Steel Pan and African Music of the Caribbean

Due to the influence of the slaves and their descendants, most types of music in the Caribbean are partially influenced by the music of Africa. Some island music shows this influence more clearly than others, but steel pan and other styles are still strongly African.

The sounds brought over from Africa are strongly drum-based, with call-and-response style vocals. While these elements can also be seen in some Latin styles, Latin music also incorporated many alternate instruments, particularly strings and horns. The Caribbean musical styles that are most like those found in Africa rely heavily on the importance of drums.

Steel pan music's own history emphasizes the importance of drums in African celebrations and serves to illustrate the differences between this and other Caribbean styles. It could even be said that most Caribbean celebrations would not be complete without this rhythmic style of music.

Steel Pan

Steel pan music, also called steel drum music, has an unusual history that is tied directly to the history of Carnival celebrations on Trinidad. There is some disagreement about the exact details of the evolution of the steel pan, but it began with the rowdy celebration of Carnival in the mid-1800s, at which point the use of skin drums was banned. They were replaced with bamboo drums, which were also banned.

In the 1930s the islanders found a use for steel oil drums, left from the island's business in petroleum. The use of just one metal instrument turned into the use of nearly every piece of metal that could be found - everything from car engines to garbage pail lids. In the 1940s this style of music was associated with criminal behavior.

Also in the 1940s the drum itself was reinvented. From the single note drum, pans were created that could play full scales. This revolutionized the style of play, and transformed the steel pan into the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century. This paved the way for its wider acceptance during the 1950s.

Since then, technological advancements have gone a long way toward improving the pans, helping to keep them in tune for longer periods. There are many different types of pans that play a whole range of tones, making these steel drums more than just a rhythm section.

African Religious Styles

A number of musical styles are based strongly on the African Creole religions of the Caribbean. These musical styles sprang from the fusion of African and European religions on Caribbean soil. The most well-known of these religions are Santería and vodou (commonly called voodoo or also vodun), though palo is also common.

Santería is a type of African-based religion that was combined with the Catholicism of the Spanish islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Vodou is a similar religion found on the island of Haiti. It is impossible to explain the importance of these dance styles without discussing the religions themselves.

The beliefs and practices of Santería are based strongly on the gods and goddesses of the West African tribes that were most often brought as slaves to these islands, particularly the Yoruba. The slaves associated these gods and goddesses with certain Catholic saints, and so the slaves' masters permitted their worship of the saints. There was a distinctly African style to their worship, particularly in their dance.

In Santería these musical forms are based upon the rhythms played for each particular god-saint, called Orishas. Musicians play together, each playing the rhythm of his or her own patron Orisha. These players lead the singers and dancers in the religious ceremony.

Though the concepts of vodou are similar to Santería, the tribes from both western and central Africa combined to create this religion. Vodou's songs involve lyrics that call to specific lwas, rather than using drumbeats to call upon these spirits. However, drums still play an important role in the ceremony.

Palo is the religion of the Congo people from Central Africa. This Congolese style of music uses a different style of drum - the santeros using batá drums and the paleros using ngoma drums. Palo's rhythms are simpler, but the religion itself is more concerned with so-called "black magic" than its Yoruban counterparts.

Although this sampling represents the range of such musical styles in the Caribbean, there are many more religiously-oriented Afro-Caribbean musical styles, as well as many other strongly African-influenced styles.


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.