Instrument of rebellion, the steel pans of Trinidad and Tobago, have history in each note
Born as an instrument of rebellion, the steel pans of Trinidad and Tobago, have history in each note
Are yuh ready to wuk dat waist an bumper (butt)?’, said my Trinidadian guide Cheri-ann Pascall, in her sexy, sing-a-song Trini accent. Cheri-ann, together with our driver, was taking me to a pan yard, to catch a practice session of the Trinidad All Stars, a steel band, as they honed their skills beating down on the country’s national instrument.
The community centre, which held the pan yard, could be mistaken for a large parking lot, except for a tin shed within the grounds, from where a festive cacophony emanated. Inside was a band of 25-odd people, men and women of all ages — right from their early teens to their 60s — pounding pans to create dramatic, upbeat tunes. The name says it all. These were simply metal vessels and looked much like a large steel thali, perhaps one dented at multiple points. Large wooden sticks with rounded rubber heads, (resembling a lollypop), were used to beat the thali, to create music.
The history of steel pans is intertwined with the tumultuous past of this beautiful two-island nation which was discovered by Christopher Columbus. He chanced upon these gems in the Caribbean, which then changed several hands — Trinidad was ruled by the British and Spanish and had French settlements, while Tobago was colonised by British, French, Dutch and Spanish.
During the French revolution of 1789, French planters arrived in Trinidad and brought with them the tradition of a costume festival before lent, or carnevale which translates into ‘put away the meat’. The planters’ African slaves, who weren’t invited to the party, created their own fest, fuelled by music. Under the British Empire, slavery was abolished in 1834, and the celebrations got bigger, better and several decibels noisier. But, freedom for the islands was still decades away. And, in 1881, the British feared that the locals were bonding over music and banned their sticks and drums. But, as any Trinbagonian will tell you, ‘Monkey know which tree ta climb’ (a local expression, which in this case implies they weren’t bullied, and knew how to bend the rules).
Government restrictions gave rise to the ‘Tamboo-Bamboo‘ where sticks of bamboo were hollowed out and music was created by striking them against each other or a flat surface. In 1934, the party-pooper Brits banned these too. That’s when the islanders got creative. They got their hands on just about any metal containers — old paint cans, oil drums, or water drums — and tapped the surface with their bare hands. And, the steel pan — the only acoustic instrument to be discovered in the 20th century — was born.
Instrument of rebellion, the steel pans of Trinidad and Tobago,
have history in each note
Perhaps Shabaka Elie, a key member of the Trinidad All Stars, explains it best when he says, ‘It de sound of happiness’. Shabaka has been playing the steel pans ever since he was a little boy. Pan yards serve as places to keep the youth busy and out of trouble. And, at yet another level, as a symbol of the nation’s past. The friendly Trinis egg me on and I try my hand at the pans, which appear deceptively simple but require more dexterity than I am capable of. I give up and watch as Shabaka and his troupe prepare for an upcoming performance. Pan yards from different areas often compete with each other. But it’s at Carnival — an annual event held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday — that steel bands from across the nation make a loud noise. The party hits the streets, with a riot of the most colourful and often outrageous costumes. One of the main attractions at this time is the National Panorama Competition — a precursor to kick-off the carnival — where steel bands show the people exactly what they’re made of.
As the practice session before me is about to draw to a close, some of the local onlookers begin ‘winein’: a sensual dance between a man and a woman that gets the dancers’ pulses racing, hearts beating faster, without any skin contact. But I soon realise it’s a regular feature of the island culture. As I walk down Ariapita Avenue, an area filled with pubs, I see couples winein inside clubs and on pavements. And I realise that few people respect self expression as highly as the Trinbagonians.
BEFORE YOU PACK
» getting there: There are no direct flights from Mumbai to Trinidad & Tobago. Fly from Mumbai to London/Miami/New York, and onward to Port of Spain (island of Trinidad). Trinidad is connected to Tobago via a speedy 25-minute domestic flight, or a two-and-half hour ferry ride. The flight fares vary with season. Book months in advance to get the best deals.
» best time to visit: Trinidad & Tobago enjoy mild temperatures all year round. To avoid the monsoons, visit between December and early June.
» other places to visit: Asa Wright Nature Centre, Trinidad: Once a citrus-coffee-cocoa plantation, it is now a bird watcher’s paradise, spread over 270-odd acres of forest. The Buccoo Reef, Tobago: One of the most accessible reefs in the Caribbean. Snorkel, dive or ride in a glass-bottomed boat to spot corals in psychedelic hues.
» Eat at: Maracas Bay, Trinidad: The beach has several Shark and Bake huts. Shark and Bake is a traditional Trinidadian dish where pieces of shark are deep-fried and stuffed into fried bread.
By: Kiran Mehta