October 25, 2000
By TERRY JOSEPH
THERE was no inventor of the steelpan, according to Elliott “Ellie” Mannette, who is currently in Trinidad to receive an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus.
Speaking yesterday at a public lecture/discussion titled, The Birth and Development of the Steelpan, at the UWI Learning Resource Centre, Mannette said: “Pan as an item was not invented by any person. It evolved and there are a number of people, including myself, who advanced it through certain stages of that evolution.”
In much the same vein, dwelling on the issue of standardisation of the instruments, Mannette felt it was the way to go.
“Everybody wants credit for inventing something, but that doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Firstly, let us get a common ground to work with, not necessarily my work or Bertie Marshall’s work.
“I will certainly give you every inch of knowledge I have and if you think you want to change it, all I ask is that you improve upon it and not try to just make something new for the sake of doing so.
“We still do not have the perfect pan after all these years of trying,” he said. “So we still need to constantly evaluate the instrument and look at ways of improving it. No one has been able to build a pan that is 100 per cent efficient in all its notes and, to me, this is the first thing we should all be addressing.”
About the process of heating pans to improve their durability and tone, Mannette said: “That whole process came about purely by accident. We were trying to get some tar out of a drum and after trying all the detergents we could find, there was still a residual and somebody said, ‘let us heat it and see if it will come out’.
“It did come out, but when we played it, the instrument sounded differently, so those of us who were in the pan business spoke and we decided to heat the pans after that. There are so many things to know about this instrument.”
Mannette was, at the time, responding to questions from the audience which, at its best time, had about 150 people, most of them uniformed schoolchildren.
Mannette spoke extensively about his work at West Virginia University (WVU) where, he explained, the students had developed an entire language to deal with pan tuning conversation.
“We have also developed a geometry for the pan templates,” he said. “This allows us to simply measure the spaces and make the notes, so a pan does not always have to be an instrument with the notes shaped the same way all the time. As long as the C note has the same size specifications, it can be tuned accurately.
“I am passing on all the knowledge I have to all who would like to get it,” he said.
“I am not going to live forever and what I know is the result of 40 years of trial and error, so it can now be condensed into facts and given to students of pan.”
The three-hour lecture discussion, which was mounted by the UWI Steelpan Development Centre and the Centre for Creative and Festival Arts, also heard from Mannette’s publicist Kaethe George, tuners from WVU, and Phil Faine, who first introduced Mannette to the university. “Sometimes a prophet has no honour in his own country,” Faine said, “so I was particularly interested in making this trip to see Ellie reunite with his roots.
“Ellie Mannette is second to none in the building and tuning of steelpans. No one knows how hard he works. I found out less than ten years ago.
“I was teaching the governor’s honours academy, a course for the brightest students in the state, when I asked Ellie to come and give them a talk about pan. As soon as I heard him and saw their reaction, I said this man is a teacher.
“He had them like a Pied Piper. I went to my provost immediately and said ‘we have to get this man in the faculty’. We planned to have him onboard for one semester and he has been with us from then in 1994 until now.
“He is an absolute treasure,” Faine said, the audience erupting into a tremendous burst of applause.