Welcome home, Ellie Mannette

October 20, 2000
By Terry Joseph

AFTER 33 years abroad, during which time he further distinguished himself as one of the prime movers in the development and global appreciation of steelpan music, Elliot “Ellie” Mannette returns home today and in spectacular glory.

Mannette, 74, who has been involved with the steelpan since the 1930’s, was invited home primarily to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of the West Indies (UWI) at St Augustine, the first pannist to be accorded such an honour.

He holds the distinction of being the reference position on the early development of the instrument and its emergence as a musical medium of integrity.

Over the more than six decades of his involvement, Mannette’s unparalled odyssey has earned him globalrecognition as pioneer, innovator and master craftsman of the steelpan orchestra’s major components.

Born in the rural village of San Souci, Trinidad, Mannette grew up in the vibrant folk community of Woodbrook.

His pan saga began in 1937 when, at the age of 11, he aligned himself with the yet fledgling instrument. Three years later, he helped organise a group of like minds into The Oval Boys. The band soon evolved into what is now the legendary Invaders Steel Orchestra.

In 1946, he revolutionised the approach to tuning steelpans, by sinking the hitherto convex playing surface of the 55-gallon drums from which they are still created into today’s concave shape, which allowed for far more convenient geometry in performance. This initiative opened the door to creation of a larger family of instruments.

Mannette is credited with the invention of several of the musical voices in the steelpan orchestra, most notably the double-seconds and cellos and the innovation of attaching rubber to the impact point of the sticks with which the instruments are played.

In 1951, he was commissioned to build and tune the major instruments of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra (TASPO) for an historic tour of Britain’s Festival of the Arts. That journey also took pan to Europe and is acknowledged as the first vehicle that introduced orchestrated steelpan music to the world.

Mannette was also a member of that pioneering 12-man band.

When he migrated to the United States in 1967, it was in pursuance of a more fulfilling life, which included a dream of teaching pan through the school system, an initiative that in his native land had led to strained relations with government authorities.

On arrival there, he discovered a greater willingness to involve youth in steelband programmes and traveled extensively, building and tuning pans and promoting the art of playing the instrument.

As a direct result of that drive, Mannette’s programmes were introduced across North America.

He had, meanwhile, ushered the instrument to a number of communities and individuals, including world famous jazz musicians Jimmy Buffett and Andy Narell.

From an administrative level, he still services more than 200 public school, university, community and private orchestras and is credited with improving the integrity of the instrument to the point of having influential universities view the study of pan as an integral part of any well-rounded percussion degree.

Recognition of his work in that area was first rewarded at the tertiary level in 1992, when then director of percussion Phil Faini brought him onboard at West Virginia University (WVU) as artist-in-residence with the World Music Performance Center, where he began an apprenticeship training programme.

He is now also an adjunct professor in the College of Music at WVU, where he teaches all aspects of steelpan, including tuning and construction courses.

As an artisan, Mannette, already an acclaimed virtuoso, enjoys the reverence of having his pans on display at many of the world’s finest museums, including the Smithsonian Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and the Contemporary Art Gallery.

Last year, he received from President Bill Clinton a US Endowment for the Arts Award, for his work in the furtherance of indigenous culture.

In an unprecedented move, WVU partnered the university’s research centre with Mannette as a private individual, to form a corporation known as Mannette’s Steel Drums, to build and distribute steelpan instruments and related accessories worldwide.

Mannette has modestly and repeatedly said all of his work is for the instrument. He has spared no effort to salute the contribution of other innovators, most notably Bertie Marshall and has spent much of his time in charitable pursuits.

On October 28, he will receive an honorary doctorate at UWI’s St Augustine campus and dine with university officials. It is the centrepiece of a 12-day visit that includes scheduled talks with the university on the setting up of a technical exchange programme.


Terry-J at I-Level

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