Toronto Caribbean Carnival and the vibrant history of the steel pan

Before you dance the weekend away at Pan Alive and the Grand Parade, get a lesson in carnival culture from steel pan musician Jaigan McKenley-McDonald.

It’s the sound of carnival! Learn its origins from musician Jaigan McKenley-McDonald

Turning nothing into something: the history of the steel pan

12 days ago
Duration 3:00
Jaigan McKenley-Mcdonald shares the history of steel pan: where it originated from, why it is the sound of carnival and how it connects him to his own Trinidadian heritage.

After two years of pandemic cancellations, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival returned this July, and the event — which is the largest of its kind in Canada — has its grand finale this weekend. For many festival-goers, the big event is Saturday's Grand Parade. From morning till evening, music will be playing along Lakeshore Boulevard as thousands of masqueraders show off their spectacular finery. And amid all the sounds of celebration, you can bet on hearing the jubilant noise of the steel pan drum.

Jaigan McKenley-McDonald will be among the many musicians playing the parade. The 29-year-old resident of Oshawa, Ont., is a member of Toronto's New Dimension Steel Orchestra, and in this video produced in association with CBC's Creator Network, he'll tell you a little about the instrument's origins and how it became synonymous with carnival time.

Produced by Kiah Welsh and edited by Eve Krogman, the video was shot by Kyle Dyxhoorn on the same location where NDSO has been practising for weeks — all in preparation for Pan Alive, another carnival extravaganza they've waited all pandemic to return. The show goes down Friday night.

CBC Arts reached McKenley-McDonald to chat about his life-long passion for steel pan music and what folks can expect from Pan Alive's 2022 edition.

Film still of a steel pan drum. Text overtop of the photographic images reads in red and black script: "the story of the steel pan."
In this video produced in association with CBC's Creator Network, you'll meet Jaigan McKenley-Mcdonald. A member of Toronto's New Dimension Steel Orchestra, steel pan music connects him to his own Trinidadian heritage. (CBC Arts)

In the video you mention you got your first steel pan when you were 10 years old. Did you start lessons right away? How did you learn to play? 

An instructor would come to my house and give me lessons, and that was when I was 10, but when I went to middle school, Jesse Ketchum, you had the option to either play steel drums or play in the band. So I chose steel drums. 

Our instructors saw that I took a liking to it, so they invited me out for their summer camp program, and then that's when things really took off. I started competing in competitions and playing in Caribana. Until the pandemic, it was like nonstop every summer. 

Who do you play with these days? What's the name of your band?

So I play with the New Dimensions Steel Orchestra. They're based in Toronto, and we practise at the York Mills Gardens under the bridge. 

So that's the pan yard where you're practising in the video! 


Medium close-up photo of musician Jaigan McKenley-McDonald, a thin young Black man wearing a white button down shirt with blue stripes. It's a sunny day and Jaigan is photographed outdoors with greenery in the background. He smiles at the camera. He has a bearded chin and wears his dark hair pulled back in a short low ponytail.
Musician Jaigan McKenley-McDonald. (CBC Arts)

How often are you all there?

We're practising for our big live performance at Lamport Stadium. During the last two weeks of July, we're there like every day, 8 to 11. 

I imagine that beautiful noise must draw so many people to the bridge.

Oh yeah! Like, anybody who's walking by the area: they stop. They can listen if they want. Bikers will come by and be like — bring, bring, bring. You know, they ring their bells, enjoying the music. (laughs)

Like you said, you've been practising for weeks and it's all leading up to Friday. Pan Alive's back! How are you feeling about it? 

In the pan yard, it's a wild time. I'm super excited and super energized and super determined to keep practising, and just honestly do what I came to do, which is play music. I hope — I pray — that the audience just responds and enjoys it.

You've been doing Pan Alive since you were a kid, but for anyone who's unfamiliar, what do they absolutely need to know about the event?

Pan Alive, for me, is all about celebrating the greatness of steel pan and honouring Trinidadian culture. It's a mimic of what they do in Trinidad. Like in Trinidad, the steel pan drum is huge. It was developed from times of slavery and now it is what it is today. It's a national treasure for the nation. It brings in a lot of revenue for the island. So to them, it's huge. 

I spend only a month, but bands there spend all year practising for their big show. Trinidad always has a carnival every year, and the night before, they have their big battle of the bands competition. 

Pan Alive, for me, is all about celebrating the greatness of steel pan and honouring Trinidadian culture.- Jaigan McKenley-McDonald, musician

Instructors that came from Trinidad tried to bring it to Toronto. So [at Pan Alive] there's about 13 bands that compete every year on the last Friday in July. Normally it's the same idea: you play two songs with your band, you compete. But this year, after the pandemic [cancellations], it's just a showcase.

Many players from Trinidad will come down to play in Toronto. Some instructors will come as well to teach bands. Like at Jesse Ketchum, they always made sure we got an instructor from Trinidad to come and teach the children. And that was cool for me because I've never been to Trinidad, but my dad's Trinidadian. It was a way to just kind of get in touch with the culture. 

It's been on hold for the last two years. Is that what you've missed most about the event, the chance to connect?

The music's number one for me. I just love playing music, and I love when people enjoy the music. And then also the togetherness — like the unity, just seeing everybody.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity


Leah Collins

Senior Writer

Since 2015, Leah Collins has been senior writer at CBC Arts, covering Canadian visual art and digital culture in addition to producing CBC Arts’ weekly newsletter (Hi, Art!), which was nominated for a Digital Publishing Award in 2021. A graduate of Toronto Metropolitan University's journalism school (formerly Ryerson), Leah covered music and celebrity for Postmedia before arriving at CBC.

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