Steeldrum salvation for Port of Spain’s neighborhoods


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Jun 17, 2015 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

By Nigel Campbell and Greg Scruggs

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago — The metallic ring of steelpan music wafting through the Belmont neighborhood is light and cheery. But the the writing outside the home of the Casablanca Steel Orchestra is anything but: “Guns are dangerous and foreign,” a sign says. “It kills! Stop playing with your life! Come play the national instrument.”

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Violent crime has spiked here in recent years as the drug trade landed in this Caribbean metro area of 270,000, just 20 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Now, Casablanca and other steelpan bands here are offering the neighborhood “panyards” where they practice and play as havens for at-risk youth to stay out of trouble — and learn musical traditions.

At Casablanca, an open-air structure with a galvanized zinc roof, cement floor and lots of steel drums on rollers, students aged 11 to 18 take music lessons three days a week. There is instruction in guitar, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, and of course, steelpan, a Trinidadian institution invented here about 80 years ago. The lessons are taught by professional musicians and are free, courtesy of a program sponsored by the Ministry of Arts and Multiculturalism.

A couple hundred young people have gone through Casablanca’s program. Guitar teacher John Hussain has taught dozens of them, from a nearby boys orphanage and girls juvenile facility. “I remember these kids were all over the place, like kids with A. D.D., before the classes began,” he says. “They had a lot of nervous energy.”

“Once classes began,” Hussain continues, “they were attentive, respectful — ‘Yes sir, no sir!’ I am convinced it made a difference.”

At the Casablanca Steel Orchestra’s panyard, students aged 11 to 18 learn a variety of instruments in lessons three times a week. (Casablanca Steel Orchestra)

At the Casablanca Steel Orchestra’s panyard, students aged 11 to 18 learn a variety of instruments in lessons three times a week. (Casablanca Steel Orchestra)

The youth classes are just one way the government here is leveraging one of Port of Spain’s greatest assets — its rich musical heritage. The city’s 23 steeldrum groups have long been a cultural icon and tourist draw. Now, they’re also viewed as an economic driver, a source of jobs, a productive user of vacant land and a stabilizing influence in neighborhoods threatened by drug violence.

The effort here offers lessons for any city looking for ways to engage at-risk youth, strengthen grassroots organizations, or capitalize on cultural resources that locals may take for granted. It’s a particularly valuable model for the cities of the Caribbean, a region perhaps best known for its beautiful beaches but where urban challenges such as housing for the poor, sprawling growth and traffic congestion are growing.

These are issues that will be discussed this week when urban planners converge in St. Lucia for the fifth Caribbean Urban Forum. They hope to use the opportunity to create an urban agenda for island nations that often still think of themselves as collections of seaside villages rather than the conurbations that metro areas such as Port of Spain — or Port-au-Prince, or Havana or San Juan — have become. (Read more from Citiscope here on the Caribbean Urban Forum.)

Making noise

Trinidadian steelpan music evolved out of African traditions, colonial repression and creative reuse of waste.

Drumming was popular with slaves on the island, especially during Carnival. The British colonial government went on to ban drums and other instruments, so locals took to playing bamboo tubes tamped on the ground to make noise. In the 1930s, boys began banging on abandoned oil drums and quickly refined the noise into the familiar sound we know today. The steelpan, as any Trinidadian can tell you, is the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century.

Lessons at Casablanca are taught by professional musicians and are paid for by a national program. (Casablanca Steel Orchestra)

Lessons at Casablanca are taught by professional musicians and are paid for by a national program. (Casablanca Steel Orchestra)

Ironically, many of the early bands to form were associated with gangs, who often fought with each other. Casablanca, for example, was formed by a group of youngsters around the mid to late 1930s and later named after the Humphrey Bogart movie of the same name. As steelband researcher Kim Johnson notes, Casablanca “would become known as one of the most combative bands ever, having rioted with almost every other major steel band in the ’40s and ’50s.”

Some steelbands later found corporate sponsors and became famous around the globe, like the Invaders, whose current patron is the national carrier Caribbean Airlines. Panyards became tourist attractions during Carnival, and an annual steelpan competition in Port of Spain called Panorama became a national showcase for the top bands. Still, many of the steelbands remained little more than informal collectives of musicians who from time to time went down to the local panyard to play the music they love.

It was in the 1990s that the idea took hold that panyards could be more than just a hangout for “panmen.” (And increasingly, women — bands now are fairly gender balanced.)

In 1995, noted Trinidadian economist Lloyd Best went to a steelband event and gave a speech that journalists later called “The Best Plan for Pan.” Best implored the steelpan community to grow into something larger. “Its mandate cannot but be to convert the panyard into an economic zone and an education plant as well as a breeding ground for community and culture,” he declared.

Leveraging a cultural asset

It’s taken a while, but elements of just such a strategy are starting to click into place.

In 2010, the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago cited Lloyd Best in a proposal to the Minister of Finance. Noting the importance of the panyards, the NGO called for creating “ ‘Poles of Strength’ around existing community institutions and cultural strongholds that have resisted historical patterns of marginalization and overt oppression.”

The next year, the eastern side of Port of Spain was designated a “heritage growth pole” as part of a national development strategy centered on economic clusters. The impoverished but colorful neighborhood’s cultural past and present, intertwined not just with steelpan but also Carnival costumes and calypso music, was seen as a potential economic driver.

“Panyards have potential economic activities up the value chain,” says Dr. Asad Mohammed, Director of the Caribbean Network for Urban and Land Management at the University of the West Indies. “They provide real potential for retooling and revitalizing their communities.”

Developing a curriculum for teaching steelpan is part of the Music Schools in Communities program. Traditionally, pan players learned by sound, not sight. (Nigel Campbell)

Developing a curriculum for teaching steelpan is part of the Music Schools in Communities program. Traditionally, pan players learned by sound, not sight. (Nigel Campbell)

The humble steelpan has even attracted the attention of the Inter-American Development Bank. The bank selected Port of Spain in 2011 as one of five pilot cities for its Emerging and Sustainable Cities Initiative to promote multilateral investment, sound planning and good governance in medium-sized Latin American and Caribbean cities.

“Panyards, being part of the whole Carnival concept, fit perfectly within our approach,” says Gilberto Chona, who oversees the project for the IDB’s Fiscal and Municipal Management Division. “The cultural industry contributes to increase the economic base of the city of Port of Spain, with the benefits of new local jobs, added revenue, and opportunities for the global projection of the city’s cultural values.”

To that end, the national government has instituted several programs at the behest of steelbands and arts activists. The students learning their notes at Casablanca are beneficiaries of the Music Schools in Communities program, which pays instructors’ salaries, purchases instruments for rental, and provides a curriculum — traditionally, pan players learned by ear, not by sight. The hope, according to the Ministry of the Arts and Multiculturalism’s Steelband Liaison Officer, Ian Clarke, is that panyards will thus become a “safe space” for at-risk youth.

Casablanca has endured because of good music and competent management, and these public programs build institutional capacity. “The strategy at the Ministry was to find panyards that were accessible to the whole community, had the appropriate infrastructure and the steelbands as an organization had to display a professional managerial structure to be considered,” Clarke says. In partnership with related initiatives from the Ministries of Tourism and Tertiary Education, the government has helped steelbands legally incorporate and offered musicians training in technology and entrepreneurship.

“The reason why those programs have come about and why they are workable is because of what the panyard already is,” Mohammed explains.


Outside the Carnival spotlight, however, many steelbands struggle to make it on their own as essentially grassroots cultural organizations. That’s especially true in the rougher neighborhoods of East Port of Spain, where much of the recent drug-related violence is centered.

One legendary band, the Desperadoes, has temporarily left its panyard in the neighborhood, seeking safer quarters in the city’s commercial district. The “Despers” were a symbol of the spirit of East Port of Spain and had a first-class facility atop a hill. But band members themselves, much less local and foreign spectators, were unwilling to risk their personal safety to get there.

While the steeldrum groups are getting more attention, some say much more could be done to support them and leverage their value to the community. (Casablanca Steel Orchestra)

While the steeldrum groups are getting more attention, some say much more could be done to support them and leverage their value to the community. (Casablanca Steel Orchestra)

Land tenure is also a big issue for the steelbands. Panyards often occupy marginal spaces — for example, Casablanca rents its spot from a petroleum marketing company. The bands therefore function as an unintentional strategy for activating vacant land. But years on a site without a formal lease — and the shaky financial footing of the average steelband — often leads to evictions.

Years ago, a Senator at the time named Martin Daly testified on the issue before Parliament. “Steelband after steelband got chucked out of their yard,” he observed. “Then, what happens? When the bailiff comes to pitch the steelband out, everybody says, oh, a terrible thing; our culture, the only musical invention of the 20th century. Badam! They still went in the yard” and evicted the bands.

The arts ministry is considering ways to address this problem. Last year, ministry staff began researching land titles for over 200 panyards on both state and private lands around the country. New legislation is now being drafted to guide the transfer of state lands to cultural organizations, a category that does not currently benefit from a program available to religious and charitable organizations.

Rubadiri Victor, president of the Artists’ Coalition of Trinidad and Tobago, says all of these initiatives have helped to support the steelbands and leverage their cultural value. But he thinks current efforts haven’t gone far enough.

“It’s a transformative intervention,” Victor says. “But the plan was usurped to become this simple idea of just a place to train people. All these ideas that should have been epic have been dumbed down.”

Victor still hopes to see an expanded program with the steelbands, one that leaves fewer bands struggling for resources or to stay put in their panyards. Even as they are now, however, Port of Spain’s steelband solutions are unique in the Caribbean and adaptable to urban contexts both within and outside the region.


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