What is a steelpan? Instrument featured in Google Doodle explained - and how it is played

The steelpan is a symbol of Trinidadian culture

Google has paid tribute to the steelpan in its most recent Google Doodle posted on 26 July.

The Doodle is an illustrative change made to the Google logo which celebrates landmarks throughout the year such as anniversaries and the lives of famous artists, pioneers and scientists.

The new animation, displayed to millions throughout the world on the Google homepage, celebrates the story of the steelpan and the long lasting legacy it has created.

Steelpan Google doodle (Google images )
Steelpan Google doodle (Google images )
Steelpan Google doodle (Google images )

What is a steelpan?

The steelpan emerged in the 1930s and has since become an icon of Trinidadian culture.

It is recognised as one of the only major acoustic musical instruments to be created in the 20th Century.

A steelpan is a big, silver metal drum, often supported on a stand and played with two straight sticks.

Hammered into the shiny metal surface is a series of dents and each one creates a different note, subtly different from the ones around it, according to their position and size.

History of the steelpan

Although the steelpan came to prominence in the 1930s, the origins of the instrument date back to the 18th Century.

In the 1700s, enslaved Africans were brought into Trinidad by colonialists. They brought with them their long standing musical drumming traditions.

Following the emancipation in 1834 the celebrations became more powerful and their slaves began to form their own festivals fuelled by drum music.

What followed was a series of bans by the government, in 1887 the government banned the performers drumming as it was feared that it would help build up a rebellion from local communities.

In protest of this ban, musicians started to pound tuned bamboo tubes on the ground as alternatives to recreate the sounds of their drums. These ensembles were called Tamboo Bamboo bands.

Another ban would follow in 1930, when rival Tamboo Bamboo bands would cause disturbances during carnivals and other festivals.

This is when the steel pan came into its own and musicians began experimenting with new alternatives to continue their rhythm, metal objects such as car parts, paint pots and dustbins were all used.

Tim Wall of Birmingham City University said: “Slaves had been stripped of their cultural identity, their names, their music, so they created new music using things they found lying around.”

The steelpan in today’s society

Following the end of the Second World War in 1948, musicians switched to using the 55 gallon drums discarded by oil refineries and the steelpan grew and developed into a legitimate instrument through pioneers and innovators such as Winston Simon, Ellie Mannette, Anthony Willims and Bertie Marshall.

The steelpan is now closely associated with national carnival celebrations in Trinidad & Tobago and is symbolic of national pride.

Trinidad & Tobago based artist Nicholas Huggins, who illustrated the Doodle, said: “I hope people can take away the sense of the industriousness and creativity of the people of Trinidad & Tobago.”