Heads of state are usually welcomed with a guard of honour. But the first thing Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago did as soon as India’s Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat landed in Guyana on Thursday was to make him listen to steel pans right on the Piarco international airport tarmac.
Pans are the symbol of the Caribbean resistance to the colonial times and, now its cultural messenger.
Shekhawat, who loves the Rajasthani drums, found the steel drum, or pan, a unique instrument — skilfully hammered 55-gallon oil drum that has been carefully tuned to produce tones.
It carries the full chromatic range of notes, and can produce just about any type of music you can think of — reggae, zouk, salsa and calypso.
The island of Trinidad, claimed by Spain in 1498, was culturally neglected until the late eighteen century. Toward the end of the 1780's, French planters arriving at Trinidad, bringing slaves. However, in their quest to obtain new colonies in the New World, the British defeated the French in Trinidad in 1797.
When slavery was abolished in Trinidad in 1837, the British government invited Asians and Indians to work on the land. While Africans remained the largest group, this new group also helped to shape the cultural panorama.
The Black population in Trinidad used hand drums for their dances and ceremonies and to communicate with each other. Hand drums were also used for celebrations and for fighting.
However, the central event for which drums were used was Carnival. In its early stages, Carnival was a procession in which groups of torchbearing Blacks would re-enact plantation fire drills accompanied by drums.
According to Maxens Bere of Latin American Folk Institute, the use of drums in street parades was outlawed in 1883, since the British feared that the passing of secret messages by means of drumming might become the impetus for social unity and revolt among the Blacks. Riots and conflict between the natives and the authorities had led to the banning of drum processions during Carnival time as well.
During the 1930's biscuit tins were included as rhythm instruments in the tamboo Bamboo bands. In 1934, tamboo bamboo bands were again forbidden due to street clashes among rival groups. At the same time a gradual change to street instruments in street bands began to take place.
The first true steel pan used by musicians was an empty biscuit container. The next development was the discovery that when you hammered a paint pan out from the inside, different notes could be played on the pan.
Soon the bent peace of steel gave way to the steel drum that could produce simple melodies. The early steel pans made of paint tins or biscuit tins had only a handful of notes. They were one foot in diameter and two feet long. They were tuned to the highest upper pitch note the steel pan could produce.
“I used to play the piano earlier, and it was easy to switch over to drums,” says Andrew Tyndall,26 who teaches music in Georgetown but was trained in Trinidad.
Pan music developed rapidly during the late 1930s, and by 1941 many steel bands playing in Trinidad became popular among US soldiers based on the naval bases on the island.
Today, huge steel band orchestras are common in many Caribbean islands, but the Trinitarians are credited with having been the creators of the steel pan.
"The Trinis have put something cheap and abundant to extraordinary good use and created one of the few acoustic instruments to be invented this century," say Charles de Ledesma and Simon Broughton (World Music Rough Guides. London 1994).
No longer the domain of the Trinitarians, steel pans symbolise the culture of the English speaking Caribbean islands. They are played on many islands outside of Trinidad and Tobago, particularly in Guyana.