The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago

The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago

The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago

The Steelband Movement: The Forging of a National Art in Trinidad and Tobago


The Steelband Movement examines the dramatic transformation of pan from a Carnival street music into a national art and symbol in Trinidad and Tobago. By focusing on pan as a cultural process, Stephen Stuempfle demonstrates how the struggles and achievements of the steelband movement parallel the problems and successes of building a nation.

Stuempfle explores the history of the steelband from its emergence around 1940 as an assemblage of diverse metal containers to today's immense orchestra of high-precision instruments with bell-like tones. Drawing on interviews with different generations of pan musicians (including the earliest), a wide array of archival material, and field observations, the author traces the growth of the movement in the context of the grass-roots uprisings of the 1930s and 1940s, the American presence in Trinidad in World War II, the nationalist movement of the postwar period, the aftermath of independence from Britain in 1962, the Black Power protests and the oil boom of the 1970s, and the recession of recent years.

The Steelband Movement suggests that the history of pan has involved a series of negotiations between different ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, and social organizations, all of which have attempted to define and use the music according to their own values and interests. This drama provides a window into the ways in which Trinidadians have constructed various visions of a national identity.


Above the eastern edge of Port of Spain, Trinidad, rises Laventille Hill, with densely built houses clinging to its steep slopes. a narrow road winds up the hill, and from it radiates a maze of paths that lead to individual locations with names that only the inhabitants know. On top of the hill, across from the Laventille Shrine, are a spacious lot and an open concrete block community center which together serve as the panyard, or practice site, for the Desperadoes Steel Orchestra. On a Sunday morning during the busy Carnival season, the band can be found at rehearsal. Its beautifully chromed pans are grouped in sections, from the rich basses through the pure, high-pitched tenors. the performers in each section move in unison, negotiating complex phrases and chord progressions under the guidance of the musical arranger. Soon they will be appearing in Panorama, a nationwide steelband competition where they have claimed many victories. Scattered about the yard are young men from the neighborhood, some of whom observe the band intently while others banter among themselves. in the yards of nearby houses, people tend to laundry and other morning chores. Boys fly small homemade kites that rise so high as to almost disappear in the cloudless sky. Below, the Gulf of Paria stretches out to the hazy shore of Venezuela.

To the west of Laventille Hill, downtown Port of Spain extends from the Gulf to the Queen's Park Savannah. Two blocks above the wharves is Independence Square, presided over by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. the square is always jammed with pedestrians, cars, and maxi-taxis, privately owned taxi vans with booming sound systems and often lush interior decor. in the commercial district surrounding and above the square, banks, fabric stores, clothing shops, dry goods emporia, jewelry stores, and restaurants vie with street vendors selling shirts, shoes, sunglasses, kitchen utensils, newspapers, lottery tickets, herbs, hot peanuts, and an array of fruits, vegetables, and fish. People come downtown not only to shop but for the conviviality. On the crowded sidewalks, one is sure to encounter friends and acquaintances.

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