The passing of Elliot Mannette, enshrined in steelband lore as Ellie, is another great loss for the steelband movement. His passing may seem remote, the news coming from some distance, both geographic and temporal from his beginnings and greatest glories in his homeland. Mannette, born in 1927, was one of the pivotal geniuses of the formative years of the steelband movement a creator who beat, quite literally, discarded oil barrels into musical instruments.
Mannette is credited with the creation of seven of the ten instruments used in modern steelbands, and with the definitive shaping and carving of the bowl of the instrument, increasing its chromatic scale and allowing it to play any melody in any key. It was his frustration with getting melodies out of the convex shape of the early steelpan, which rose from its circumference like a globe and that led him to experiment with sinking the steel surface into a convex basin. He named his first drum The Barracuda, because he believed it delivered the baddest sound. Rivals beat him and took the drum; so, he began to experiment with the huge 55-gallon oil drum.
Generations have come of age taking this monumental task of inventiveness for granted. It’s hard today to imagine just how staggering a revelation it was for a discarded oil drum to merge the percussive power with melody to create the unique instrument that is the modern steelpan. It was on this much larger canvas that he would engrave his reputation, bringing harmonic range to the fledgling instrument. In his determined hands, the craft of the pan tuner was born as he carefully hammered and bent the stiff steel until it responded with crisp notes. His intuitive shaping of the metal created the profession of pan tuner, a role that continues to demand years of exacting professional study and training.
Mannette’s continuing role in the development and popularisation of the steelband and his determination to perfect the instrument took him around a world astonished by the steel orchestra. In 1991, while teaching at West Virginia University, he found a new home in Morgantown, where he lived until his death last week. His foundational work with the pan as an instrument and his second career as an active, working agent for its development and dissemination in the wider world has been a lasting credit to TT. His work continues through his business, Mannette Instruments.
The lasting brilliance of Ellie Mannette’s life is not only found in his early discoveries, but in the 75 years he invested in continuous experimentation and study of the instrument’s potential even as he shared his knowledge widely and with enthusiasm.