From Oil Drums to Musical Instruments: The Evolution of Steelpan in Trinidad

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes


Trinidad and Tobago is a small island nation located in the Caribbean Sea. It is known for its vibrant culture, rich history, and beautiful beaches. However, one of its most recognisable symbols is the steelpan, also known as the steel drum or locally as “pan”. The pan is an instrument made from a discarded oil drum, symbolising Trinidad and Tobago’s musical heritage. Pans unique sound has become synonymous with the island’s rich cultural heritage. In this blog post, we will explore the fascinating history of the pan and how it has become an integral part of Trinidadian culture.

Origins of the Steelpan 

The steelpan originated in the African slave trade that brought thousands of people from Africa to the Caribbean. During the 19th century, drumming was a central part of African culture and was used to communicate, celebrate, and mourn. However, enslavers in the Caribbean banned the use of drums, as they believed they could be used to communicate messages that could lead to uprisings. As a result, enslaved Africans had to find new ways to express themselves through music.

The steelpan is believed to have evolved from tamboo bamboo, a percussion instrument made from bamboo tubes. Enslaved Africans would use bamboo tubes to create music, but in the early 20th century, the British colonial government banned bamboo because it was seen as a nuisance. This led to the development of the steelpan, which was created using discarded oil drums.

Winston “Spree” Simon pioneered the steel drum and played a significant role in its evolution.

Early Life and Career 

Winston “Spree” Simon was born in the Laventille neighbourhood of Port of Spain, Trinidad, in 1930. He was one of the earliest practitioners of the steelpan and began playing the instrument in the late 1940s. Simon quickly developed a reputation as one of the best steelpan players in Trinidad and Tobago. He was a founding member of several steelpan bands, including the Highlanders and the Invaders.

Contribution to the Steelpan 

Simon pioneered the steelpan and played an essential role in its development. He was one of the first steelpan players to experiment with different drum sizes, which led to the creation of the double tenor pan, a smaller and more manageable version of the steelpan. Simon was also a master tuner, and his skills in tuning steelpan drums were widely recognised.

Simon was not only a skilled musician but also a gifted composer. He composed several calypsos, including “Pan Talent” and “Pan In A Rage,” which have become classics in the steelpan repertoire. His compositions were known for their complexity and were challenging for other steelpan players to replicate.


Winston “Spree” Simon’s legacy is enduring, and his contributions to the steelpan are immeasurable. He pioneered the instrument and played a significant role in its evolution. Simon was also a mentor to many young musicians, and his dedication to teaching the next generation of steelpan players was widely recognised.

Simon passed away in 1976, but his music and legacy live on. His compositions continue to be played by steelpan bands worldwide, and his innovative techniques in tuning and playing the instrument have become standard practice. Simon’s contribution to the steelpan has cemented his place as one of the most excellent musicians ever coming out of Trinidad and Tobago.

Evolution of the Steelpan 

In the early days, the steelpan was used primarily in informal gatherings, such as street parties and carnival celebrations. However, over time, the steelpan became more sophisticated and was used in calypso music, which originated in Trinidad and Tobago. Calypso music is characterised by its witty lyrics and social commentary, and the steelpan became an integral part of the genre.

Amoco Renegades now BP Renegades “Pan in A Minor” by Lord Kitchener. Panorama Finals 1987

One of the most significant developments in the evolution of the pan was the creation of Panorama, a national pan competition annually in Trinidad and Tobago. Panorama was first held in 1963 and has since become one of the most significant cultural events in the country. The competition brings together pan bands from all over Trinidad and Tobago, who compete to be crowned the Panorama champions.

One of my favourite pan bands growing up was the Amoco Renegades. I was biased because my mom worked for the Amoco Oil Company. Amoco Renegades is now known as BP Renegades after BP acquired Amoco. The following is a list of Panorama winners starting in 1963.

International Recognition 

The steel drum has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and today it is recognised as a legitimate musical instrument worldwide. The steel drum has been used in various musical genres, including jazz, reggae, and even classical music. In 1992, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognised the steel drum as essential to Trinidad and Tobago’s cultural heritage.


The steelpan symbolises Trinidad and Tobago’s vibrant culture and musical heritage. From its origins in the African slave trade to its place as an internationally recognised instrument, the steelpan has come a long way. Today, the steelpan is an integral part of Trinidadian culture, and its popularity shows no signs of waning. As Trinidad and Tobago continue celebrating their musical heritage, the steelpan will undoubtedly remain a central part of our cultural identity.


Featured Image by David Chang Kit on Unsplash

List of Panorama Winners by PanTrinbago

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