Trinidadian steelbands have been in existence since the 1940s, when Trinidadians
turned metal containers left by U.S. military forces stationed in Trinidad
and Tobago into musical instruments. The groups were originally formed
by young men and teenagers from economically depressed neighborhoods in
Trinidad's capital Port-Of-Spain and subsequently spreading to outlying
towns such as Arouca, a rural village 12 miles east of Port-Of-Spain.
Initially the steelbands faced strong resistance from their neighbors.
When I first started to play the pan it wasn't considered
a musical instrument. Steelbands originated in the slums by guys who had
no jobs, who were looked down on. If you played the pan you were a vagabond.
I used to get a lot of beatings for playing pans. But we stuck it out.
It's come a long way.
Panists in Trinidad faced many challenges in pursuing their music. First
they had to find a place to play, a formidable task because outdoor space
was difficult to find, and many residents at first did not want to hear
the loud rhythms of the calypsos. As Fitz recalls:
There was this house that was about 3 feet off the ground
and I used to be underneath there playing all day. When I first started
out I used to sleep with the pans!
The secret behind any good steelband is the tuner. Steel pans are not bought
in a store, they are crafted by the tuner from large 55 gallon steel barrels
that are used to transport oil. Fitz Worrell of Uniondale is one of a few
recognized tuners in the New York area. Fitz was born in 1937 in Arouca.
He learned to tune from Kelvin Forsythe, a fellow panist whom he knew as
a young boy. Like many instrument makers, Fitz says the most important quality
is "to have a lot of patience."
Tenor is the hardest because you have a lot more notes and
you have smaller areas to put these notes. It's the lead pan and so each
note has to be very distinct.
There are many steelbands on Long Island including the Adlib Steelband of
Freeport and the Steel Sensations in Queens Village. As Fitz asserts: "Steelbands
are something we should all be proud of". He has made hundreds
of pans for groups on Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens. Through his efforts
there are dozens of children and adults who can continue the steelband tradition,
passing it down through their families and communities.