March 21 – The role of the Steel pan

Posted: March 23, 2012 by innocentk in Mar 21

This week’s readings looked at the role of the steel pan in shaping a distinct Trinidadian identity. Shannon Dudley’s introduction to Music from Behind the Bride: Steelband Aesthetics and Politics in Trinidad and Tobago, explores the conditions which led to the development of the steel pan, and in particular how it has been rooted in “conditions of marginalization and strife” (Dudley, 2007). In addition to this, Dudley highlights the complex interaction between the steel pan, politics, and spirituality when he states that “narratives of the steelband portray the panmen’s defiant persistence as an analogue to Trinidad and Tobago’s struggle for independence, and Gibbons suggests that this persistence has taken spiritual sustenance from the Orisha religion” (Dudley, 2007). Through past readings we’ve been able to establish that objects do in fact have agency as we interact with them, and the steel pan is very much in line with this understanding.

The article goes on to discuss how the modernist reform movement influenced the way in which the steel pan was performed. Dudley explains that “performances that were once part of participatory community celebrations and rituals, in which the line between participants and observers might be quite indistinct, are reconfigured as staged spectacles presented to a relatively passive audience” (Dudley, 2007). This chapter introduces readers to the evolving nature of the steel pan and the changes that have taken shape in its performance. Changes that have taken the steelband out of its original context within communal gatherings and onto the stage with performances that have grown to be about the competition instead of a collective celebration around this national symbol. Therefore, the steel pans interaction with the audiences has changed as the performative spaces have changed, and as it grows further away from the pulse of the audience within the Trinidad Carnival scene.      

Ray Allen’s article entitled J’ouvert in Brooklyn Carnival: Revitalizing Steel Pan and Ole Mas Traditions looked at the steelbands use within the New York Carnival scene. Taken out of its original context, in this particular case, the steel pan has been used to reconstruct a Trinidadian cultural identity within a Carnival atmosphere that has slowly transformed into a pan-Caribbean cultural festival. Allen states that the “Parkway J’Ouvert provides pan players and their followers the opportunity to return to the streets and perform in a traditional Carnival atmosphere where the interaction of players, masqueraders, dancers, and spectators creates a sense of communal ecstasy, something akin to Victor Turner’s ‘spontaneous communitas’ ” (Allen, 1999). This is an attempt to place the steel pan back into its original context, and have it be a reflection of the Trinidad’s distinct cultural identity.                                                                               


1)      Can a steel pan in a museum case provoke the same feelings of identification as a steel pan that is played in a communal gathering?

2)      Are national symbols determined by politics or by cultural identification?

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