The History of Steelband in Jamaica

  Pan Goes To College, by the University Esso Steel Orchestra, Jamaica, W.I

“This recording is probably the first Steel Band Stereo Recording. The Orchestra has reached a wide audience since its foundation in 1955, by Trinidadians and one Jamaican. It has made one previous LP, toured on the “Ascania” in Europe winning a 1957 French Youth Festival prize, appeared in Miami and on U.S. Television - all in addition to local engagements on and off-campus, and participating in a full academic life. ~ Dr.  Laurence Wedderburn
Flag of Jamaica

“Jamaica can proudly boast of having at least two prime ministers who played pan in Jamaica while attending college there.  They are the late Honorable Patrick Manning of Trinidad & Tobago and the Honorable Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact they played together as pan players for the  UWI Mona Jamaica  “Playboys”  in 1968 .” 



by & © Gay Magnus

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The earliest record of steelpan in Jamaica was in 1954. Arden Williams, a student from Trinidad carried his ping pong with him when he attended the University of the West Indies, Mona campus (then the University College of the West Indies). Soon after, he and other Trinidadian students and one Jamaican started the first-ever steelband on Jamaican soil. Over time, different steelbands have come and gone but the Mona campus has never been without a steelband since its arrival in the 1950s. In 1973 the steelbands from two halls of residence merged and became known as UWI Steel (You-We Steel). In 1976 this band was re-branded UWI Panoridim and is still in existence today.

Patrick Manning
Former Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago & panist Patrick Manning (second from left) performing with "Playboys" in 1968 at na Jamaica. - photo and caption info posted by the late Patrick Manning -- the Honorable Ralph Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines was also a performing member of the 1968 "Playboys"

Steelpan has always been generally well received in Jamaica. Because the pan movement started at the University, it never had the stigma of violence or any major struggle for acceptance compared to other islands. The main source of friction was and still is, that some members of the public find the sounds of the steelband’s rehearsals irritating.

Mackie Burnette
Mackie Burnette
- image from Jamaica Journal

By the 1960s, steelpan spread from the UWI into neighbouring communities and across Jamaica. In 1962 McDonald ‘Mackie’ Burnette of Trinidad came to Jamaica as an entertainer and was instrumental in galvanizing the formation and development of new steelbands which gave fierce competition to the UWI steelbands. There was even a steelband competition and this was the closest the Jamaican pan movement came to having a Panorama culture.

The UWI Panoridim Steel Orchestra has benefited from the over sixty years of pan culture on the Mona campus. Like most steelbands in the Caribbean, music, playing technique and band administrative skills were handed down from generation to generation by rote. The band functions much like other Caribbean steelbands with one exception. In the 1990s, Richard Quarless, longstanding UWI Panoridim arranger, captain and musical director, encouraged Panoridim’s arrangers to notate their arrangements using computer notation software. This is now standard and music is dispersed to players via musical scores and audio in MIDI format. This has forced most band members to have basic music reading skills.

Up until the early 1990s, UWI Panoridim was a major part of the annual UWI Mona Carnival, but when the band could no longer compete with electronic music on the music trucks, they were forced to find another creative outlet. On the recommendation of Professor Rex Nettleford of the UWI, the band began catering to concert audiences and began presenting concert seasons now branded Panfest. Having concerts meant the band’s repertoire expanded from mostly calypsos and socas and other dance music, to include classical and jazz genres. The technical demands of the arrangements also increased.

However the association of steelpan with the debauchery of Carnival and the belief that steelpans can only play calypso and soca persisted and caused an initial resistance to steelpans being used in churches.

The first known Jamaican church steelband was Bethel Baptist Steelband which was formed with the help of UWI Panoridim in 1992. UWI Panoridim can be considered a ‘mother steelband’ as the development of many Jamaican steelbands past and present, have been influenced by its members. Bethel Baptist Steelband’s religious repertoire and Panfest concert seasons helped expose the Jamaican audience to another side of steelpan and eventually more schools and churches expressed an interest in having steelbands.

Now the steelband movement in Jamaica is driven by the needs of churches, schools and the tourist industry. Most church and school steelbands have concert seasons and these are usually the creative highpoint for that band.

There is a close relationship between the bands in Kingston, especially the church bands, with members playing in several bands and borrowing equipment when needed. This closeness makes competition such as a Panorama more difficult. Also competitions are of no immediate benefit to the hotel bands which are sometimes mixed with non-pan instruments. There is however a growing a desire for a Jamaican Panorama, especially from the panists who participated in the International Panorama in Trinidad in 2015.

Since the 1990s UWI Panoridim has made conscious efforts to participate in Trinidadian steelband festivals and Panoramas as a means of inspiring its members and exposing them to higher levels of steelband performance. This participation has had positive effects as on their return from each festival, there has been a noticeable improvement in playing technique and arrangements.”

A WST work in progress...

  UWI Panoridim performing “Dead or Alive” at Panfest 2005

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The first Trinidad steelband to visit Jamaica was DixieStars in 1953 as the Esso Steel band. We played at several theatres and at a festival of some sort where Louise Bennet and her dance troupe were the main feature. Also performing there was Tiroro, a famous Haitian drummer ( look him up).  From there we were flown by Esso aboard a U.S Air Force DC-3 to Puerto Rico where we performed at several locations including one or two night clubs. It was the first time a steelband had reached Puerto Rico. From there we were flown back to Trinidad aboard the same plane.


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