Extract from The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan. History and Evolution by Dr Felix I.R. Blake
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   [This article, presented abridged and without permission at this stage, {permission is however being sought} is part of The Development of The Steelband section of Dr Blake's narrative. This is a small section of the whole. Over the larger view; the good Dr wonderfully threads together the African origins of a rhythmic and superstitious tradition; the East Asian cultural addition of the indentured Indian arrival; and gives a lively social commentary, with lyric extracts, of the prevailing social conditions on the ground; and much more; as he melds together his thesis of the steelbands roots. The photographic support is astounding. In so doing however, the good Dr fills a little, in order to surprise with the necessary, in following chapters. Some of this has been extracted here, and other parts reduced for links to the same data by other source pages. The instrument section has been reordered by rank of pitch.]

Stage 2


Tamboo is from the French word tambour which means drum.
Bamboo is a member of the grass family. It grows at an incredible rate, indeed it is among the fastest growing plant on land. Bamboo like all other plants takes in carbon dioxide (CO2) and gives off oxygen (02). In the sunlight physiological activity takes place within the plants - as it produces sugars and starches in the process of photosynthesis.

It is said when one cuts the bamboo plant in sunlight, the stems are more vulnerable to termites, fungus and general rotting processes. The best time to cut the bamboo therefore, is during the dark of night around new moon, bamboo stems were usually cut at night and dried out for a week or more before being prepared.


The instruments of the tamboo bamboo bands were made of bamboo stems of different sizes, weights, widths and lengths. Tamboo bamboo bands were purely rhythmic ensembles comprised of a sufficient mix of sounds to achieve tonal balance.

    [Can you spot the unintentional mistake before you go screaming out to this link?]
  • [This] group of bamboos were known as cutters and represented the soprano pitch. These were each about 25in (635 mm) long and 3-1/2 in (89 mm) in diameter with two joints intact. In playing, the cutter was held across the shoulder with one hand and struck on the side with a piece of hard wood.
  • The foulé (called fullers) was 12 in (305 mm) long and 3in (76mm) in diameter with one of the joints intact. The foulé represented the tenor pitch.
  • The chandlers were a little larger than the cutters and represented the alto pitch.
  • The bass bamboo or boom was long, wide and heavy, measuring approximately 5ft. (1.52m) long and 5in (27 mm) in diameter. The bass had three joints with the bottom joint remaining intact. It was held upright and struck on the ground or on a large, flat stone in order to produce a resonant, grunting sound. The quality of the sound varied in accordance with the angle at which the bamboo stem made contact with the ground.


It was with this assemblage that hundreds of merry-makers formed bands for festive occasions, chanting and singing as they paraded. In the Trinidad Guardian of February 5, 1920, there is an interesting short account of a tamboo bamboo performance. The purpose of the performance was to accustom the horses of the mounted policemen to the clamorous noises of Carnival day.

"The music struck up. It began with the booming sound of the Bass Bamboo which serves to regulate the time and after a few beats, a number of the bands which played the lighter reeds joined in. The cutting of the finer reeds in rhythmic percussion between the boom of the Bass Bamboo was really surprising. The shack-shack players, the bottle and spoon completed the orchestra."


In spite of the rough and rude appearance of the tamboo bamboo ensemble, it must be recognised that tamboo bamboo played a very vital role in the ultimate development of the steel pan. Tamboo bamboo had been Trinidad and Tobago's music of celebration for more than five decades, during which period extraordinary techniques and dexterity in playing various instruments were being developed. Tamboo bamboo music was played by the African population for stick-fights, folk dances such as bongo and Dame Lorraine, in wakes and revelries especially at Carnival.

On many occasions on Carnival days, brass bands or string bands found themselves playing alongside a tamboo bamboo band. At first the musicians would complain about the un-melodic noise made by the tamboo bamboo bands. Not being able to do anything about it, however, many string bands and brass bands sometimes joined forces with the tamboo bamboo bands. The experience gained by the tamboo bamboo men through the union of bamboo and other musical instruments led them to substitute many other objects into the band to replace destroyed tamboo bamboo which often broke on the road through pounding... [They also did damage to the road, which was not pleasing to the authorities.]


A well-remembered feature of the tamboo bamboo days that survives in practice to this day, is the playing of bottle-and-spoon. While the tamboo bamboo bands provided accompaniment to the rhythmic, often syncopated singing and chanting at large, open air celebrations, bottle-and-spoon became the improvised accompaniment at house parties and small impromptu musical get-togethers. In those early days, the green flask used by a certain Dutch gin manufacturer, was greatly favoured, its thick glass proving most resistant to breaking when "played".

Once emptied of their original contents, these flasks or half-bottles would be partly filled with water at different levels and played by rapping with a metal spoon. The result was a high-pitched spectrum of roughly musical tones which kept both time and rhythm to the tunes being sung or played - a foretaste of the role held by the "iron" in the present day steel orchestra.


Thus we see that the tamboo bamboo and its adjunct, the bottle-and-spoon, are precursors of the rhythmic instrumentation in present day steel orchestras.


Problems had arisen, however, in the ranks of the tamboo bamboo bands. Rivalry was very keen and keen rivalry led to frequent gang wars and petty skirmishes among the various bands. When in the course of time the bamboo stems were being sharpened like spears and used in gang warfare as weapons of attack and assault which inflicted serious bodily injuries, another ban was clapped by the police on the tamboo bamboo as a musical instrument.
[At around 1937 the good Dr records later.]

© 1995 Dr Felix Blake: Pg 48-50; THE TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO STEEL PAN: History and Evolution

[This reference is a matter of research for these pages]
© 1998: - 19971217 - 1m20071228 - 2m20140615
Historic Update: 05 December 1999; Last Update: 23 June 2014 14:30:00 TT
Processed by: Jeremy G de Barry
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