The national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, the steelpan is capable of transporting the listener through melodic, upbeat rhythms. In Toronto, the steelpan is often heard in the summertime at the many Caribbean-Canadian events held throughout the city.
This story was researched and written by Jodie Chinnery as part of the 2022 LA&PS Internship Program through York University and Heritage Toronto’s Equity Heritage Initiative, supported by TD Bank and The Ready Commitment.
Last updated: September 15, 2022
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André Rouse is one of the founders of the Souls of Steel Orchestra founded in 2007 and is currently its stage side arranger and creative director. André began playing steelpan at the age of nine and currently teaches steelpan at Holy Spirit Catholic School.
Thadel Wilson is currently one of the musical directors for New Dimension Steel Orchestra located in North York since 1994. New Dimension Steel Orchestra is focused on bringing youth into the steelpan world by providing a space for them to learn the instrument in a band setting.
Earl La Pierre Junior currently serves as the manager of Afropan Steelband. Established in 1973, Afropan is one of the oldest and largest steelbands in Toronto. The band plays annually at Pan Alive and also teaches steelpan classes to those interested in learning the instrument.
Wendy Jones is one of the founding members and the current CEO and band leader of the Pan Fantasy Steelband, a North York youth group founded in 1986. She was first introduced to the steelpan in 1976 at Westview Centennial Secondary School in North York, the first high school in Toronto to have an accredited steelpan program.
In the 1960s, Trinidadians and Tobagonians began migrating to Toronto in hopes of securing better lives. Today, Toronto is home to the largest Trinbagonian diaspora in Canada. With them, they brought their rich, diverse culture including the steelpan, one of the only musical instruments to be invented in the twentieth century.
Alongside their search for better economic prospects in Canada, the Trinbagonian migration was also fueled by Canada’s need for skilled workers. This was promoted through programs such as the West Indian Domestic Scheme from 1955 to 1967.
Further, in the 1960s there was an increasing liberalization of Canada’s immigration policies including the 1962 Canadian Immigration Act, which increased the emphasis on an individual’s education and skills. In 1967, Canada implemented the points system which allowed for increased immigration from the Caribbean. As of 2016, there are approximately 80,000 Trinbagonians living in the Greater Toronto Area.
Although calypso music, a genre closely associated with Trinidad and Tobago, had become popular throughout North America in the 1930s and 1940s, steelpan music only began to reach mainstream Canadian audiences in the 1950s. Early Canadian performances by steelpan bands, such as the Esso Tropitones Steelband, could be found at the Canadian National Exposition as early as 1955. A decade later, at the Montreal Expo of 1967, a pavilion showcasing the culture and history of Trinidad, Tobago, and Grenada hosted several steelpan performances, introducing a new generation of Canadians to the instrument.
However, steelpan musicians or bands based in Canada were relatively rare at this time: many Canadian steelpan performances relied on touring musicians rather than home-grown talent. Founded in 1973, Afropan was one the first steelbands to be based in Toronto. Headed by Earl La Pierre Senior, the band was also responsible for hosting early steelpan festivals in Toronto, including ‘blockos’ which have been hosted by Afropan since 1973.
Blockos are events that showcase steelpan bands through playing for the public at a minimal cost in the band’s panyard and can be considered the predecessor of one of Toronto’s oldest and largest steelband showcases, Pan Alive. Many active steelbands in Toronto today are led by former members of Afropan or students of Earl La Pierre Senior, including New Dimensions Steel Orchestra, Pan Fantasy and Souls of Steel Orchestra.
Listen to Earl La Pierre Junior discuss how his dad, Earl La Pierre Senior, was instrumental in bringing the steelpan to Toronto:
Interview, July 22, 2022
The roots of the steelpan on the islands can be traced to 1883, when enslaved Black individuals were banned from having traditional West African hand and animal skin drums. Slavery was established in Trinidad and Tobago in 1606 by Isaac Duverne who brought 407 enslaved Africans to the twin islands; it was abolished by the end of 1838. During the period of slavery, an estimated 25,000 African descendants were enslaved and impacted by slavery in Trinidad and Tobago.
Listen to Thadel Wilson speaking to the history and evolution of the steelpan in Trinidad:
Lacking access to drums and influenced by kalinda bands and bamboo stamping tubes from Western Africa, musicians started using long pieces of bamboo to create rhythms. The bamboo was dried and cut to different sizes to produce various pitches when hit or pounded on the ground. This was referred to as ‘tamboo bamboo’ and were popular bands from the mid-1880s through to the 1890s, often playing at special occasions including throughout the Carnival season in February.
This evolved into using any discarded metal objects, including cracker tins and paint cans as substitute drums in the 1930s. In 1940, Trinidad experienced an oil boom when Britain allowed the United States to establish military bases on the island in exchange for U.S. warships. Multiple oil fields and refineries were established in the 1940s, which resulted in an abundance of oil containers on the islands. During this time, these discarded oil barrels often found their way into the hands of musicians: adapting the material to create the instrument recognized today as the steelpan.
Listen to Wendy Jones speaking to the different social aspects of the evolution of steelpan:
Interview, July 22, 2022
As the steelpan has grown in popularity in Toronto since the 1950s, steelpan players have increasingly incorporated new genres, including urban, R&B, classical music, religious hymns, and even pop, into their music. Similar trends occurred in other Trinbagonian diasporas around the world, including the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Listen to Thadel Wilson speak about contemporary pan and how artists are pushing the boundaries of traditional steelpan music:
This trend was driven by the dual relationship between Trinbagonians and their new homelands. On one hand, Trinbagonians were eager to bring and practice their culture in their new homes; however, they were influenced by the genres popular in their new host countries. In Toronto, urban genres of R&B, dancehall, and pop influenced and inspired steelpan musicians to push traditional boundaries and incorporate new repertoires and musical arrangements in steelbands.
Listen to Toronto-based New Dimension Steel Orchestra practice at their panyard (July 2022):
Interview, July 13, 2022
Beginning in the 1980s, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) was one of the first school boards to include the instrument in school music curricula. The TDSB also has hosted its own annual steelpan festival since 1989: the TDSB Panfest celebration, a showcase where students learning the steelband in school can demonstrate their skills and talents.
These programs provide a platform and level of accessibility to the steelpan so that it can be introduced to youth of diverse backgrounds. As of 2022, the steelpan is taught in over 30 schools across Ontario. Approximately seven hundred students are learning the steelpan through TDSB music programs. Accredited music programs are offered at the university level both through York University and the University of Toronto.
Pan Fantasy Steelband, located in North York, was formed by the North York InterCommunity Youth Group (NYICYG), a group of youth from the Jane and Finch neighbourhood in 1986. Their mission is to foster youth leadership, preserve Trinbagonian culture and provide opportunities and guidance for youth specifically in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood. Pan Fantasy also aims to teach youth leadership skills through the performing arts.
Listen to Wendy Jones discuss what it means to teach the steelpan through Pan Fantasy:
Interview, July 22, 2022
Pan Alive is an annual Toronto steelpan competition that happens during the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, usually during the last weekend of July. This event mimics Trinidad and Tobago’s Panorama pan competition, held annually during Carnival season since 1953. These competitions allow steelpan artists and bands to challenge themselves as they compete to win first place among the other bands and showcase their skills and artistry to the broader community.
Listen to André Rouse speak about the history of steelpan competitions in Trinidad:
The first Pan Alive was hosted collaboratively by the Toronto Steelpan Community, the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) and the Office of the Consul General for the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. The event took place as a non-competitive event on July 27, 1997 at the Ontario Place Island Club. Attendees paid an entrance fee of ten dollars to see ten steel bands from across Ontario showcase their talent for twenty minutes each.
Listen to Thadel Wilson speaking about Toronto’s biggest and most well-known steelpan competition, Pan Alive, and performing in 2022:
Since the first Pan Alive, the Caribbean Cultural Committee (CCC) has become a loyal sponsor. In 2003, the Ontario Steelpan Association (OSA) officially launched. Pan Alive, hosted by the Steelpan Community and the CCC, was relocated to Old Fort York and was held on August 1 as a competitive event. With the success of the initial Pan Alive, OSA gained momentum and independently produced Pan Alive in 2004 once again at Old Fort York. Due to its popularity, in 2005, Pan Alive relocated to the larger Allan Lamport Stadium, where it has been held ever since.
Many pan artists and bands face the challenge of both funding and being able to have a stable space to house their instruments and practice. Currently, only a few bands have a stable space where they can practice year round. Most steelbands in Toronto, including Pan Fantasy, Afropan, Souls of Steel Orchestra, and New Dimension Steel Orchestra, run as non-profit, community agencies and they rely heavily on the generosity of the broader community and individuals interested in the steelpan community.
To continue the momentum of passion and energy from Toronto Caribbean Carnival and Pan Alive, Wendy Jones and Earl La Pierre Junior formed the Pan Arts Network (PAN) to host steelpan events throughout the year. Through these events, steelpan artists are provided space to play and showcase their talents year round.
Listen to Wendy Jones speak about the importance of the Pan Arts Network (PAN):
In Toronto today, the steelpan is no longer just reserved for events such as Pan Alive and the Toronto Caribbean Carnival. Large venues including Toronto’s Harbourfront and the Canadian National Exhibition have recruited steel bands to play on their stages.
Recently, there has been an increasing interest in merging the sounds of the steelpan with other orchestra instruments. This can be seen through Souls of Steel Orchestra who strive to combine the steelpan with other traditional orchestra instruments, including saxophones, trumpets, and flutes. Through combining these instruments, they are forging a new and creative path for the steelpan to reach new listeners.
Listen to Thadel Wilson speaking to the importance of listening to live steelpan performances:
Currently, there are thirteen steel bands registered with the Ontario Steelpan Association, seven of which are based in Toronto. Increasingly, festivals, cultural events and private bookings provide opportunities for steelpan artists and steel bands to showcase their talents. This shows the increasing popularity and appreciation in the wider Toronto community for both the instrument and steelpan artists.
Listen to the Souls of Steel Orchestra perform an original piece, “Ah Mood” composed by André Rouse, at the Snowflakes on Steel Concert, 2018:
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