization and constant popularity, the steelpan/steelband classes began to get offered at schools, and also began to incorporate women from the 1970s onwards (Stuempfle 2). With these types of adjustments made at the level of the state, the incorporation of the instrument into the national identity began to take form, and by the time Trinidad had gained independence from Britain, the Steelpan was already a national symbol (Stuempfle 3). What is interesting about the transition from low class symbol of belonging to national symbol of belonging lies in the class difference of the people. There are many factors that are responsible for the national praise that the steelpan had eventually received in the latter part of the 1900s, a large part would be the government and its realization that the middle classes were getting involved and saw a need for some sort of national identity because all nations need a national identity and in the post-colonial situation a national identity becomes even more important because it reinforces the culture, values and political standing of the nation” (DeLamater 66). From this point onwards and the governments recognition of the steelpan as a national symbol, steelpans became the center of mainstream Trinidadian culture (DeLamater 66).

Although the use of the pan has remained the same throughout, it is the recognition that has changed over time, and the meaning of the instrument to the people at large. What must be noted is that this instrument was one that was representative of the “people”, meaning the working class, and didn’t really change hands as it technically joined hands with the middle and upper class. However an important aspect that is crucial in the context of this object is how it gained national symbolism only after its integration into the middle class and use by the “light skinned” or “white boys” of Trinidad who bridged the social gap of the instrument bringing attention to the government and mainstream Trinidadian society (DeLamater 67).

The steelpan movement is one that has transcended into a great legacy for Trinidad and Tobago, ultimately forging its national identity along the lines of its independence and was an integral part in creating a more cohesive nation during its time of independence and its future. This helped bring it to the international forefront as bands were featured in the Montréal World Expo as early as 1967, which allowed for the steel pan to be displayed throughout North America (DeLamater 37). Finally, although the steelpan was considered a national symbol since Trinidad’s independence, its true certification came in 1992 when it was named the official musical instrument of Trinidad and placed on the twenty-dollar bill (DeLamater 1). It is now an instrument with many followings throughout the world, with large bands throughout North America, Europe and Asia, as it follows the transnational people of the Caribbean Diaspora.

Object Social/Cultural Context

            The steel pan is an instrument which has a very significant cultural following that is always expanding, this instrument was created out of a cultural festival based in Trinidad and Tobago (Carnival) and has followed not only the Trinidadian Diaspora, but the Caribbean Diaspora as well. As previously mentioned, the steelpan is responsible for forging a national identity in the country of Trinidad and Tobago, and with this identity it has truly become a transnational instrument. Of most instruments currently in existence, the steelpan is one of the youngest as it was created in the mid 1900s. It serves a primary purpose as a musical instrument, however not all see it like this, the context of this instrument has changed over time, once being a way for the “underclass” to find sense of belonging in a place where they were unable to, and now it is an instrument that has strong Caribbean ties throughout the world. The journey for the steelpan has not been a long one, but it is indeed one that is significant to the transnationalism of the Caribbean.

Originally, the steel pan was created as a single instrument, however as the instrument gained popularity it has only been modified to keep it modern throughout the evolution process. The original steelpan, otherwise known as the ping pong or tenor pan has been joined by a series of other designs of various pitches, tones and sizes. This has created what is known as a steel band, so not only did this instrument produce a means of expressing ones musical talents but is responsible for forging bands and groups of people for a central purpose, performing music.

Appadurai states “commodities are things with a particular type of social potential, that they are distinguishable from products, objects, goods and other sorts of things – but only in certain respects and from a certain point of view” (Appadurai 6). From the initial creation, the steelpan had a purely social benefit for the people, created out of scrap metals from a scrap yard; the value of this object had more social significance than monetary. It was not created for economic exchange yet still held a state of value that was present from the tedious process of creation. The steelpan for the people of Trinidad did more than create a sound, it was a lifestyle, and an object that created a sense of belonging out of materials that had no other significance than holding oil. The social benefit far outweighed any sort of exchange at that present time, it allowed for a connection to be formed with an object that eventually formed an identity. William Aho writes,

In the case of steel band music, they were using their own distinctive culture, instruments and music of their own creation, to express themselves and to define an acceptable and comfortable social location for themselves in their own eyes, in the eyes of their peers, and in the eyes of the communities in which their bands were based.” (Aho, 32).

There was no monetary gain, only the pleasure of being a part of something that was of their own creation, at this time this created a sense of cohesion for those who were apart of the movement as George Yeates (leader of the Desperadoes steel band) expresses:

“The steel band was the only pursuit at the time a young man could have involved himself in and sort of gave a status to a village youth so that when you come from Desperadoes or the Laventille Hill and you go to another district if your band is a powerful band, you will be respected” (Aho, 32).


            The steelpan was seen not as a commodity but as an identity for those who became a part of it, the social context of this instrument was everything for them. Steelpans represented freedom of expression for people who were marginalized and ended up becoming a way of life expanding the horizons for musicians throughout the country. It was even publicized that the steelpan was crucial in the development of National Life as outlined by a committee report that stated that the steelpan not only brought a form of knowledge to the people about music, but also was responsible for instituting a form of community amongst them. While also contributing to discipline, band organization, and practice to help individuals who never had the chance to acquire these skills adjust to a progressive role in society (Aho, 35).

Initially, the steelpan was not seen as an object of national identity and created a cultural conflict between the lower classes and the middle/upper classes due to its following, what the middle class saw as “less desirables”. However, with the acceptance by the middle class and the commodfication of the instrument, the cultural context changed. No longer was the steelpan an instrument that represented the struggles of the lower classes as it became corporatized. Regardless, it is the acceptance of the instrument by the middle and upper classes that were responsible for forging the national identity because in the end they were the “decision makers, the politicians and the educated”. Along with that, the use of the object goes from one that was presented during the carnival time, to one that became a commonly utilized instrument as it starts to get used for playing weddings, concerts and various festivals showcasing the talents of these musicians. The common practice of this instrument can be linked to a musical revolution in Trinidad as the genre of Calypso music helped to bring the steelpan into the light of those abroad.

With the commodification of the steelpan, the object truly starts to take on a transnational aspect as it becomes fine tuned and produced to cater to so many different classes of people, many of whom are responsible for the exportation of the steelpan to North America and the rest of the world.

The transnationalism of the pan

As the steelpan began to take on more of a commodity based approach to the people of Trinidad, and as people from across the world started visiting Trinidad for Carnival, known as a true tourist attraction for the island, this, along with the increasing demand for pan music helped to assist in the transnationalism of the pan. “Economic exchange creates value,” says Arjun Appadurai (p3), and as the people of the steelpan joined with the corporatization of the middle class, this is exactly what happened. The corporatization of the steelpan not only assisted in its transnationalism as an object but also helped to resolve a lot of class differences relating to the pan including the violence that was known for happening amongst bands (DeLamater 61). Furthermore, to represent the transnationalism of the steelpan the types of sponsorship received can accompany it, and during its time of rapid evolution from the 60s onwards, steelbands started to obtain large-scale sponsorship from international organizations such as Coca Cola, Guinness, and Shell oil company, to name a few (DeLamater 61). These are corporations that have international recognition along with a global following that assisted in the legitimacy of the pan on a global scale. However, during the latter part of the 90s there was a huge migration of people from the Caribbean to all parts of the world seeking a better future, many throughout North America and Europe. For this reason the transnationalism and recognition of the pan is more evident.

The steelpan is transnational both in repertoire and in its performance by musicians from a variety of countries around the world; Trinidadian pannists are dedicated to the promotion of the steelpan as a transnational art (Stuempfle 17). Panorama, the annual national steelband competition can be tied to the transnationalism of the steelpan as well, representing the Trinidadian identity, while also showcasing Trinidad as a cosmopolitan nation – as a people who participate in transnational arts (Stuempfle, 211). Although it is native to Trinidad, the steelpan has gained international attention since the 1950s with the widespread of migrants to North America, and England. A form of belonging and nostalgia can be represented in the consistent spread of the steelpan, as pannists themselves have influenced foreign nations in being educated by the pan. Along with this growing formation and acceptance of the pan, there has been a number of steelbands connected with colleges and high schools as well, in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia for example and also programs designed in teachings of the steelpan such as here in Toronto at York University (Stuempfle 14).

Not only is the context of the steelpan one of national identity for those in Trinidad, but also the instrument has provided a sense of “caribbeanization” to places that never had strong Caribbean ties, most notably New York City, now home to the largest Caribbean Diaspora in the world (Allen & Wilcken, 1).  Ray Allen argues that in places that house diasporic groups, like New York, objects such as the steel pan for the Trinidadian and Caribbean Diaspora present a sense of national pride for them (Allen 128). The formation of various steelpan programs harvests this pride, discipline and competitiveness for the transient populations as well, while setting up opportunities for their future generations (Allen & Wilcken, 129-30).

The Steelpan as a diasporic object is one that most definitely characteristic of the term diasporic, however it is not solely the Diaspora of the object alone as it is for the nation of Trinidad. The ability for the steelpan to be recognized globally and create its own following of bands, competitions and musicians has allowed for people all around the world to be exposed to its beautiful sound. With this recognition, it is only fitting that an object of such relevance to the national identity of a country be considered a national symbol. What this object successfully does is represents different spheres of a nation, originated by the lower incomes and classes, the steelpan found its way to acceptance by the middle and upper classes which ultimately started to form its diasporic origin.

Throughout time, the historical significance for this object has grown for some and diminished for others. Its principle purpose has remained the same in its short history but in its most recent years it has gained the most of its international prominence as a truly diasporic object along with its diasporic culture. The largest following of the steelpan can be traced to North America where I came across a classic steel pan documentary made in 1956 titled Music from Oil Drums by Toshi and Peter Seeger. This piece put many diasporic claims of the steelpan into thought as it was filmed by Americans admiring the cultural tradition of the steelpan and their interest in bringing in back to the US to share it with their people. I have attached the file in my bibliography because it is representative of how this object has transcended throughout time as this was filmed shortly after creation, it is a testament to how the steelpan has changed over times as it focuses on the instrument from its original conception.

Conclusion of National identity

            Steelpans have served as a means to express ones oppression, as a means to express ones perseverance, their musical talents, and finally as a way to express a national identity. This object has moved from the predominant lower class to the association with the middle classes and resulted in transformations throughout time and space. For an object to instill a sense of pride and recognition for an entire nation is something that is not that is easily achievable, however for it to garner international attention and followings is something that is truly remarkable. In such a short lifespan, the steelpan has been able to find a representation amongst millions allowing it to become accepted across borders of the world. I set out to identify how an object could produce a national identity and for that question there are many answers. In Trinidad specifically, the steelpan was able to forge a national identity because it was relative to the people of the country, although not initially, the steelpan began to find its place amongst the people, integrating various classes and races.

The meaning of the steelpan in a diasporic sense has lost some claim as it was initially an instrument created by the working class and was representative of their fight against oppression and yearning for a sense of belonging. Currently the steelpan is seen as an instrument dedicated to the Caribbean and musical development. It is hard to believe it, but the object had very minimal support in the early years and while gaining support, as it was refined it eventually was able to create a much larger following.

There are many key players that are involved in forging a national identity, most notably for the steelpan were the government and the middle class, but the internationalization of corporations throughout the world and their recognition of the steelpan can be attributed to this as well. The steelpan is an object that can easily represent the struggle of a people, the forging/independence of a nation and the transnationalism of a culture on a global scale based on its history. It is an object that is representative of the hardships that were faced in the past and eventually brought together the masses. As a result, the making of this instrument as a national identity is necessary for a nation that was “identity-less” before and after its colonization and represents not only a change but also a sense of belonging.

For the diasporic groups of Trinidad and the Caribbean throughout the world, the steelpan is a testament to a sense of pride and belonging for those who find themselves attached to it, and even those who have never touched it. Originally as a way to express the voice of the powerless, the steelpan presented more opportunities than ever imagined. The steelband movement became a coming together of high and low, local and foreign, presentation and participation, creating a space for national dialogue (Dudley, 274). With this in mind it is phenomenal to see the connections that the steelpan can create across boundaries, because practically everybody can create a form of attachment to music. The livelihood of the steelpan is responsible for so many things, but amongst them all is the sense of belonging for those who come from Trinidad, as it has become a symbol of who they are.

Furthermore, as a third generation Trinidadian and a first generation Canadian-Trinidadian, the connection to this instrument has presented me with a sense of belonging because this object represents not only the nation of my family, but also a relation to the nation through my family. With that said, the steelpan has been able to cross so many transnational barriers in such as short time, and its historical and social context is one that continues to grow with the times and presents a world of opportunity, and also the ability to garnish a sense of belonging for future generations. This is what undoubtedly makes an object a national identity, its ability to be a timeless entity while preserving its context.



Aho, William R.

“Steelband Music in Trinidad and Tobago: The Creation of a Peoples Music.”             Latin American Music Review 8.1 (1987): 26-58

Allen, Ray, and Lois Wilcken.

Island Sounds in the Global City: Caribbean Popular Music and Identity in New             York. New York: New York Folklore Society, 1998. Print.

Appadurai, Arjun.

(1986) Introduction : Commodities and the Politics of Value. In A. Appadurai             (ed) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective.             Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 3-63.

Dudley, Shannon.

(2007) Music from Behind the Bridge : Steelband Aesthetics and Politics in             Trinidad and Tobago. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DeLamater, Elizabeth.

“White Collegeboys Steebands” in 1950s Trinidad.” Arizona State University             Paper: 1-84

Koptoff, I

(1986) The Cultural Biography of Things- commoditization as process. In A.             Appadurai (ed) The Social Life of Things- Commodities in Cultural             Perspective. Cambridge- Cambridge University Press. Pp. 64-91.

Stuempfle, Stephen.

The Steelband Movement / the Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and             Tobago. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1995.

Seeger, Peter.

“The Steel Drum: A New Folk Instrument.” The Journal of American Folklore             71.279 (1958): 52-57.


By shaunpoon