The steel drum is a round piece of metal, mounted over an open resonating compartment and tuned by hammering out different areas to different thicknesses so that they sound specific pitches when struck. Its ultimate roots lie in one of the clandestine remakings of African cultures carried out by slaves all over the Western Hemisphere: when the British banned drums in Trinidad, black islanders began to play tin cans, barrels, and tuned bamboo sticks in groups called Tamboo Bamboo bands. In the 1930s Winston "Spree" Simon began experimenting with the top of a cookie container, then the top of a paint can, and finally, during World War II, the top of a fifty-five-gallon drum discarded by U.S. servicemen. The Tripoli Steel Band, one of the first, took its name from the "shores of Tripoli" line in "The Marines' Hymn."
The steel band, like so many other African-derived cultural forms, proved wonderfully adaptable. At first, it was an underground form with outlaw associations. Hugh Borde became the leader of the Tripoli Steel Band in 1951, when he was eighteen, and over the next decade the steel band evolved from street music to national pastime. The ensemble precision of the old Tamboo Bamboo bands stood musicians in good stead, and steel bands began to play everything from calypso tunes to Gershwin. The Esso oil company began to sponsor the Tripoli Steel Band, which won Trinidad's "bomb" award for best interpretation of a classical composition at the nationwide Panorama competition. It wasn't unusual to see an orchestra of steel pans playing Beethoven in a stadium.