The superlatives flowed.
From pan icon and innovator to legend and musician extraordinaire, friends, colleagues and associates of TT-born Elliot “Ellie” Mannette were effusive, in their praise of the pan pioneer, days after his passing at hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia, US, where he had called home for many years.
In fact, so prolific was Mannette’s contribution to the development of the steel pan, it was recognised in an article in the New York Times on Friday.
The article, which also sought the views of TT cultural exponents on his contribution, quoted Kim Johnson, director of the TT Carnival Institute, as saying Manette’s greatest contribution was how he shared his knowledge generously, even before he left the island.
“He was a natural teacher,” Johnson was quoted in the article as saying in a telephone interview.
“His way of making pans became the first globalised way, the first way you’d find all over the country, from people he taught, from bands whose instruments he made, and from people trying to copy him.”
Shannon Dudley, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Washington, said in the article: “He (Mannette) imagined a sound of this instrument that nobody else had imagined for it....He strove to create that sound, and it captivated a lot of people.”
While some alluded to Mannette’s adeptness as an innovator with the steelpan, others praised his selflessness as a gifted musician who had no qualms about imparting his knowledge to those willing to learn.
“He did not keep things to himself but shared a lot of his skills and talents, which is an admirable trait because some people they tend to hide what they have learnt or what they know but he shared. This is why we have really lost a treasure,” said veteran pan adjudicator Merle Albino De Coteau.
“When he was abroad, he even had a woman learning to tune the pan.”
An emotional De Coteau said Mannette’s contribution to the music landscape can never be quantified.
“I’m so overwhelmed that I am at a loss for words because he really has contributed so much,” she said in a Sunday Newsday interview.
Describing the father of ten as a “true pan innovator,” De Coteau said although she and Mannette rarely crossed paths over the years, she had always respected his work.
“I looked at his work when he was with the band Oval Boys before it became Invaders.”
De Coteau recalled Mannette, regarded as the father of the modern pan, was a member of the now defunct Trinidad All-Steel Orchestra (TASPO) which was established to participate in the Festival of Britain in 1951.
“He was the one who did the tuning of the pans while he was there.”
TASPO was the first TT steelbands to present itself to an international audience.
De Coteau said Mannette, who died of kidney failure at the age of 90, would be remembered for his “keen ear” for detail. He was born on November 5, 1927.
“He was a musician and his ears had developed beautifully. While a painter must have eyes, a musician must have ears and he certainly had that.”
The well-known musicologist said young pannists and arrangers would do well to emulate his work and passion for the steelpan.
“They could learn to be not just a follower but an innovator, to try to develop something new because this is where he succeeded. He was never complacent thinking that he knew everything. He was always striving for excellence.”
For his contribution to the steelpan and culture, Sans Souci-born Mannette was awarded two national awards - a Hummingbird Medal (Silver) in 1969 and a Chaconia Medal (silver) in 2000 –as well as an honorary doctorate from the St Augustine campus of the University of the West Indies.
Overseas, Mannette was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1999. He was also inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2003.
De Coteau said the accolades should not end there.
Create an Ellie Mannette corner
“The young people should know more about him, so there should be something that will make his memory live on. Maybe, in the (national) museum there can be a corner– the Ellie Mannette corner –where the young people can go and read and learn all about him.”
Recognised for several innovations which aided in the growth of the steelpan, Mannette was revered as the first to use a 55-gallon oil barrel instead of biscuit tins or soap boxes.
He is also acknowledged for being the first person to sink the top of the drum into a concave shape, allowing more space to place notes
Prof Brian Copeland, Pro Vice-Chancellor and principal of the UWI, St Augustine, said with Mannette’s passing, the world had lost yet another pioneer of the steelpan industry.
A pan innovator in his own right, known for his invention of the G-Pan and Percussive Harmonic Instrument, Copeland recalled in a statement on Thursday that the citation for the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters Mannette received 18 years ago, bore the inscription: “The greatest innovator Trinidad has ever produced.”
He recalled that as part of their steelpan technology research in the Faculty of Engineering, he and Prof Emeritus Clement Imbert had collaborated with Mannette in a 2001 visit to the West Virginia University (WVU) where the latter was Artiste in Residence.
Copeland said Mannette had taught courses in steelpan construction and performance for the university tuning project, which formed part of its World Music Programme. The university, he said, later established a company called Mannette Musical Instruments (formerly Mannette Steel Drums) that now manufactures and markets high quality steelpans.
Copeland said apart from the awards Mannette has received locally, he was also acknowledged for his contribution in the US through the very prestigious National Heritage Fellowship Award.
Describing him as a “humble man who truly experienced a lifetime of achievement from his dedication to and passion for the steelpan,” Copeland said Mannette was also inducted into the Hall of Fame of the US Percussive Arts Society.
Hailing Mannette as an icon of the artform, Akua Leith, artistic director and conductor of the National Steel Symphony Orchestra (NSSO), expressed confidence his work will live on at the WVU.
“That particular space will carry on in terms of maintaining the instrument at a certain quality,” he predicted.
Leith said Mannette was part of a community responsible for introducing North America, in particular the US, to the steelpan.
“So, for that, we are extremely grateful.”
Time to continue pan legacy
Leith regarded Mannette’s passing as a “great loss” for the industry “but I think he did his part and it’s for us to continue that legacy.”
Saying a country can never fully repay its icons, Leith suggested that a Hall of Fame be established at the National Academy of the Performing Arts or at Pan Trinbago to showcase the work of cultural pioneers.
“What we tend to do is react to things like this. But the steelpan being the national instrument of TT, there is no Hall of Wall of Fame anywhere. So, that is one way we could recognise not just him but others who have passed and who are still living.”
Leith’s NSSO predecessor, Jessel Murray, said Mannette’s work as a pan tuner was profound.
“I wish he would have been able to do even more here because that work as a pan tuner er is particularly invaluable for the survival of the instrument because we are losing so many persons like him here,” said Murray, immediate past head of the Department of Creative and Festival Arts, UWI, St Augustine.
“I am really grateful he had done so much work internationally in establishing a guild of pan tuners which would enable the survival of the instrument on a worldwide basis.”
Murray said Mannette’s design for the steelpan, simple yet profound, helped players around the world.
“His was a life well-lived.”
Culture Minister Dr Nyan Gadsby-Dolly acknowledged Mannette’s role in making the steel pan one of the world’s most beloved instruments.
“We thank him for his years of service to the cause of bringing the steelpan from its humble beginnings to ever greater heights,” she said in a statement on Thursday.
Gadsby-Dolly said Mannette not only gave 75 years of his life to developing the technology of the steelpan, but also excelled in pan building and tuning “and very importantly, to ensuring that he passed on those skills to another generation.
“His life story and life’s work should serve as an inspiration to every young person who has a dream, a talent, a passion,” she said.