ArteFACTS – Oshawa’s First Steel Pan

By Melissa Cole, Curator

The Oshawa Museum recently received an incredible donation to our museum collection, a locally made Steel Pan/Drum.  This new artefact is a welcome addition to our collection as it supports our collection plan to encourage the collecting of artefacts that allow OM to engage with communities and cultures that are underrepresented in our existing collection.  Let’s take a look at this newly acquired artefact.

017.12.1a, b, c, d_3

Steelpans also known as steel drums or pans, when played collectively with other musicians, are known as a Steel Orchestra, also commonly known as a Steel Band.  A person that plays the Steelpan is called a pannist.

The steel drum accurately known as steel pan or pan, is part of the idiophone family of instruments and is actually not a drum, which is a membranophone.  They are the only instrument made to play in the Pythagorean musical cycle of fourths and fifths.  The pans are played with mallets, that have wooden handles and rubber ends.  The larger the size of drum, the larger the mallet head needs to be.

This particular steel pan was made and tuned by Carlyle Julal, who is a long-time member of Oshawa’s Club Carib.

Oshawa Caribs2

Not long after Club Carib got its start in 1966, they made a name for themselves by creating a steel orchestra.  Club Carib’s president at the time, George Kissoondath decided that their club needed something to celebrate Caribbean culture and bring it to Oshawa.  In 1971, Carlyle was approached with the idea of forming a steel band.  Carlyle, a native of Trinidad, West Indies had recently migrated to Canada.  As a steel band tuner, tutor and musical arranger, Carlyle was asked if he would consider forming a steel orchestra for the club.  With assistance from other Club members, they were able to obtain empty steel drums from the city dump.  At his home in Oshawa, Carlyle single handedly turned the empty steel drums from trash to treasure by creating musical instruments.

club_carib 1970s

The orchestra, known then as the “Oshawa Caribs,” had their first gig playing on a float in the 1971 Folk Arts Council parade, known today as the Fiesta Parade.  During the parade they stopped in front of Parkwood Estate to play Happy Birthday to R.S. McLaughlin who turned 100 that year.  After the parade they performed their inaugural performance which won them first prize at the parade!  They went on to other performances which included schools, shopping malls, church events and a formal recital at the Oshawa Public Library.   In 1996 the concept of another steel band for Club Carib re-emerged and the Oshawa Sounds of Steel was formed.  They continue to perform and entertain today at numerous fundraising and community and private events. Their most notable performances are during Fiesta Week at Club Carib’s Caribbean Nights pavilion and in the parade.

Lets take a look at the history and development of the steel pan.

First Pan

The instrument’s invention was a specific cultural response to the conditions present on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.  Steel pan history can be traced back to the enslaved Africans who were brought to the islands during the 1700s.  They carried with them elements of their African culture including the playing of the hand drums.  These drums became the main percussion instruments in the annual carnival festivities.

In 1877, the ruling British Government banned the playing of drums in an effort to suppress aspects of Carnival which were considered offensive.  Bamboo stamping tubes were used to replace the hand drums as they produced sounds comparable to the hand drum when they were pounded on the ground.  These tubes were played in ensembles called Tamboo-Bamboo bands.

Non-traditional instruments like scrap metal, graters and dustbins were also used in Tamboo Bamboo bands.   By the late 1930s these metal instruments dominated the Tamboo Bamboo bands.  During World War II, the British Colonial government banned Tamboo Bamboo bands and forced people to look for other ways to make merry.  During WWII Trinidad was a refueling station for the United States and Britain and readily available were steel drums.  Constant pounding on these drums against the flat end left an indentation and the sound changed.  Through experimentation, coincidence, trial and error and ingenuity on the part of numerous innovators, the metal pan bands evolved into the steel pan family of instruments.

Oshawa Caribs Midtown Mall 1972 Cropped

The steel pan is now the National Instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, which is quite fitting for an instrument that was forged from the resilience of a people that were subjected to suppression and hardship.  If you are interested in discovering more about the Steel Pan, visit the Oshawa Museum’s exhibit: From Trash to Treasure: Oshawa’s First Steel Pan on display from February 27 until July 30 2018.


The steel pan was our featured artefact in January’s Podcast.  Visit our YouTube Channel for this and other video podcasts.

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