Elliott "Ellie" Mannette
by Lisa Rogers
He has been called many things in his life including the "Stradivarius of Steel," "Father of the Modern Steel Drum Band," "Master of the Steel Drum," and Dr. Mannette. I prefer to call him the "Steel Rebel" because in his seventy-seven years of life, Ellie Mannette has continually rebelled against anyone or anything taking him away from his life's passion and work--the steel drum. His passionate rebellion has helped to create one of the most significant musical innovations of the twentieth century.
As an artisan, his steel drums have been displayed in such places as the Smithsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Contemporary Art Gallery. As an educator, his leadership has helped to establish successful steel bands in universities, schools, and community programs all across the United States.
Mannette was born in San Souci, Trinidad in 1926. He began his musical journey at age eleven in preparation for Carnival as a member of Alexander's Ragtime Band. Created by Alexander Ford, this band of steel featured performers banging away on garbage can tops, grease barrels, biscuit drums, and paint tins.
From approximately 1939 to 1941, Mannette performed with his own band, the Oval Boys. The name of the group was taken from the oval sports pavilion directly opposite the band's rehearsal space. Around the same time, Mannette, who always had an interest in metals and machine-shop work, observed other bands and performers such as Winston "Spree" Simon producing tonal qualities on biscuit tins. Simon played "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "River Vine Vine" on his small drum.
Mannette was fascinated with the ability to produce four or five concave pitches from a convex surface and tried to replicate the sounds himself. In his "trial-and-error methodology," Mannette produced a small drum that had six or seven convex-shaped notes on a concave sunken surface. His experimentation with a concave sunken surface proved to provide a better tonal basis.
World War II interrupted Carnival between 1941 and 1945, but allowed Mannette a chance to continue experimentation on his drum. Also during this time, the Oval Boys became known as the Invaders—a name Mannette credits to the commandos of England. Mannette decided to use a thirty-five gallon oil barrel for his drum, allowing him nine pitches. Mannette nicknamed his drum the "barracuda" because it, just as the fish, represented the "baddest" on the island.
Mannette continued to experiment with stretching the tonal range of the drum. By early 1946, he secretly began building a lead pan out of a fifty-five gallon barrel. He unveiled the finished product while a contestant on the Scouting for Talent show. His performance included such selections as Brahms's "Lullaby." Mannette stunned the crowd and won the contest with his new, bigger drum capable of fourteen pitches.
In 1949, Mannette was selected as a member of the Trinidad All-Star Percussion Orchestra. The Orchestra was to take part in the Festival of Britain as well as perform at other venues in and around London and Paris. During this time and upon his return to Trinidad, Mannette continued to explore and enhance his steel pans. Other innovations in steel drum design that are credited to Mannette include Double Seconds (1952), Double Guitars (1954), Triple Cellos (1956), Tenor Basses (1960), and Quaduet (1996).
Although his work began in Trinidad, Mannette has spent approximately thirty-six years in the United States. Mannette first came to the U.S. briefly in 1963 to help develop the United States Navy Steel Band program. He returned in 1967 to work with inner-city youth in New York City as well as to tune for his friend, Murray Narell. By 1971, Mannette met James Leyden, a music teacher in New York, who wanted Mannette to tune some recently purchased drums. In the process, Mannette learned about concert pitch and the strobe tuner. This allowed him to improve the tonal quality of the drums through experimentation with the fundamental pitch and harmonics of each note.
Due to Mannette's continued dedication to education and artistry through the years, he achieved an artist-in-residency status at West Virginia University during the early 1990s. His work along with the guidance of his business partner, Kaethe George, at WVU and Mannette Steel Drums Ltd. has trained many performers, builders, and tuners through workshops and apprentice programs.
In recent years, Mannette has received several awards and accolades. For his work in the furtherance of indigenous culture, he was recognized in 1999 with a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Endowment of the Arts. For the first time in thirty-three years, Mannette made an emotional journey back to Trinidad in October of 2000 where he received the Trinidad and Tobago Chaconia Silver Medal from the Minister of Culture. On receiving the medal, Mannette remarked: "I had no idea that after all the years I spent away from Trinidad and Tobago, that the Government would still treat me with so much respect. I sat there and just began to cry. Every time I go to these types of events, I remember the struggles I and all the others went through for pan."
Additionally while visiting his home country, he received the Honorary Doctorate in Letters from the University of the West Indies-St. Augustine Campus.
In regards to his upcoming induction into the PAS Hall of Fame, Mannette said, "I feel honored to be chosen by this distinguished body for this prestigious award. Looking back more than half a century during my humble beginnings in this unique art form, no one during that period could have envisioned the rapid growth of this instrument. Through the years as I developed my skills, my entire mindset was sharing my knowledge with others for the betterment of this instrument. In receiving this Hall of Fame Award, I believe that PAS not only recognizes my accomplishments in the development of this art form, but is acknowledging that as the steel drum instrument moves into this next century, it is poised to take its rightful place among the world's orchestras."
If people's lives are indeed measured by their accomplishments, Elliott Mannette's "cup runneth over." Marc Svaline once asked Mannette what was his most significant milestone in the creative development of the art form. Mannette replied, "I have to say that it was the sinking and tuning of that fifty-five gallon barrel. It was significant because, though it was crude and the tonal quality not very beautiful, it was the true birth of the art form."
George, Kaethe. "Ellie Mannette: Training Tomorrow's Steel Band Tuners." Percussive Notes Vol. 32, No. 5 (October 1994): 31–32.
"Ellie Mannette: A Golden Celebration." Percussive Notes Vol. 34, No. 5 (October 1996): 32.
"Creating Steel Band's Newest Voice." Percussive Notes Vol. 35, No. 3 (June 1997): 12–13.
Gibson, Gary. "Ellie Mannette on the Beginnings of Pan in Trinidad." Percussive Notes (April 1986): 34–37.
Joseph, Terry. "A pioneer celebrates." (October 2000) http://www.trinicenter.com/Terryj/2000/Oct/EllieRoots.htm
"Ellie Mannette: Journey to Roots." (October 2000) http://www.trinicenter.com/Terryj/2000/Oct/EllieRoots.htm
Svaline, Marc J. "Ellie Mannette: Master of the Steel Drum." Teaching Music 8:6 (June 2001): 46–49.
Walborn, Christopher D. "A Brief History: Origins of the Steel Drum and Rhythmical Steel."