A lesson in History: How Multiculturalism shaped the sounds of Trinidad and Tobago

Music and musical instruments have been an important aspect of cultural expression. Oral traditions have been passed down through music for centuries and Trinidad and Tobago is no different. This article looks at instruments that were either brought or created here because of forced migration such as slavery and indentureship. The musical instruments that can be found here are considered to be the foundation for the genres such as soca, calypso and chutney soca.

Musical instruments of the Indigenous People of Trinidad and Tobago are not widely known due to lack of research. However, according to the National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS), the popular Christmas music Parang is primarily a hybrid between the cultures of the Indigenous People, Spanish settlers and later on the African people. In a traditional Parang band you would find instruments such as; the Bandol/Bandola (a four-string instrument where two of the strings are made of the metal and the other two of gut), the Box Bass (a wooden instrument that has a square or rectangular box with a hole in the middle and a detachable pole at the top of the box. The centre has nylon strings that are attached to the detachable pole), the Chac Chac or Maracs (a pair of gourd rattlers), Cuatro (an instrument that is a part of the guitar family), Tock Tock or Claves (two cylindrical hardwood sticks), Tiple (a smaller version of the Bandol with only metal strings) and Guitar. However, modern bands may include instruments such as the Steel Pan and Scratcher or Guiro (an instrument made out of aluminum and has hundreds of nail-sized holes in it. Which is bent in a cylinder shaped, with a handle on the side and the textured side facing outward) [1] 


With the end of Slave trade and eventually the emancipation of slaves in the British Caribbean. Islands such as Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica needed labourers to continue plantation work. The British government brought East Indians, Chinese and Javanese to solve the labour issues. In 1845, East Indians were brought to the shores of Trinidad to be labourers on plantations. With their arrival, they brought their religion, foods and of course their dance and musical instruments which had a great impact on the cultural landscape of Trinidad and Tobago. Some of their instruments that have become very popular in Trinidad and Tobago are; the Tassa drum which is made of clay covered in goat’s skin and beaten with sticks, the Dholak, which is cylindrical, double-headed drum that is beaten on both sides, the Jahl which consist of a pair of symbols that are struck together and the Sitar which has a sound board with seven upper strings and twelve lower strings that is attached to the gourd-like base. The aforementioned instruments were brought to Trinidad and Tobago but the Dhantal was created on the sugar estates. According to the National Library and Information System Authority (NALIS), the Dhantal is an adoption of a prong used to connect the yokes of the bullocks that transported carts filled with sugar cane. A metal horse shoe would be used to strike the Dhantal thus creating a new sound in the Caribbean.  East Indian musical instruments are integral to Chutney Soca and their various festivals such as Diwali.


East Indian instruments

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade brought Africans to the Caribbean to supply labor to plantations. Naturally, when they came they brought their culture and one major component of their culture is their music and instruments particularly their drums. African people used music to communicate with each other and with their different gods. The Folk Drums and the West African drums are the two branches of drums that are most popular in Trinidad and Tobago. The folk drums originated because slaves weren’t able to bring their instruments with them. After they arrived in the Caribbean they needed to liberate themselves however, they did not have their drums so they had to improvise. They used wine or rum kegs, that their slave masters had and made the first set of drums in the Caribbean. This is referred to as the ‘Barrel Age’ because of the use of the kegs. The Bass (deeper in terms of voice), Rhythm/second drum/ fuller, lead or cutter made up the folk family. As the kegs got scarce they looked towards PVC pipe and used clamps and screws to keep it taut. The Bass and Rhythm drums were covered with goat skin but the Cutter was covered with the snare skin. Later on, persons got the idea that you could hollow out trees to make drums. They made the Bass and the Rhythm drum from the tree trunk but the Cutter drum remained in the PVC style until the late 70’s and 80’s. Until a master drummer that came from Senegal introduced the Djembe to the Caribbean. (Williams 2018)

When the West African Drum, Djembe, was brought to Trinidad and Tobago it was often thought to be a very confusing drum to play as it possesses a wide array of tones. Each drum orchestra has their own family and the Djembe was no different. There is the lead Djembe and the accompaniment Djembe or the Dunu’s. The accompaniment Djembes are; the Sangba which is the lead background music it is considered to be the heart of Malinke music. As his music sets the tone for the rhythm and is often the hardest to play. The Ken Keni has a bright, warm tone and is considered to be the spice drum, the Dun Dun or Dununba which is the bass that sounds like a thundering heart beat that adds body to a rhythm. Once done in Malinke style the accompanying drums would have a cow bell, which acts as a timer for the drummers, attached to it. A striker for the cow bell and a wooden stick to beat the actual drum. You can get six basic songs from the Djembe – bass, slap, tone, variation, kar, presska.  This drum was made by a special group Numus of Guinea and Mali they were blacksmiths and responsible to make anything out of metal and came up with the idea of the drums.  The Djembe fuller can be played by itself and the one who makes the Djembe speak or one who was born for it is called a Nanakma. Drums are tuned by pulling the strings on the sides or ponging a stick with a hammer on the sides to force the skin down making it taut again.  Some popular West African rhythms in the Caribbean would be the Maraka Dun (dance) which means the Dance of the Maraka people of Mali. And the Lamba rhythm which is meant for the Griots of Mali who is a storyteller or keeper of the traditions. In 1883 a law was passed banning drumming whether African or East Indian this ban caused the two races to come together and protest the unjust ruling. Areas such as; Laventille, John John, Toco, Siparia, Manzanilla and Sangre Grande were heavily policed for “bad johns” who broke this law. (Williams 2018)


West African drum family

Dun Duns

The Tobago Tambrin was created by the enslaved Africans when their drums were taken away from them. In order to continue to communicate with each other and their gods, they created the Tambrin which was easier to hide as it mimics the Tambourine in design. Many Africans would cover cheese boxes with animal skin usually goat’s skin and heat it over a fire to get the sweet sound. The female’s goat skin is generally used to make the Cutter which gives a high pitch sound and the male’s goat skin is generally used to make the Roller which provides the rhythm and the Boom which provides the bass. The fiddle, triangle and if there was no fiddle present you would use a harmonica would complete a Tambrin ensemble. Unlike the drums, the Tobago Tambrin has to be reheated to be tuned.

Tobago Tambrin band

From the ban of African drums, the Tamboo Bamboo bands were formed. The word tamboo derives from the French word tambour which means to drum, as the tamboo bamboo bands were used for wakes, folk dances such as the Bongo and stick fighting. The make-up of the Tamboo Bamboo bands resembles the folk drum family, the Cutter bamboo represents the soprano pitch which was carried across one shoulder and struck with a hard piece of wood. The Chandlers were a little larger than the Cutters and carried the alto pitch they were also played in the same manner as the Cutters. The Foule or fullers represented the tenor pitch and the Boom represented the bass which was played by hitting on the ground. No tamboo bamboo band would be completed without the accompaniment of the bottle and spoon which kept the timing of the band and was the precursor to the “iron”. They would often use a thick green glass bottle from a Dutch manufacturer to use in their band as this particular bottle was proven to be resistant to breaking when hit. The tamboo bamboo played an imperative role in the creation of the Steel Pan and bands that were once taboo bamboo bands became Steel Pan bands. Such as; the Calvary Bamboo band that became the Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Dead End Kids that became Desperados and the Hell Yard Bamboos band changed its name to Cross of Lorraine and later became Trinidad All Stars Steel band. Tamboo Bamboo was at an all-time high in the early 1900’s but by the 1930’s just like the drums the authorities banned them. Though both the tamboo bamboo bands and the drums were banned they were banned for different reasons. The drums were banned because the authorities feared it was a method of communication. The tamboo bamboo bands were banned because bamboos would often be sharpened into a spear shape which was used as weapons in gang warfare. [2] Between 1925 and 1945 tamboo bamboo gave way to the rise of the steel pan.

Tamboo Bamboo band

The Steel Pan solved a major problem that the tamboo bamboo bands faced such as damaging of roads by hitting the Bass bamboo on the ground, damaging one’s foot by accident the Bass bamboo on it and would often splinter and break apart after repeated pounding. Before we got to the “ping pong” era many Trinbagonians who were often apart of a low-income household would use “Biscuit” pans as a replacement for the bamboo to celebrate as they could not afford “proper” instruments such as the guitar. When World War Two broke out in 1939 it was a dark and dismal time for the world but it was also the most creative time for Trinidad. During the war, Trinidad would supply Britain with oil and with the American base Trinidad had to produce even more oil. The oil was transported in fifty–five gallon drums and the discarded oil drums quickly replaced the biscuit tins and cement drums as pans as the sound that could be achieved from the oil drums was far superior to that of the other two materials.  Several persons have made remarkable contributions to the Steel Pan-like; Winston “Spree” Simon, who is known as the “father of pan” and is credited with creating the first “melody pan”. Ellie Mannette is most known for giving the pan it’s concave shape allowing for more pitches to be played and for being the first to wrap his sticks with rubber. Bertie Marshall was the first to note the negative impact the sun had on the steel pans and as such made canopies to place over the pans while playing. He is also credited with creating the double tenor pan. And lastly, Anthony Williams who is credited for inventing the “spider web pan” this layout is the current design of the tenor pans.

Over the years the steel pan evolved from being a single instrument to a full orchestra. There are four sections in a steel orchestra: frontline pans, mid-range pans, background pans and the engine room. In the frontline section, you would find the High Tenor Pan, Low Tenor Pan and the double Tenor Pan these pans carry the melody of a tune. In the mid-range section, you would find the Guitar Pan, Quadrophone Pan and the Cello Pan these pans are used to support the melody of the frontline pans. In the background section, you would find the tenor bass, six bass, nine bass and the high bass they are the lowest pitched and they provide the harmonic and melodic chords for the orchestra. Lastly, the engine room which is equally as important as the various pan sections. This section would usually consist of the trapset, Congo drums, guiro (scratcher), iron and toc toc. The engine room is what provides timing and drives the music an overzealous engine room can make the arrangement sound chaotic.

Modern Steel Orchestra at Panorama

Old time Steel band

When the steel pans first emerged in the 1930’s the art form was not taken seriously. The instruments and their creators were looked down on by the upper class of Trinidad’s society because they were made and played by persons from the ghettos. Additionally, criminal elements wove its way into the fabric, performances of rival bands often ended in violence. International recognition of the steel pan allowed the steel pan to be embraced in its home country. Pan Trinbago was formed in 1950 and it was created to promote and develop the steel pan and by 1963 Panorama competitions were created as a pre-carnival event.




“African Drums Popular in TT.” Trinidad and Tobago Newsday Archives, Newsday, 1 Aug. 2012, archives.newsday.co.tt/2012/08/01/african-drums-popular-in-tt/.

Blake, Felix I. R. The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan: History and Evolution. Publisher Not Identified, 1995.

Manning, Katie. “Tambrinin’ In Tobago.” Ruby: A Blog by Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Atlantic, 26 Feb. 2016, blog.virginatlantic.com/t5/Our-Places/tambrinin-in-tobago/ba-p/4700.

Myers, Helen. Music of Hindu Trinidad: Songs from the India Diaspora. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

“Parang.” NALIS, www.nalis.gov.tt/Resources/Subject-Guide/Parang_25753.

Taylor, Daphne Pawan, and George Alexander Thomas. Parang of Trinidad. National Cultural Council of Trinidad and Tobago, 1977.

Dominique Williams, Dominique. Personal Interview. 26 May 2018.

[1] Taylor 33; “Parang”

[2] Blake 50; “The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan: History and Evolution”

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