Tuesday’s Google Doodle celebrates the steelpan, a percussion instrument made of 55-gallon steel cargo drums that produces music by striking different size dents in the drum’s convex belly with mallets.
Widely regarded as the only major musical instrument to be invented in the 20th century, the steelpan originated in the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s, but its history can be traced to enslaved Africans brought to the Caribbean in the 1700s. The video Doodle, illustrated by Trinidad and Tobago-based artist Nicholas Huggins, goes on a musical journey through some of the steelpan’s history.
After slavery was abolished in the 1830s, people who were freed were allowed to join the Carnival festivities with their drums. But in the late 1800s, the British government banned the percussive music, fearing that “the drumming would be used to send messages that would inspire rebellion,” according to a Google post about steelpan history. It was replaced by the practice of banging together bamboo sticks, which also went on to be banned, sparking protests and demonstrations.
Out of those protests came the practice of making improvised percussive instruments from metal objects such as car parts, paint pots, dustbins, oil drums and biscuit tins. By the 1930s, ensembles called tamboo bamboo bands were dominated by these metal instruments, largely abandoning the bamboo tubes.
After the end of World War II, musicians began using 55-gallon oil drums discarded by the oil refineries. Pannists — as steelpan players are known — began experimenting with the containers’ surface, discovering that raised areas produced sounds different than those from flat areas. These discoveries, among others related to the containers’ shape and size, gave birth to the new family of steelpan instruments.
The steelpan was declared the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago in 1992 and is now enjoyed in concert calls around the world, including Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
So turn up your speakers and give the Doodle a listen!