Trinidadian Ellie Mannette passed away on August 29, 2018, at the age of 90. He will fondly be remembered as the Stradivarius of Steel. Mannette was an inventor, innovator, master builder, tuner, teacher and ambassador of the modern steel drum. He was the first to “sink” the surface of the drum. He shaped convex notes onto the concave surface. He called one of his early pans the “Barracuda,” because it was the “baddest” drum in Trinidad. In 1946 Mannette introduced his first 55-gallon oil drum instrument. He was invited to demonstrate this pan on the radio. People all across the Caribbean heard the Brahms Lullaby being performed by Ellie Mannette on the first modern steel drum.
Pannist Andy Narrell says of Mannette, “It is very difficult to overstate the importance of Ellie Mannette to the development of the steelpan. He was there at the beginning, when a steelband was an assortment of paint cans and biscuit tins playing rhythm. His early innovations were pivotal in the transformation to a pitched, melodic instrument, and he has spent over 65 years relentlessly pursuing perfection. His instruments stand apart, a standard by which all steelpans can be measured, and he is one of the world’s truly great artists.”
Mannette dedicated his entire life to the advancement of the steelpan. He came to the United States in the 1960’s, and eventually settled in the hills of West Virginia. Every summer hundreds of people gather in Morgantown for the annual Festival of Steel, a week organized by Mannette to “celebrate the steelpan by facilitating the exchange of information through master classes, lectures and group performances.”
The picture above is taken at the Festival of Steel. Mannette is on the left.
My favorite quote about Ellie Mannette comes from Chanler Bailey, a player, builder and tuner who studied under Mannette. He said of his mentor, “When Ellie was performing and teaching, he was just ‘in the moment.’ It was total commitment.”
Because of Ellie Mannette’s vision and tireless work to promote the pan as a world class instrument, and because of the superior quality of the tone of his pans, Ellie Mannette will always be remembered as the Stradivarius of Steel.