From Trinidad to Belize, the steel pan’s intoxicating sound unites the Afro-Caribbean diaspora.
By Alexander Evans
Pan Yaad is Belize’s grandest steel pan concert—a signature event of our annual “September Celebrations,” a near month-long calendar of festivities countrywide, leading up to Belize’s Independence Day on September 21. At Pan Yaad 2016, I was on the verge of leaving my country to become the first Belizean to pursue a Bachelor in Musical Arts at the University of the West Indies St. Augustine Campus, in Trinidad and Tobago. This meant leaving Pandemonium behind—the steel pan band I’d directed since its inception—and my students. Following our high-energy performance that evening in 2016, my last hoorah with them before heading to Trinidad, a lady approached the mother of one of my students. “Miss, your son is really talented,” I heard her say. But if it weren’t for the groundbreaking “Beat A Pan, Not A Man” music program in Belize—pioneered by the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) and Restore Belize, a UNICEF-funded government agency supporting community building—would this young musician’s talent have been on display for all to notice? I left feeling as if I’d borne witness to the power of the steel pan.
From Trinidad to Belize
The steel pan was born in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s. To this day, it’s considered one of the only acoustic instruments invented in the last century. But the initial journey was long for the steel pan to gain enough acceptance and popularity to become Trinidad’s national instrument in 1992. Pan was born in barrack yards, in impoverished areas outside Port of Spain, and there was a time when pan players were seen as hooligans, and pan was associated with violence and gang brawls. Its origins also became a testament to the divergent growth of creativity seeds within the African diaspora. In the southern United States, steel pan blossomed into jazz. In Jamaica, it evolved into reggae. In Belize, it grew into brukdong music, a folkloric Kriol genre born in logging settlements along the Belize River.
Steel pan music was introduced to Belize in 1964 through the efforts of Dr. Lennox Pike and then-future Governor General of Belize, Sir Colville Young. They started the first steel band, known as the All Stars Steel Band, which catered to college level students. Over the years, other groups were born such as Pantempters Steel Orchestra, Pantastics Steel Band, and Panerifix Steel Band. With the instrument’s origins in Belize firmly rooted in tertiary education, pan began trending towards young and middle aged professionals. This reinforced the overarching narrative that music education in Belize was a luxury available to children of wealthy families, who could afford piano, violin, and eventually, steel pan classes. To challenge the status quo, Pandemonium Steel Band was born.
Pan with a purpose
The Pandemonium Steel Band launched in 2013 as part of the “Beat A Pan, Not A Man” joint government and UNICEF social outreach program. The program was created to offer free steel pan lessons to youth from at–risk neighborhoods. The symmetry of the idea was beautiful: an instrument that originated with oppressed populations in Trinidad and Tobago, used to uplift their Belizean counterparts almost a century later. Pandemonium grew to have five band directors and 60 active students.
In 2016, steel pan music legend and arranger Liam Teague invited my band’s leaders to visit the birthplace of pan, and learn from him at Panorama, the largest steel pan competition in the world, held in Port-of-Spain. Jarriel Hyde, Lynn Young, Benoit Coye and I performed in the large band category with Trinidad’s PCS Nitrogen Silver Stars. We became the first Belizeans to attain this accolade.
A shared identity
With assistance from NICH, the University of Belize, and the Anglican Diocese of Belize, the UWI Arts Steel Ensemble visited Belize in 2017. With such cultural exchanges, the bond between the two nations continues to grow.
From Panorama in Trinidad in February, to Pan Yaad in Belize in September, the energy-packed rhythms of this instrument are incomparable. When mallets dance with steel, we join an international fraternity, united by the permeating love for a powerful instrument and a gem of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora: the steel pan.