As a child in Trinidad, Elliot "Ellie" Mannette was attracted to Carnival festivities and music. At age 11, he had his first opportunity to perform in a Carnival parade with the New Town Cavalry Tamboo Bamboo (later renamed Alexander's Ragtime Band). The group used traditional parade instruments, but these were subsequently banned by the British colonial government. Band members began experimenting with paint pans and biscuit drums and found that they could vary the pitch by striking different areas. Mannette and some other younger members formed their own band, the Oval Boys, the predecessor to the Woodbruck Invaders, one of Trinidad's best and longest-lasting groups.
When the British lifted the wartime Carnival ban after World War II, Mannette became the leader of the Invaders. About the same time, oil drums became the standard source material for the instruments, and Mannette, a machinist by trade, became a pioneer of the new technology. He sank the lid to create a tensed playing surface and fired the metal to improve the acoustic properties. A variety of steel drums was created, and entire orchestras were formed. These changes helped to propel the instrument into wide popularity. Over the next several decades, Mannette brought an even more sophisticated approach to pan tuning, using a stroboscope to analyze and shape the harmonic blend.
In 1951, the Trinidad government organized the Trinidad All-Steel Percussion Orchestra, a national steel band, to represent the country at the Festival of Britain. Mannette was among the musicians chosen to be trained by Lt. Joseph Griffith of Antigua's Police Band. Of the experience, Mannette said, "Look, we were eleven pan men who had no formal training in music theory. Mr. Griffith ... was a disciplined band director and insisted that we be disciplined musicians. We practiced for hours a day and, along with playing dozens of gigs to raise money, even had to build new instruments for the trip! ... Mr. Griffith told me that I would have to build a bass pan from a fifty-five-gallon drum. Now prior to that, we used only the light caustic soda barrels to make our bass, and only one barrel at that. ... I told him I didn't believe I could build a bass from a fifty-five-gallon drum; they were just too heavy and would not sound. I have to laugh when I think about this now; so many things in pan have come about — quite by accident. Anyway, he refused to take no for an answer. ... I guess he knew what he was talking about, because I did do it."
By 1959, the Invaders had a contract with Columbia Records. Mannette came to the United States in 1963 in response to an invitation to develop a U.S. Navy steel band, build the instruments and train the players. He returned for good in 1967 to work with inner-city youth in New York City. He started more than ten new bands. His company, The Mannette Touch, became the main source of steel-band instruments in the United States. He worked with more than 350 school programs and served as an artist-in-residence at West Virginia University. His innovations, musicianship, teaching and advocacy for his tradition earned him the title "Father of the Modern Steel Drum."
Mannette, Ellie. Teaching Music (June 2001) 8, 6: 46.
Rowsey, Glenn. "Ellie Mannette." Rowsey - Pans and Pan Repair. http://panrowsey.com/new-page/
Wu, Corinna. "Science Catches up with the Shimmering Sound of Steel Drums." Science News (October 10, 1998) 154, 15: 236.
Mannette, Ellie, and Steel and Brass Band. Steel and Brass. Vinyl LP, United Artists UAS 6739.
Mannette, Ellie, and the Shell Invaders Steel Orchestra. 1962 Calypso Hits. RCA Victor vinyl LP. Shell Invaders Steel Orchestra. Harmony in Steel.
Elliot Mannette interviewed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 1999 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., courtesy National Endowment for the Arts
Elliot Mannette in Eighteen on Steel, a film by Sydney C. Hill, one of the oldest recorded performances of Mannette’s Shell Invaders and the Navy Steel Band playing together in Trinidad, ca. late 1950s, courtesy Mannette/George Private Archival Collection
Elliot Mannette, Ellie Mannette - The Father of the Modern Steel Drum, Courtesy Mannette/George Private Archival Collection
Elliot Mannette, Rhythms of the World - The World Music Center at West Virginia University, A promotional piece for WVU’s World Famous World Music Performance Center, where the steel drums are featured, Courtesy Mannette/George Private Archival Collection
'Recyled, Re-seen: Folk Art from the Global Scrap Heap,' Oil Barrels, Steel Drums - Pan in Trinidad and Tobago, 1996, Crystal Productions, CP-6092, Courtesy The Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Elliot 'Ellie' Mannette, qudio biography, produced and recorded by Alan Govenar, edited by Andrew Dean, Narrated by Bob Ray Sanders
Festival of Steel Beginning Band, 'I’m a Believer,' MSD Festival of Steel 2006, Mannette Steel Drums, Ltd., Courtesy Mannette/George Private Archival Collection
Festival of Steel Intermediate Band 'Shake De Pepper Sauce,' MSD Festival of Steel 2006, Mannette Steel Drums, Ltd., Courtesy Mannette/George Private Archival Collection
Festival of Steel Mass Band 'Ave Verum Corpus,' MSD Festival of Steel 2006, Mannette Steel Drums, Ltd., Courtesy Mannette/George Private Archival Collection