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TRINIDADIAN ELLIE MANNETTE brought music to many during his 90 years. His obituary by Karen Zraick in The New York Times, August 31, 2018, cited Mannette as “Father of the Modern Steel Drum,” among the first to fashion a steel drum that had all the notes of the chromatic scale. That is, to non-musicians like me, such a steel drum is capable of being played in any musical key.

Ellie Mannette, 1927–2018, Trinidadian musician, teacher, fabricator. Image from The New York Times, August 31, 2018, via Mannette Musical Instruments.

Mannette was born in San Souci, Trinidad, in the Eastern Caribbean. Even as a youngster, he developed a passion for the steel drum. At age 11, Mannette was playing in Alexander’s Ragtime Band, a Trinidadian ensemble. In 1951, he was a member of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra that performed at the Festival of Britain. By 1959, the band had a contract with Columbia Records.

In the early 1960s, Mannette was invited to the U.S. to form the U.S. Navy Steel Band. In 1967, he moved permanently to the U.S., where he set up urban youth programs in New York City.

In 1969, Mannette was awarded the Hummingbird Medal of Trinidad and Tobago for his innovations in pan making. He’s credited with being the first to sink the top of the drum into a concave shape, thus having more area for precise tuning.

National Geographic gives a brief video history of transforming discarded oil drums into musical instruments.

Beginning in 1991, Mannette worked with West Virginia University in establishing a University Tuning Project. Later, he formed Mannette Musical Instruments in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Can there be happier music? Shake Shake Sonora.

The National Endowment for the Arts gave Mannette its 1999 National Heritage Fellowship Award, the highest U.S. honor bestowed upon those involved in traditional arts.

In 2000, Mannette was granted an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies. In 2003, he was admitted into the Hall of Fame of the Percussion Society of the United States.

Mannette’s Morgantown facility will continue in operation, run by former students and apprentices.

Steel drums find their way into calypso orchestras with full instrumentation. “Antilles Airboat” offers an example. Come here! Get down!

I hope you enjoy this brief sampling of steel drum music. Ellie Mannette and other extraordinary musicians bring happiness to our hearts from tuned panels of steel. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

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