Ellie Mannette Star 2 Journey to Roots

Ellie Mannette
Pan pioneer Ellie Mannette with the key to the city. Photo: ROBERTO CODALLO

October 29, 2000
By Terry Joseph

OVERWHELMED by the reception from the very people he once felt had rebuked him, tears flowed from visiting pan pioneer and innovator Ellie Mannette as he journeyed back to his roots this past week.

Mannette’s visit, the first since he emigrated some 33 years ago to the US, healed decades of disenchantment with his birthplace, occasioned largely by the disdain in which authorities held the instrument up to that time. The final nail was driven by a 1967 newspaper-article severely critical of his decision to leave.

During the long interim, it had generally been believed that Mannette suffered from nothing more significant than fear of flying. “It was not that at all,” he told the Sunday Express. “There was a view that I was selling my birthright, by going to another place to teach pan. The article even said that I was selling it for 30 pieces of silver, putting me in the class of Judas Iscariot.

“I wanted to spread the pan. I wanted to get pan into the schools and the authorities here were not about to allow that,” he said. “The opportunities were not like they are now and I went to the US when I had the chance and as the records will show, I was afforded the opportunity to do what I wanted to do for pan all the while.

“But all is forgiven,” Mannette said. “I have washed that from my mind and we are all operating with a clean slate. There was also the physical kind of violence of the old days that helped me make up my mind to leave. In fact, the experiment with the 55-gallon drum was the result of aggression.”

It was, in fact, the search for an alternative to the smaller 35-gallon variety, after an instrument he cherished was hijacked by a rival group and taken to the dreaded East Dry River area, with descriptions of the fate likely to befall him, if he attempted to reclaim it.

“It was that kind of senseless and reckless violence that gave pan the serious stigma that is apparently still keeping away people who are in a position to help the instrument,” Mannette said. “What I would like to ask today, though, is that the people of Trinidad and Tobago stop punishing the young boys of today for what we did in our youth.

“We were the ones who were reckless. The young people who are playing pan today are serious about the music and about the instrument. They are not into fighting for fighting sake and the instrument should not be made to continue paying for our mistakes. It is now an instrument of integrity and stands up in the world. It is for Trinidad and Tobago to realise that at all levels and begin to do the things to make it go further forward.”

It was a philosophy he frequently repeated at all speaking opportunites during what has been an emotionally charged and physically demanding visit for the 74-year-old Mannette. The whirlwind week included meetings with pan researchers, Government officials, talk-show appearances and two nostalgic trips to the yard of the steelband he helped found in 1940, now known as the BWIA Invaders Steel Orchestra.

He was yesterday due to receive an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus.

His arrival October 20, was treated as a state function.The following Sunday, he was feted at the home of Dr Clemont Imbert, university lecturer in engineering and long-standing pan researcher, who has worked with him on several projects.

Mannette met with government officials up to Friday evening at the Ambassador Hotel, thrashing out details of an exchange programme. “Actually, I met with the Culture Ministry three times during the week and I must say that the people there are now prepared to look at pan very differently. The Minister is ready to go with a number of things that can help the steelband movement.

“The meetings with the university have been very fruitful as well. We laid the groundwork for a continuing collaborative exchange. People from WVU and UWI drew up an outline of some of the things we want to do. From this point on, we will take it back and forth and it will begin to grow. We are quite certain that the enthusiasm we felt there would make it happen in the shortest possible time,” he said.

“All in all, my time here has been spent in a very productive way and with the kind of reception that our discussions enjoyed, I can tell you that I will be back soon and indeed very often,” he said.

A pioneer celebrates

LAST Saturday, October 21, he was celebrated by Pan Trinbago and given an award at the final night of the historic World Steelband Music Festival. Earlier in that week, his name was repeatedly mentioned and his work frequently cited as the reference position by a team of scholars from around the world, who met here for the first International Conference on the Science and Technology of the Steelpan.

Wednesday the tears gushed, as he received a national award, the Chaconia Silver Medal, from President Arthur NR Robinson at a special audience at the official residence, in recognition of his contribution to the arts. “Tears filled my eyes,” he said. “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.”

In between the various official engagements, Mannette was inundated with queries about the origins of certain aspects of the instrument, his work with West Virginia University and his thoughts on where pan is going. On Monday he had a rapt audience at UWI’s Learning Resource Centre, as he chaired a three-hour lecture/discussion on pan. It was at that forum that his mentor at West Virginia University (where he is now artist in residence and an adjunct professor in the college of music), Professor Phil Faine, first observed the depth of emotion that Mannette’s visit had already evoked.

“I felt I had to accompany him back on this journey to his roots,” Faine said. “There he was in the sixties as a prophet without honour in his own country. He went away and did the work (and no one knows how hard this man works daily) and it has been truly enlightening to see the regard in which he is still held here after this long absence.

Later that night, Mannette took the first of his nostalgic trips to the Invaders panyard. Among his many questions there was the status of a cork-hat he donned to signal that the band was ready to move at Jouvert, the first morning of Carnival, posed on the very location that he developed so many of the orchestral voices that currently comprise the steelband. It was there too that he decided to sink the drums into the convex shape that facilitated all the other developments and it was there that he first thought of putting rubber on the stick to mellow the impact.

Thursday, the Divali religious holiday (and his only free day all week), he flew across to Tobago for some rest and relaxation.

“This week has been excellent and has surpassed my wildest expectation,” he said.

“My students, my family, my manager all agree. This has been one of our most productive weeks ever.”

Terry-J at I-Level

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