Discover beaches, rainforests and steelpan in Trinidad and Tobago

Steelpan odyssey

504 Photo by Alain Hottat.

“You might want to cover your ears. This is gonna be loud.”

I am standing beneath a rusted tin canopy in a modest backyard studio in Laventille, a labyrinthine community tucked deep within the hills of Port of Spain, Trinidad. It is here, in this gritty, working-class neighbourhood, that the steelpan—the Caribbean’s quintessential instrument—was born. All around me are discarded oil barrels, some on racks, some in stacks, each awaiting a second life far more lovely and melodic than its first.

As the noonday sun beats down, steelpan-maker Rolly Hart grabs a hammer and steadies the overturned oil barrel before him. He eyes the barrel’s flat surface, looking at the veiny lines he’s just drawn to mark out the drum’s soft spots. “Okay,” he cautions me again. “This’ll be loud.”

BAM.

I jump at the deafening clang, despite the double warning.

BAM BAM BAM.

Hart keeps it up, “sinking” the flat surface of the barrel until it resembles a dent-filled, shallow basin. In his thick, lilting accent, he explains the next steps, from cutting the drum to its proper size, to tempering or firing it in a tarnished-red stove, to marking out individual notes, chroming and tuning. It’s the tuning that takes the longest, as it’s a painstaking, exacting process.

While Hart demonstrates, his teacher and mentor, Gabriel “Doyle” Robley, looks on, nodding his approval, adding his own two cents every now and then while absentmindedly cleaning his ears. (As one of the world’s top steelpan makers and tuners, he needs to keep those ears clear.)

Robley, who learned “pan” in the nearby town of San Juan as a kid and once played professionally, has a degree in pan technology from the University of Trinidad and Tobago, where he currently teaches a class in steelpan making.

When he’s asked what it is that he loves about pan, Robley smiles and shrugs: “It makes you feel good.”

You can’t visit flamboyant, multi-ethnic Port of Spain without hearing—and being moved by—music. Whether it’s the playful tunes of calypso, the frenetic sounds of soca or even the folkish vibes of parang, music is so intertwined with the culture, history and everyday lives of Trinidadians that there’s a constant rhythm that runs throughout the city. And it’s the steelpan that keeps the beat.

Touted as the only acoustic instrument to be invented in the 20th century, the steelpan’s roots can be traced back to the rich drumming tradition of African slaves who were brought to Trinidad by European settlers beginning in the 1600s. When the colonial government banned the use of skin drums after abolition in the mid 1800s (out of concern the drums were being used to convey secret messages), bands of rhythm-obsessed African youth took to drumming with hollow bamboo, then later with pots, pans, biscuit tins and dustbin covers.

By the 1930s, these musicians had settled on discarded 55-gallon oil barrels—waste from Trinidad’s booming oil industry—as their material of choice and were soon experimenting with adding notes and pitches by pounding in and out the top surface of the barrels. Eventually, they produced an instrument that contained the entire chromatic scale. The steelpan was born.

Over the next few decades, the instrument, developed by the poorer class, began to be embraced by the wider community. Now there are a whopping 167 registered steelpan orchestras, or steelbands, in the country—and some of them are huge. In Trinidad and Tobago, a large steelband can have upwards of 200 active members. While many of these groups perform throughout the year, it is during Panorama that they truly have the opportunity to showcase their talents.

Known as the largest steelband competition in the world, Panorama takes place during the country’s raucous, pre-Lenten Carnival season. Orchestras from across the country perform for the honour of best steelband, while diehard fans root for their favourite bands the way Canadians root for their hockey or football teams.

Panorama finals unfold each year at Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Savannah, a massive green space that gets jammed with joggers, footballers and a variety of vendors once the sun goes down. And it’s here, over a delectable late dinner of corn soup and doubles (a Trinidadian favourite consisting of flat bread and curried chickpeas) that guide Andrew Welch discusses the added merits of the national instrument. His company, Banwari Experience Ltd., excels at arranging custom-made tours that let visitors revel in Trinidadian culture by meeting and mingling with local people.

“Steelpan is possibly the best social intervention in Trinidad,” Welch says as we wander through Savannah’s unofficial food fair.

“There are young people who, between six and 12 at night, could be finding all kinds of lovely, juicy mischief to make. Instead, they are in these bands, learning drills over and over, playing music and conforming to strict band rules.”

As if to illustrate his point, we go to see the Trinidad All Stars—one of the country’s largest, oldest and most celebrated bands—rehearse in their panyard. A panyard is an outdoor area where musicians in a steelband gather to practise their compositions. There are panyards throughout the country, and, in Port of Spain, these special places often turn into popular night-time spots where fans, friends and visitors can hang out—or “lime”—and listen to the music under the stars.

Just about every panyard has a bar, and as I take a second swig of Carib Lager, I watch the All Stars rehearse. Sure enough, groups of tweens and teens are playing with their much older bandmates. There are about 40 or 50 members present at this rehearsal, all of them bent slightly at the waist over their instruments, their faces peering into the concave openings, their bodies bouncing with the beat. Off to the side a bit, the “six bass” players, each surrounded by six full-sized drums, appear almost choreographed as they move in unison between their pans.

Later, we meet up with Clive Telemaque, an arranger and composer for the All Stars, as well as a pan teacher and a prominent pannist in his own right. Telemaque has been playing pan since he was a small boy. “It’s my life,” he says with a grin.

When I ask him for some insider tips for Port of Spain tourists who are new to the steelband scene, his advice is simple: visit in January. The weeks leading up to Panorama, he explains, are the best times to come out to the panyards to watch and listen. “You could go to 167 panyards and be sure to see people practising,” Telemaque says. “Everybody is playing their hearts out, enjoying it, and the stands are packed. Really, you’ll hear pan until you won’t wanna hear it no more.”

Retreat to Tobago

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Piece of advice:

Don’t plan on relaxing much if you’re visiting Port of Spain. The city is a hub of activity and bustle—it’s urban, through and through. So, once you’ve sampled POS’s vibrant music scene, wild nightlife and eclectic cuisine, take the two-hour ferry ride or 25-minute flight to lovely Tobago—and revel in some serious downtime. Trinidad’s sister island is so laid-back, you’ll have doubts that the two are related. Here you’ll the find palm-fringed beaches, romantic coves, charming fishing villages and beautiful resorts synonymous with Caribbean escapes. You’ll also find some prime opportunities for adventure. Whether it’s parasailing at Pigeon Point Beach, snorkelling in the crystal-clear waters of Buccoo Reef or hiking the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere, Tobago’s eco activities are the perfect counterbalance for all that relaxing you’re sure to do.

Clive's Top 5 Panyards

503 Photo by Alain Hottat.

Longtime pannist Clive Telemaque suggests checking out the panyards of the country’s top large bands for a true sense of what steel orchestras can do. “You’ll get the best players there, the best arrangers, the best tonal quality and songs,” he says.

Trinidad All Stars

46-48 Duke St., Port of Spain

Renegades

138 Charlotte St., Port of Spain

Desperadoes

Laventille Road, Laventille

Silver Stars

56 Tragarete Rd., Port of Spain

Exodus

Eastern Main Road, St. Augustine