The steelpan, a fairly newly developed instrument sticks out for its simplicity. This instrument, produced entirely of industrial refuse, has become a cultural symbol in Trinidad and Tobago. It consists of a gleaming metal surface with a hammered pattern of dents on its surface. Each one generates a unique note that is subtly different from the others according to their position and size.

The steelpan, sometimes known as steeldrum, first appeared in the 1930s. The United States Navy established a presence in Trinidad and Tobago around this time. The pannists, linked with anarchy and violence, contributed to the popularization of steelpan music among troops. This paved the way for the instrument’s international recognition. All-steel bands were present during carnival time by the late 1930s. By 1940, it had become the favored carnival accompaniment of young underprivileged males.

Anthony Williams created the “fourths and fifths” steelpan note arrangement. This is now the standard note placement for lead pans. Other significant advances include the simultaneous and separate development by Bertie Marshall and Alan Gervais of tuning harmonic overtones in individual notes. Additionally, a Swiss steelpan manufacturer (PANArt) researched the field of fine-grain sheet steel. This helped them develop a deep-drawn raw form, additionally hardened by nitriding. That process was presented at the International Conference of steel pan and Science in Port-of-Spain in 2000. Electronic steelpans have also been developed since. One version of them is the E-Pan, invented by Salmon Cupid, who holds utility patents for it.  Another is the Percussive Harmonic Instrument (PHI). 

Construction and execution of the steelpan

The size of the instrument varies depending on the pan. It could have nearly all of the “skirt” (the cylindrical component of the oil drum) removed, and as much as roughly 30 soprano-range notes. It could also employ the full drum with only three bass notes per pan, in which case one person could play six pans. In general, the length of the skirt correlates to the tessitura, or high and low range, of the drum. The pans are often painted or chrome plated. Other procedures for the finish exist, such as nickel plating, powder coating, or hardening.

Steelpan tuning techniques have improved significantly, despite being a relatively recent member of the percussion family. Strobe tuners fit the job perfectly, given the requirement to adjust the first few overtones. Actually, strobe tuners appear in steelpan manufacture since it became known that by altering the overtones (fundamental, second, and third partial), the sound of the pan seemed to glitter in ways it had not previously.

A professional pannist, sometimes called panman, may perform solo, with a steel band, or as an accompaniment to singers and solo instrumentalists. Pannists may compete in huge events with their respective bands. Some of the most important pannists are Ellie Mannette, known as the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum,” and Winston “Spree” Simon, who invented the “Ping Pong” pan.