What is the Steelpan? Google Doodle celebrates musical instrument born from resistance and rebellion

What is the Steelpan? Google Doodle celebrates musical instrument born from resistance and rebellion
Steelpan's origins date back to 1700s (Google Doodle, Steel Pan Trust/ YouTube and British Movietone/YouTube)

It’s time to turn up your speakers and lend the July 26 Google Doodle an ear as it goes on a musical journey. The search engine is celebrating ‘steelpan,’ an acoustic instrument made of 55-gallon steel cargo drums, illustrated by Trinidad and Tobago-based artist Nicholas Huggins.

According to Doodles Archive, the steelpan, developed in the 20th century, originated in the Caribbean-islands nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s. However, its origins that date back to the 1700s. It was a staple during Carnival and Canboulay, the annual harvest festivals celebrated in Trinidad, and is still used in contemporary music. On July 26, 1951, the Trinidad All-Steel Pan Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) performed at the Festival of Britain, introducing steelpan and a new music genre to the world.


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The history of steelpan

When enslaved Africans were brought to Trinidad in the West Indies by colonialists in the 1700s, they also brought their heritage and traditions of drumming with them. Following the abolition of slavery in 1834 Trinidadians participated in Trinidadian Carnival celebrations with their drums. However, African-descended percussive performances were targeted by restrictive government bills, sparking protests and demonstrations, according to Google Arts & Culture. The site also says that these protests facilitated the development of the instrument. It was improvised using scrap metal, metal containers, dustbins and bamboo stamping tubes. The first instrument developed in the evolution of steel pan were Tamboo Bamboo. These Tamboo Bamboo bands consisted of pieces of bamboo cut to different lengths so that different pitches could be obtained, and are now widely accepted as the precursor to modern steel bands. FYI, it also included percussion using biscuit tins, oil drums, and bottle and spoon. 

The instrument, according to Culture Mix, was first seen on BBC Television in June 1950, when Trinidadian Boscoe Holder and his Caribbean Dancers performed with a steel band on his own television show, ‘Bal Creole.’ And with that exposure, in 1951, The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) were invited to play on the Southbank in London as part of the ‘Festival of Britain’. This was the first time the British public came into direct contact with the instrument.


The Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO)

TASPO, which was formed for the ‘Festival of Britain’ in 1951, was the first steel band to use recycled instruments like oil drums. According to Culture Mix, TASPO was a group of the 12 best pan musicians. They were selected from 70 Trinidad steel bands, including Ellie Mannette from ‘Invaders,’ Sterling Betancourt from ‘Crossfire,’ Philmore ‘Boots’ Davidson from ‘Syncopators,’ Belgrave Bonaparte from ‘Southern Symphony,’ Andrew ‘Pan’ De Labastide from ‘Hill 60,’ Theo Stephens from ‘Free French,’ Anthony Williams from ‘North Stars,’ Dudley Smith from ‘Rising Sun,’ Orman ‘Patsy’ Haynes from ‘Casablanca,’ Winston ‘Spree’ Simon from ‘Tokyo’ and Sonny Roach from ‘Sun Valley.

Does the steelpan still exist?

The steelpan is now the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, and is a source of true resilience for its citizens, as per Doodle Archive. The instruments are now seen in concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, among others. Be it the UK or Japan, steelpan is now an internationally recognized instrument across the globe.

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