From the Xylophone to the Steel Pan - A History of the Instrument

by Doris Green

The cultural and ancestral links in Africa to what evolved and was invented in Trinidad is not difficult. When Steel Talks (WST) revisit a 1985 article with academic, journalist, historian, ethnomusicologist, choreographer, notator and cultural and music standout Doris Green.

Republished from -  Steelbands of New York with permission from the author

A When Steel Talks Exclusive Reprint

Historic Background

Xylophones, Cameroon, ~1914
Xylophones, Cameroon,  Africa ~1914

Over three hundred years ago Africans were brought to this continent into slavery. However, — evidence exists that some Africans appeared in the Americas prior to the onset of slavery. Along with them came their music and art forms which the trauma of “middle passage” so drastically altered. The Africans’ music consisted of many instruments, melodies and rhythms which they left behind as they were forced into bondage. What were some of those instruments, melodies and rhythms? History teaches us that nothing, but nothing is created ˇn a vacuum. Everything comes from something. Was the invention of the steel pan by chance or was it an attempt to duplicate the sounds of Africa, or to reproduce an African instrument which they left behind on the distant shores? From what aspect of the genius of African music was the steel pan derived?

The Mbila (plural "Timbila") is associated with the Chopi people of the Inhambane Province, in southern Mozambique
Photo Taken By Kolby Granville - Public Domain

The sound of the steel pan resembles that of several African instruments. Some pans sound like stone instruments; some like chordophones, but the majority sound like xylophones, in particular, those used in east and south eastern Africa. The resonators of some of these xylophones are made of metal. The smaller xylophones, with narrow strips of wood, use small metal cans as resonators. The deeper the tone desired, the larger the slat of wood, thus the larger the metal resonator. The bass xylophones use the same oil drum that is used to make the steel pans. These xylophone orchestras, with their graduated metal resonators, have equivalent groupings as the steel band groupings ranging from soprano (lead) to the bass with equivalent tunings. The xylophone orchestras range from the multi- keyed xylophones to the three to five keyed bass xylophones. The steel pan orchestra has a similar range. To achieve high tones on the xylophone, the tops of the metal cans are cut off and a thin strip of wood is placed over each can. The lead pan of the steel band has the depth, cut approximately four to five inches from the rim of the oil drum, as the metal cans of the xylophone. In listening to some of the xylophone selections, similar orchestration can be readily heard.

There are many other similarities which are too numerous to have occurred by chance. The similarities further reinforce the concept of displaced Africans attempting to duplicate their instruments and sounds. Was the invention of the steel pan by chance? Further investigation into this area might prove fruitful.

African Retentions In The Music Of Trinidad

The bamboo tamboo bands (tambour bamboo) in Trinidad is a direct retention of music from Africa. Tubes of bamboo are used in different parts of Africa as a percussion instrument. For example, in Ghana, the Ga people use bamboo tubes which they strike against a slab of stone.* The tubes are three in number and are used in the “Aho”, (singing portion of festivities), which precedes the drumming and dancing. In other parts of Africa, there are bamboo tube ensembles with varying numbers of tubes from three upwards. Each tube has the lower end closed and is tuned to a different pitch. In performance, the tubes are struck against the ground in a codified fashion producing multi-sound percussive music.

Bamboo Tamboo ~ Trinidad 2003

Tapping on a glass bottle; beating on the backside of a pot and the use of wooden spoons, sticks and blocks as rhythmic accompaniment is common in Africa. In fact, children who are learning to play drums, can often be seen parading through the streets beating on pots. The use of sticks as accompaniment in singing is common in Kenya; and the use of clapping blocks s common in Nigeria. The bamboo-tamboo bands in Trinidad consisted of these aforementioned instruments - the bamboo tam boo bands are a direct descendent of the bamboo tube players of Africa.

* J.H. K. Nketia, The Music of Africa (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1974)

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