Father of the modern steelpan instrument dies

Father of the modern steelpan instrument dies
Ellie Mannette and Gary Gibson jammin on steelpan during the 2012 Great Lakes Steelpan festival,
Kent Arnsbarger

Elliot “Ellie” Mannette, a Trinidadian-born musical instrument maker and steel pan musician, also known as the “father of the modern steel pan instrument,” died in Morgantown, W.Va. on Aug. 29. He was 90.

Mannette Musical Instruments, which Mannette owned, did not indicate the cause of death.

The company, however, said on its website that The Ellie Mannette Memorial Fund has been set up to assist in final arrangements and memorial services in the US and Trinidad and Tobago.

“Future goals are to create an Ellie Mannette Scholarship and projects for the preservation of Ellie’s legacy,” the statement said.

Born in Sans Souci, Trinidad and Tobago in 1927, Mannette developed a love of percussive instruments at a young age, according to Mannette Musical Instruments.

“The island was alive with music in the 1930’s when rival bands would meet in Port-of-Spain [the capital] for fierce competition,” it said. “Bands used various everyday items — from trash cans to buckets — to make music, but it was Ellie who first thought to use empty oil barrels from the local military base.

“When Ellie transformed his first oil barrel into a steelpan, history was born,” it added. “Soon, word got out that he had created a drum with the un-heard of ability to create a melody, and his steel pans were in high demand.”

Mannette Musical Instruments said the TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussive Orchestra) was invited to Great Britain to showcase the new instrument at the Festival of Britain.

Soon thereafter, it said Mannette traveled to the United States to create the US Navy Steel Band.

“Ellie went on to build and create hundreds of steel bands all across the US,” the statement said, adding that it wasn’t until 1991 that Mannette’s travels “brought him to the place he now calls home.”

Mannette came to Morgantown, W.Va. for a guest semester at West Virginia University to teach students to build and play steel drums,” Mannette Musical Instruments said.

“Truly connecting with the university and city, he soon launched the University Tuning Project,” it said, stating that this venture later evolved into Mannette Musical Instruments.

Mannette Musical Instruments said Mannette had received countless awards of recognitions.

These included the NEO National Heritage Fellowship Award, the highest honor for the traditional arts given in the US, and the Hummingbird Medal of Trinidad and Tobago.

In 2003, Mannette was admitted to the Hall of Fame of the Percussive Arts Society of the United States.

He was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute in July 2012.

In November 2000, Manette was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies. He returned home to Trinidad and Tobago, after a 33-year absence, to accept it.

The same year, he also received the Chaconia Medal Silver from his native land for outstanding cultural achievement.

“By owning a Mannette drum, you’re owning a piece of history,” Mannette Musical Instruments said.

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