Steelpan music: a religious celebratory act

Posted: March 20, 2012 by lilzak in Uncategorized


The article by Ray Allen “traces the emergence of Brooklyn’s J’Ouvert festival in the larger context of New York Carnival, and considers the event’s role in the revitalization of older Carnival traditions in Brooklyn’s Trinidad-American community.”

“J’Ouvert remains a grassroots celebration of Trinidadian pan, calypso, and ole mas-deep cultural symbols that offer trans-planted Trinidadians and their American-born children the possibility of connecting across space to their native homeland, and back in time to their African ancestors who processed through the streets of Port of Spain with drums and Camboulay torches to celebrate their independence from slavery.” This carnival aids in reinforcing identity and the notion of home not only in Trinidad but also to Africa where carnival originated.


The author examines the locality of steelpan music and its connection to the lower class people who are largely African descended and to the African religious practices of the Orishas which pan originates. It also notes the struggles and fierce resistance of the people in these areas that shows the trajectory of the success of the music from the poor to the middle class to success on the worlds’ stage through the Panorama music venue.

The author also looks at the notion of nostalgia and decline and loss of the “spirit of pan

He also talks about the influence of the Orisha religion and how pan is an instrument of “spirit” because it honours the spirit Shango even though the devotees who practice the religion are feared. They have a fearless aggressive attitude during possession or manifestation of Orisha deities. The author points out the “spirit manifestation and resistance points to the deep connection between music and politics in Trinidad. Whether in relation to slavery, colonial domination, nationalism, or class and ethnic tensions, the tendency to reflect, resist, or transcend political circumstances is fundamental to the spirit of carnival music in general and pan in particular.”

Playing the pan calls the spirit  “on some level of awareness, an indicatior of the steel pan’ cultural roots and spiritual power.” The practice of this religion allows the people to resist “elitist values and control,” and reject the institutionalization of what they produce.

However, the problem of erasure of its social roots that link Trinidad’ unique cultural history to a broader pattern of postcolonial nationalism”


The author examines pan symbol of national culture where the issue of how a venue like Panorama affords steel pan prominence and status but is framed and controlled by sponsors.


The author discusses the notion of popular nationalism and the role of sentiment in nationalism and how it must “address the seriousness of play.” There is a desire to control play but, “the unpredictability of play is thus both necessary and problematic for those who wield power.” steelbands are of and from the people who are marginalized for being African and poor and they created a way to play collectively.

Gage Averill’ article focuses on how the West Indian community in New York retains its distinctiveness by retaining their accents and music which they use as markers for their uniqueness. They want to pursue the “American dream” as Caribbean Americans. They possess all the characteristics of diasporic issues: identity, hybridity, community and social commentary. They view the Carnival experience as “cathartic”. The music of Carnival and bacchanal confirms Caribbean identity and helps to ease the “transition of West Indians to different social and cultural systems.”4

Articles similar to Mannur’ article on how she experienced foods from different parts of India because she lived in Indian diaspora communities around the world. Steelpanning is now a transnational, transcultural phenomenon around the world including Toronto, London and Brooklyn.

I think religion plays a pivotal role in music and non-Western cultures understand this more than the West. When an instrument is dedicated to a deity it has to be played the way the spirit wants. It is referred to in some places as “calling the spirit” and when the spirit comes it is manifested through the medium for that spirit (ie priest, priestess, pastor, prophet, etc.) or whoever is present if the spirit so chooses. The people’ behavior at each part of the ceremony tells you the nature of the spirit being manifested. For example the author mentions the first part of the carnival is somber, and quieter with ghoulish costumes and mask etc. There is a type of offering offered to the deity at some time and the celebrative part is the carnival where everyone can participate, hence, one reason why there is so much strife or as they say bacchanal at these carnivals. There is a standing but quietly kept joke among West Indians and it’s “when girls go to carnival many of them come home with babies in their bellies.” This is because these festivals can be really, really wild. It is also similar to the celebration of Saturn called Saturnia during the reign of the Romans.

The Steelpan is a way for the people to reinforce their identity not just to each other as noted but also to forge and reinforce their relationship with the Yoruba, Orisha gods and goddesses of Africa. This gives them their spiritual identity and the power they need to resist forces that can sever these ties. The locality of the Steelpan is as important as the locality of the Orisha religion.

Would continental Africans who practice the Yoruba religions consider carnival in the West authentic ?

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s