Originally from Trinidad and Tobago, steel bands feature percussion instruments called “pans,” which are expertly crafted from oil drums. The 21st Century Steel Band is one of South Florida’s finest examples of these ensembles. Founded in 1978, this band has performed at festivals, cultural programs, and Carnivals worldwide and is led by pan maker and player Michael Kernahan, winner of the 2005 Florida Folk Heritage Award.

More about the 21st Century Steel Band

(The following is from an interview HistoryMiami conducted with Michael Kernahan in 2014.)

Where were you born? Where are the other members from?

I was born in Trinidad and Tobago. The other group members are Trinidadians and Americans of Trinidad and Tobago ancestry.

Why did you leave Trinidad? And why did you move to Miami? 

I left Trinidad to pursue a career in pan. After living in Michigan for a number of years, I decided it was time to leave the cold weather and move to a warm climate that is very much like Trinidad and Tobago.

Tell me the story of how the 21st Century Steel Band was founded.

We were touring the United States as the Trinidad Tripoli Steel Band from 1968 to 1972 with the world famous pianist Liberace. The group returned to Trinidad in 1972. We came back to the United States in July 1975 and settled in Michigan. In 1978, the leader of the band decided to form a family group which was comprised of his children. That is when I took charge and named our outfit “21st Century Steel Band.”

What musical traditions do you practice? Where do you perform them?

We perform a variety of musical traditions: Classical, Calypso, Reggae, religious, some Latin, Polkas, and more.  Our performances range from schools, fairs, and conventions to churches and private parties.

What is the history of steel pan music?

The history of steel band music started with slavery and African drumming. The drums were banned, and the slaves went on to use bamboo which was then called “Tamboo Bamboo.” Then there was the “Bottle and Spoon” era when gin bottles and spoons provided the rhythm. Then came the “Iron Band” era when the use of discarded pieces of metals, brake drums, etc. were used to play the rhythm along with the singing and chanting of melodies created by the oppressed slaves.

Next was the use of cans, and that period is when the heads of the cans were pounded on with sticks to imitate the sounds of different notes. Prolonged pounding on their surfaces caused the cans to lose their original sound, and in order to retain the original sound, the cans were pushed from the inside out. That is when it was discovered by these innovators with a keen sense of hearing that one or more notes can be played on that single surface, which then enabled musicians to play a melody. This innovation went on for some time until a young man by the name of Ellie Manette decided to sink the surface and then push up bubbles that formed notes.

From Ellie Manette’s discovery, people experimented with the use of larger sized drums upon which more notes were added. Other musical voices were invented that enabled the pan to play melody chords and bass while still incorporating the Iron Band. Most of the music played during that era was composed by individuals who made and played these instruments.

How did you learn to play steel pan? Who taught you?

How did I learn to play pan? It is January carnival time in Trinbago [Trinidad and Tobago]. The steel bands are recruiting. You find yourself in a band and try to see what section you can fit in, and if you show interest, someone will teach you. The person who taught me is named Aldric. It was 1964, and I was 13 years old when I first learned to play the pans.

Tell me about how the instruments you use are made. 

Pans are made by using a new 55 gallon steel oil drum. It’s a long, tedious process which includes sinking, sketching the notes, grooving, cutting to size, burning, and tuning.

How did you learn to make these instruments? Who taught you?

I learned to make these instruments from our tuner Alan Gervais, who was on tour with the Tripoli Steel Band. This is something which always fascinated me and I wanted to learn, so he taught me.

What do you all enjoy about playing steel pan music?

One of the things I enjoy about playing steel pan music is pleasing the audience. This is the most gratifying feeling—knowing they are enjoying your music and your playing.