Trinidad finally names steelpan as national instrument

Harmony Steel Orchestra beats out soca vibes during the launch of 2023 J’Ouvert in Brooklyn on Saturday, July 22.
Photo by Nelson A. King

Boasting that the steel pan has been the only acoustic instrument created in the 20th century, lawmakers in both houses in Trinidad have passed a bill designating the pan as the national instrument of the republic with sister isle, Tobago.

“This legislation will establish a definitive claim on the steelpan as an invention and innovation that was created in Trinidad and Tobago. Wherever the steelpan goes, it will be marked as a creation of this nation,” Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, Senator Randall Mitchell said. Opposition representatives also voted for the bill. “The designation of the steelpan as our national instrument will increase opportunities for strategic investments and intensify penetration in the highly competitive global cultural and creative market.”

The steelpan has since the late 1930s been associated with the Caribbean’s most southerly island and few people on the planet have ever disputed that it belongs to the country of about 1.3 million. Its use has spread to all corners of the globe, to Japan in Asia, to North Africa and other places with thousands of young people learning to play the instrument, developed from discarded steel drums and similar containers. It is defined as a percussion instrument. The playing area of the drum is banged into various sections including convex areas and notes are developed from these grooves producing virtually unlimited melodies and sounds.

Last week’s debate in both the house and the senate presented a rare bipartisan opportunity for lawmakers as it passed easily. The bill has only four clauses, with the first two linked to defining what a steel pan is, the third declaring the pan as the national instrument and the last requiring the sitting culture ministry to update parliament on its development locally and internationally every two years.

During the debate, Minister Mitchell ensured that some of the pioneers and developers of the instrument were actually honored with a shout out from the floor. These included names like Winston Spree Simon, Ellie Manette, Anthony Williams, Neville Jules, Bertie Marshall and Beverly Ramsey-Moore, the President of Pan Trinbago. The association later issued a statement acknowledging “this historic step celebrates our rich cultural heritage and honors the legacy of all who have contributed to the steelpan’s journey. Thank you for recognizing and elevating our national pride. This milestone not only validates our past but also propels us towards a vibrant future where the steelpan continues to inspire and unite us all,” she said.

The United Nations has already designated Aug. 11 as World Steelpan Day. Minister Mitchell, also responsible for arts and tourism, argued that the designation as national instrument “promotes tourism development, economic growth and the distinctive global recognizability of nations. In addition, this designation has the potential to act as a catalyst for the increased production, promotion, distribution and commercialization of our national instrument, which will redound to the benefit of our citizens.”