From the radio FM-100 series: Emancipation to Celebration

   By Gideon Maxime (1997)
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The 8th May, 1997, is the anniversary of that joyous occasion 52 years ago, when in the morning at 9:30 am, steelbands came out onto the streets of Trinidad and Tobago for the first time to mark VE Day (Victory in Europe).


From as early as 1937, recorded events had shown that the change had began towards the formation of this phenomenal instrument called the steelband. Paint cans and biscuit tins were used side by side with the Tamboo Bamboo in making music on the street during Carnival.

The steelband as we know it now was in its infancy and the selections played then were nothing to be compared with the sophisticated classics or polished musical works by leading world composers.

Between the years 1941 and 1945 when Carnival was banned on account of the war, many changes took place.

Experiments took place in the backyards and in open areas. Inventive players such as Ellie Mannette, Winston "Spree" Simon and several others started to tune dustbins and play melodies on them. The similarity of the tamboo bamboo music was copied. For instance, the ping pong played the melody, the kettle gave the harmony. The pans were carried on shoulder straps.

So the scene was set for that fateful morning. After years of being pent-up, the steelband now took to the streets.

The music that was played on that glorious day came about through years of blood, sweat and tears. Countless sacrifices were made. Obstacles and hindrances were placed in its path, but in the end the instrument prevailed.


Let us now reflect on the history of the steelband.

The steelband had its origin from the moment emancipation came about in 1838. The freed blacks held festivities to mark this occasion. In this connection, the Canboulay patois for Cannes Brulees, from the French meaning burning cane, and which was the origin of the Kalinda and Carnival, was practised.

Pierre Gustave Borde in his writings held that both whites and Africans danced the Kalinda on Carnival days.

Before 1838, when ever fire broke out on an estate, the enslaved Africans were sent to put out these fires. However, after 1838 the Historian J.M. Fraser held that the Africans re-enacted this event by "making believe they were putting out fire".

[Historical note: Following the outflow of skilled agricultural labour over the years after emancipation, to make up the shortfall the estate owners, with the aid of the government authorities, enacted a plan to import low cost indentured labourers from Eastern Asia. They began arriving in Trinidad, on the lure of land grants, complete with their cultural traditions, attire, instruments, Hindu and Muslim religions, in 1847. Their progeny provides about 40% of Trinidad's population today. The drums and rhythmic traditions of this mainly Indian heritage, impacted strongly from the beginning, to infuse with the existing African drumming traditions, and marks yet another extraordinary facet of Trinidad and Tobago's cultural diversity.]


Stick-fighting and drumming had a rebellious appeal. By 1868 the practice of playing drums or dancing to them, along with the bangee or chac chac or the carrying of any lighted torches were banned.

By 1877 Captain Baker who was appointed Chief of Police succeeded in controlling stick fighting, by putting armed guards at the meeting places of the bands so that the Africans were forced to surrender their instruments.

All types of drumming, even at East Indian and African religious meetings, were banned, and this was supported by the leading newspapers of the day. A perusal of the Port of Spain Gazette, Fair Play and New Era, newspaper[s] of the day, all supported the ban.


This ban was not readily accepted. Riots broke out in several areas. There was violence in the Carnival of 1884 and attempts were made to break up the Hosay festival which include Tasa drumming. Thirteen persons were killed and several were wounded.

In addition there was riots in Arouca in 1891. Police were attacked by stick fighters. Reinforcements were sent and drums were confiscated. Kalinda however, still existed in places such as Tunapuna, Freeport, Sangre Grande, Arima and Brasso.

However, in the long run the drums were banned and the population had to find an alternative form of instrument to replace the drum.


Following [the banning due to] all these riotings, Cannes Brulees and Kalinda songs did not die, but went underground. A new form or medium of music developed and this was the Tamboo Bamboo.

At first, the Africans began to beat old boxes and pieces of metal but by 1891 they began to experiment with Tamboo Bamboo


At this point let us look and see why the Tamboo Bamboo was accepted. The Tamboo Bamboo did not carry any superstitious symbolism and fear which whites associated with the drum, and it was not connected with messages as was with the drum. In addition, it did not drive the revellers into the spiritual [frenzy] nor was it associated with any religious practices.

The Tamboo Bamboo brought into play the creative skills of the African revellers and demonstrated the manner in which the African in Trinidad applied and readapted their West Africa tradition of music to new experiences in the Caribbean. The Tamboo Bamboo gave full creative musical expression to its people.

The Tamboo Bamboo was a rhythmic ensemble made up of bamboo joints beaten together [the larger pieces were pounded on the ground]

[The instruments comprised]
The cutters, the smallest piece representing the soprano pitch
The fullers as the tenor
The chandles representing the alto
The bass or boom bamboo representing the bass.

The Tamboo Bamboo bands were very well established and prospered in the 1910's and 1920's.

This new form of music was clearly associated with the Calypso Road Marches [where the stanza is an extract from one] of these.

Mar-saray K, We kill Peter Agent
When ah dead bury meh clothes
Fire Brigade water the road

And of the Tamboo Bamboo bands

    Some of the early Tamboo Bamboo bands were
  1. The Belmont Tamboo Bamboo Band of Cadiz Road
  2. The Calvary Bamboo Band of Corbeau Town; situated at lower Sackville Street
  3. The John John Tamboo Bamboo Band
  4. The Laventille Hills Tamboo Bamboo Band
  5. The Lime Grove Bamboo Band of Gonzales
  6. The Mafumba Tamboo Bamboo Band of George Street
  7. The St James Tamboo Bamboo Band of Fort George


The change to steel instruments was made around 1935 and it is debatable, to say the least, as to who can claim responsibility for such.

The Port of Spain Gazette in 1941 reported the use of biscuit drums and dustbins orchestras. Unfortunately, because of the war, Carnival was suspended from 1942.

This suspension, however, did not prevent steelband players from coming unto the streets in defiance. The Evening News of 16th February 1942 reported that Keller Sandlford was jailed for six months for breaking the law. In addition, Norman Guy, Henry Collostrom, Michael Bostic and Jamies Forde were sentenced for twenty-on days for the same offence.

Some people of the upper class complained of noises emanating from the various yards and Magistrates gave stiff penalties as well.

During these years of suspension, young men from the urban lower class experimented with the pans, they sunk, grooved and tuned them.


After five years and eight months of inhibition, the scene was set in 1945 when there where signs that the war in Europe was coming to an end.

The population was promised a "jump up" to celebrate victory, and this came on Tuesday 8th May 1945.

Carnival costumes put away, in some [cases] since 1940, were shaken out and men donned house-coats and dresses to join in the fun. Calypso [were] preferred to waltzes. Musicians played louder than ever. Continually for hours. on the streets of Port of Spain, there was trampling, yelling, dancing and gesticulating.

Citizens gave full vent to their feelings; singing all the songs they could remember. Reallv a glorious day. The steelbands were now out in full force and this was the first time that steelbands had come onto the streets.


Steelbands and steelband music ha[s] gradually developed as a result of hard work. Steelbands men learnt by trial and error, since many of them were not formally trained.

They gave to the world a music which now is taken as another wonder of the world. Improvements and experimentation are still on a pace.

© 1997 Gideon Maxime [This program presentation was interspersed with music selections]

[This reference is a matter of research for these pages]

Compiled & Processed by Islands Research for:
The Steelbands (Pan) of Trinidad & Tobago - © 1998:
19981215 - - 1m20071228 - 2m20140615
Historic Update: 02 July 2005; Last Update: 23 June 2014 14:30:00 TT
Processed by: Jeremy G de Barry
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