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 recalled:
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 was 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 said the most important quality was “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 asserted: “Steelbands are something we should all be proud of”. He made hundreds of pans for groups on Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens before his passing. Through his efforts there are dozens of children and adults who can continue the steelband tradition, passing it down through their families and communities.