The origins of Trinidad + Tobago’s Carnival can be traced well into the eighteenth century, where French plantation owners would host elaborate celebrations and masquerades that lasted up until Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. Indentured laborers and slaves were not allowed to participate in these festivities, and thus began their own celebration, which consisted of stick fighting, chanting, and drumming as a form of mimicry against slave owners.
After the emancipation of slavery on the islands in 1838, freed slaves and indentured laborers began carrying burning sugar canes [French: cannes brulées (burnt cane)] during their celebrations. Thus, the event eventually became known as Canboulay. The act of burning cane – along with other activities rooted in West African traditions – was seen as a form of rebellion to the colonials. Authorities were intent on banning the Canboulay, which ultimately led to the Canboulay Riots in 1881 and the subsequent ban on the event.
The ban on carnival celebrations forced freed slaves to conduct their activities under a cloud of secrecy. It was during this time that slaves resorted to beating bamboo sticks together to make music, which are known as “Tamboo-Bamboos”. These sticks were pounded on the ground and into each other to create sound. Men + women also included gin bottles and spoons to create percussion instrument sounds. By 1937, an orchestra of dustbin lids, oil drums, and frying pans had emerged, and marked the beginning of “steelbands.”
Though traditionally built from used oil barrels or steel containers, steelpans are now commonly made with precise technical specifications using sheet metal that is stretched and molded into a bowl shape. Steel bands + steelpan music became popular amongst US Navy soldiers on the islands in 1941, which – along with other factors – contributed to its international popularity.