Steel Pan in SVG – From secular to sacred
My Journey
March 6, 2012
Steel Pan in SVG – From secular to sacred

The soft, smooth pings of a melody escape from a concave instrument within the confines of the church. Members of the congregation respond to its sound by humming along to the tune played, closing their eyes and entering into that secret place and even standing and swaying to the rhythm.{{more}} The player concludes his piece and smiles at the congregation, while they applaud, appreciating the skills of a pannist and the melodic playing of his pan in church.

Derrell Joe, a resident of Calder, is the pannist behind the instrument, which evoked such a feeling among the congregation of the Glen Baptist Church. Joe, a guest on that occasion, received ample appreciation for his skill and mastery of an instrument usually associated with the season of Carnival. Joe, a Christian and a member of the New Testament Church of God at Calder, is also a part of the Georgetown Steel Orchestra.

A player for three years, Joe has a special love for playing pan.

“I just love everything about pan,” he said laughing.

Joe likes playing pan in church, as according to him, it makes him feel set apart.

“It makes me feel extra special, like if I was chosen to do pan alone, so it just gives me an exciting feeling.” He especially likes the reaction from his audience, which motivates him to continue playing.


The steel pan is a percussion instrument made from 55 gallon drums that formerly contained oil and was birthed in Trinidad and Tobago during the early years of the 20th century.

During British Colonial rule in the late 1800s in Trinidad, hand drums were used as a call for neighbourhood gangs to gather to fight with other gangs. In an effort to curb the violence, the government outlawed hand drums in 1886.

After the outlaw of the hand drum, the Tamboo Bamboo bands were formed. Tamboo-Bamboos were tuneable sticks made of bamboo wood. These were hit onto the ground and with other sticks in order to produce sound. In Trinidad, these bands would march with their bamboo instruments through the streets. Often when two bands met each other they would stop and attack each other, sometimes using the bamboo instruments themselves.

The government soon outlawed these bands as well, and thereafter Iron Bands were formed, where persons used whatever they could find, including tins, milk cans, and oil barrels to make music. By the late 1930s, their occasional all-steel bands were seen at Carnival and by 1940, it had become the preferred Carnival accompaniment of young underprivileged men.

Winston Spree Simon is credited as being the first person to create a musical note on a steel drum. The pan, popular in the Carnival season, is used to play mainly calypso and soca melodies. The instrument, however, has also been used in other contexts, including theatrical performances and Jazz.


Veterans of pan Douglas “Nose” Joseph and Reginald “Stokes” Dennie still speak of pan with passion, as they remember the early days playing in the pan yard, at the Bomb and Panorama competitions and in church for the first time.

“It was exciting!” Dennie said about his experience with Pan in the sixties.

He began playing the double second pan at the age of 16 years with the Banks Steel Orchestra, out of Rose Place (Bottom Town).

He recalled his keen interest in the instrument at that time. “When I go home on evenings from school or from work, at the time I was a casual worker, I would hear the pan playing and I would become so excited that I would have to go and listen. So, it was because of my interest and my attentiveness to what was being done that I was given the opportunity to learn,” he said, adding that he was taught by a man named Sonny Banks.

“Pan has a unique sound…Pan is very soothing; it uplifts you. Some people are fascinated by drumming and other art forms and so on, but that was my main thing at that time.”

Dennie was also a member of the Young Island Harps, which was sponsored by the Young Island resort and which also became successful in Panorama competitions.

The Young Island Harps went on to compete and gained top spots in several Panorama and Bomb competitions in the 70s. The band, however, split in 1972 and regrouped in 1973 under the name Abocalypse.


Shortly after that, Dennie’s band played at the Methodist church, but as fellow band mate Douglas ‘Nose’ Joseph recalls, they were not the first band to play in a church.

“The first recording of steel band in church happened with Starlift Steel Orchestra. It would have been between 1969 and 1972. After that, I think the second occasion when we had a steel band playing in church is when St Clair Leacock got married and Starlift played for his wedding,” Joseph related.

He said when Starlift played the Hallelujah Chorus on that first outing at the St George’s Cathedral in Kingstown, people were “amazed” that a pan could play such a piece.

Joseph said Starlift’s presence in church forty years ago was a “breakthrough”, as at that time, pan was associated with the ‘rough and tough’ of society.

“Steel band was formed out of the rough and tumble in the society. If you were a pan player, you were considered somebody who will go to jail, somebody who will commit a crime; it was like the reject in society. You didn’t have nothing to do, (you were) uneducated, you have no skills, you drink rum, so they would go to a pan yard in their village and learn to play the pan. But the church didn’t want these kinds of people playing pan inside the church,” Joseph said.

“But Starlift changed all that, as they played and experienced acceptance by the church.”

Starlift has been in existence for 44 years, and last year placed second in the senior panorama competition.

Joseph noted that the instrument has not yet been developed to its full potential, as there are still many things that can be done with the steel pan.

He also said that there was a special way to play during a church service.

“You ever go to church and see women well dressed and men, and when they say sing hymn number 23, you see how they open up their mouths and how they does sing with passion? Is so we hadda play!” the Public Relations Officer of the umbrella steel band organization, Youlou Pan Movement said.

“When you going to play, is as though those persons are singing, so you have to be on cue. You have to be mellow; you’re not going to beat the pan, you’re going to play the pan; there’s a difference,” Joseph noted.


In 1979, after a tour to Cuba with the National Steel Orchestra, Dennie decided to give his life to Christ. The transition, he shared, was not difficult.

“When I became a Christian in 79…the transition on my part it was smooth, because I had no reservations about my new found life. I still maintained a link between what was happening in the secular, not that I continued playing (secular music). I broke off from that, but I did take part in national competition as a soloist.”

Dennie had played “Amazing Grace” on his double second pan.

Dennie, a member of the Kingstown Baptist Church at that time, started a steel band with steel drums donated by missionary Don Overstreet. The band was called the Triumphant Symphony Christian Steel Orchestra and included members from several churches from different communities.

The interdenominational group played for rallies, concerts, and church services, not without opposition, however.

“It (the opposition) wasn’t open, but there were a few people of the opinion that pan shouldn’t be played in church,” he shared.

Dennie attributes the opposition to a lack of knowledge of the use of an instrument.

“I just think lack of knowledge of the fact of the word of God as it pertains to an instrument of itself, or they have some hang-ups of steel band and what it was originally associated with in the past or what it still is. A steel band is known to be associated with carnival and carnival is revelry. They didn’t think that you could have it played in a church. That’s the sole reason, I think,” Dennie explained.

“In the psalms, we learn about praising the Lord on all sorts of instruments. You may think it’s not worthy; it’s not a sanctified thing. But every instrument is dead of itself. We are dead of ourselves; we must make ourselves available for use by the Master’s hand. Any instrument, every instrument should be used to praise God,” he continued.

After Dennie got married, he moved to the Faith Temple Church to fellowship and was a bit hesitant about bringing his pan to church, as he was not sure how it would have been received. However, after he was asked by the Pastor, he began playing.

Dennie still plays pan and is working with other players to get a band started again.

There are currently steel bands in several churches in St Vincent and the Grenadines.