steel drums and ellie mannette

Steel drums are a young instrument, dating from circa 1946 and evolving into their present form in less than a century. They come from the Caribbean country of Trinidad and Tobago, where Dr. Ellie Mannette was born. Widely regarded as the “father” of the modern steel drum, Dr. Mannette is as close to its inventor as any one person can be, and was active in the art form as one of its top craftsmen. His vision of the symphonic capabilities of an instrument that originated in the gutters of Trinidad sustained him through decades of difficult and passionate work. He has achieved more tonal sophistication than his critics ever imagined, and was passionately driven to achieve a most perfect sound.

Dr. Mannette came to the US in 1967, and eventually settled in West Virginia to take on apprentices. His program was the only one of its kind, and may ultimately prove to be the most important of Dr. Mannette’s enterprises. He knew the art of building and tuning steel pans needed to be passed on to another generation, and he dedicated the second half of his life and career to this pursuit. Undoubtedly, without Dr. Ellie Mannette’s vision and investment, the steel band art form would not be what it is today, and would not be prepared to move forward without him.

My Eulogy for Ellie:

Dr. Ellie Mannette died peacefully at 10:50 am on Wednesday, August 29, 2018, in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was 90 years old. He is survived by a large and loving family, a tight-knit extended family of dedicated apprentices, and an incalculable number of people worldwide whose lives he touched.

Ellie was born in Trinidad in 1927 and is widely regarded as the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum”- the instrument that he dedicated his life to developing and elevating. As a child in Trinidad, the steel pan art form had not yet been born. In his youth, Ellie had a vision of a musical instrument that could grow from the most humble origins - from discarded metal cans into tonal symphonic instruments. He pursued this vision with a rare single-mindedness, and achieved it through trial and error and invention and experimentation and epiphany. He was a powerful force and an integral part of the evolution of this musical steel drum - not just celebrated as an innovator, but renowned for his exceptional craftsmanship, the brilliance of his designs, and his unparalleled quality of sound.

Ellie emigrated to the US in 1967, and began traveling across America, building steelbands for schools and communities nationwide. In 1991, he was invited to move to Morgantown to join the WVU World Music Center. Since then, he has primarily focused on teaching apprentices the art of crafting and tuning steel drums full- time. As a teacher and mentor, he demanded and expected greatness of his students, and instilled in them a passionate pursuit of excellence. He officially stepped down from WVU in 2007, but he never retired his hammers.

Ellie was a piece of living history, and his stories captivated everyone in earshot. He could paint a picture with words, and his gift for storytelling and incredible memory would mesmerize an audience, whether in a lecture hall or in his living room. His legendary journey spanned decades, and thousands of steelbands around the globe now carry forward his story.

Ellie was grateful to have been widely celebrated for his work and his vision during his lifetime, and he received countless awards and accolades. He was especially proud to have received the National Heritage Fellowship Award from the NEA in 1999, the Chaconia Medal from Trinidad in 2000, for being inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2003, and for having his work showcased at the Smithsonian Institution.

Ellie was well-loved worldwide. His infectious laugh was irrepressible. He loved to play music and write songs, and he dedicated many compositions to special people in his life. He enjoyed being around young people and inspiring them to embrace their passions as he did. His legacy will live on through the art form that he pioneered as well as through the students and musicians he inspired along his way. We are proud to have known him, we celebrate his life, we are heartbroken at his passing. Ellie was an extraordinary man.

Memorial services are being planned both in the US and in Trinidad. If moved to do so, please consider making a contribution to the Ellie Mannette Memorial Fund.

My Contribution to the Invanders Tribute:

It has been a week and a day since Ellie has passed. We live in an age of global immediacy, and because of that, we’ve already felt the impact and magnitude of this loss within the steelpan community around the world. Individually, Ellie has touched, influenced, and inspired many, many thousands of people, and it has been heartwarming to behold the scope of the loving worldwide response. It has been humbling and gratifying to see how internationally respected he was as an innovator and visionary and cultural ambassador. But Trinidad was his birthplace- he will always be remembered as a son of this nation, and it was with his feet on this very ground here that the steelpan was born.  

As one person, I grieve alone. I’m heartsick that I will never again hear Ellie say my name in his distinctive way. It was the greatest gift of my life to have known him; beneath my feet, the world has now shifted. There is no best way to describe our bond- he was like family, he was a teacher and mentor, but more than that- he was the dearest of friends, and I loved him. His name will live on in my own work, in the work of his other students and friends and in the name of my daughter. Sadly, he has left us- but as a consummate panman, he was satisfied and confident that his legacy would live on. My great hope is that we can live up to his expectations and continue to elevate the art form.

As lifelong students of pan, we all stand on the shoulders of giants, and Ellie’s shoulders were broad. We can only continue to strive to make him proud, in the work we do and the music we create- he is a part of us all.