9 May 2016

From Slavery to Steelpan – NZ's Freedom Music

From Voices, 3:30 pm on 9 May 2016

"You beat steelpan, you don't beat up steelpan" - Camille Nakhid

Aotearoa's first Caribbean steelpan orchestra ''beat out'' the sound and colour with their 6th Carnival Night.

The Caribbeanz Southern Stars Steelband performed at the Fickling Centre in Mt Albert with lots of homemade rum punch, Carib cuisine favourites like slow cooked chicken, limbo dancing, mas' bands and much more.

People come from as far as Northland and Hamilton to celebrate their Carnival Nights and awards go to the most flamboyant costumes.

Steelpan music history

Camille Nakhid is an associate professor at Auckland's University of Technology during the day and band co-founder and MC by night.

I'm at her home to learn how to play pans from band members Trinidadian Sandie Bowden, along with eldest to youngest band members; 80-year-old Ros Demas and Westlake Boys High School student Nicholas Garner who, at 14 and an impressive height, plays the huge bass drums.

For them the pan is more than just an instrument, it's at the heart of Caribbean culture.

Carnival Night

Carnival Night Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Camille and Sandie explain that Trinidad and Tobago are the birthplace of the steelpan.

Originally developed to help tolerate the inhumane practices of slavery in the 1700s, the musical instrument - the only one invented in the 20th century has its origins in the drumming tradition of the African groups that now reside in these islands.

The two most southerly islands in the chain of Caribbean islands, Tobago and Trinidad, are located just off the north coast of South America. The two islands (originally one country) were inhabited by the indigenous Carib and Arawak Amerindian tribes.

In 1498 the Spanish invaded and colonised until 1797 - under the mistaken belief that gold reserves existed, leading to the near decimation of the indigenous peoples and a demand for a new labour force.

For two centuries after 1618 Africans were taken from the African continent and worked as enslaved labour on the sugar plantations in the Caribbeans.

Africans' Shango religion beat drums to help them tolerate the inhumanity of slavery.

In 1797 when the Spanish surrendered the islands to the British, the new rulers feared that the drums and native languages were being used to inspire rebellion so they banned both.

Carnival Night

Carnival Night Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Eventually, by 1881 the British permitted a celebration without drums that ultimately became Mardi Gras - brought over by the French in the 18th Century. The Africans used songs known as Calypso to satirize the French plantations owners. The masquerades and masks from Mardi Gras have evolved into the costumes that are an essential part of Carnival.

The banning of African drumming led to the use of bamboo - cut in different lengths to produce different sounds and 'Tamboo bamboo' bands until police banned this too because rival bands would use them as weapons. However, the drums continued to beat in secret on the island of Trinidad to maintain the practice of the Shango religion.

Poverty forced people to trial a variety of metal objects such as garbage can covers, biscuit tin lids and milk cans to create musical sounds.

Slavery ended in 1833 with the Emancipation Bill and East Indians were brought in as indentured labourers to replace African labour.

How the drum is made

During World War Two the American bases in Trinidad and Tobago created a demand for oil using 55-gallon drums - discarded by the oil refineries the drums became the source of musical instruments.

Cut to different lengths the drums could produce scales of sound from soprano to bass and indenting the surfaces of the drum lids created a range of musical tones.

Carnival Night

Carnival Night Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle

Social stigma still remained with this very popular instrument among youth but independence in 1962 and the recognition of the steelpan as the national instrument of the islands meant the pan players became global musical ambassadors.

Steelbands today range in number from 4 players to vast orchestras with over 300 pans. Memorising parts rather than reading music makes the steel pan an immediately accessible instrument and all types of music can be played.

Created in 2005 by a small group of Caribbean Islanders living in Auckland that included Camille, Aotearoa's first Caribbean orchestra came about when the few steelpan players in the country realised there was no steelpan band with a full complement of pans.

The group got start-up funds and a large set of steelpans were purchased from Trinidad and Tobago for nine players.

During Carnival Night the warm-up act consists of a dozen students from Bream Bay College in Ruakaka, Northland. They're the only secondary school in NZ with a steelpan band after an inspirational workshop with Camille and Musical Director Leticia de Klerk (aka Tish). Leticia conducts Steelbands in Schools workshops through Boosted.

"You can't play them and not be happy" - Scott Brown, Music Teacher Bream Bay College, Ruakaka

Jamaican Rum Punch:

Rum Punch, Carnival Night

Rum Punch, Carnival Night Photo: RNZ / Lynda Chanwai-Earle


21/2 cups pineapple

21/2 cups orange juice

1 cup 151 Proof Rum (e.g Bacardi)

½ cup dark Rum

¼ cup coconut flavoured Rum

¼ cup lime juice

3 Tbs grenadine syrup

1 orange sliced

1 lime sliced

1 lemon sliced

Stir pineapple juice, orange juice, 151 proof rum, dark rum, coconut-flavored rum, lime juice, and grenadine syrup together in a punch bowl. Float orange slices, lime slices, and lemon slices in the punch. Serve chilled on ice.