Elliott “Ellie” Mannette stands in the pantheon of Pan as the Father of the Modern Steelpan for his scientific breakthroughs that changed the course of music history.
The innovations that created the steelpan were the result of a community ferment in which Ellie Mannette found himself at the age of 11. That was when he moved from his birthplace of Sans Souci on Trinidad’s northeast coast to Woodbrook, just outside Port of Spain, and landed at the heart of the forces that would give birth to the steelpan.
His journey began with an introduction to Carnival when he performed with the New Town Cavalry Tamboo Bamboo Band, which would later claim a place in steelband history as Alexander’s Ragtime Band. In 1940, at age 13, he helped to organize a group called the Oval Boys, predecessor of Invaders Steel Orchestra which he led for almost three decades.
The 1940s was a period of intense and inspired music experimentation as groups of mainly teenaged boys from east to west Port of Spain competed under threat of jail. The colonial authorities’ war-time ban on drumming, tamboo bamboo and public noise pushed them to experiment with metal paint pans and biscuit tins which yielded the discovery of how pitch might vary depending on where the metal was struck.
Ellie Mannette’s major innovation came soon after World War II. A machinist by trade, he sank the top of a 55-gallon oil drum, creating more space for cleaner notes. The result was the prototype instrument for today’s single tenor pan. His tuning made Invaders’ mellow tone the most sought-after quality for bands in the 1950s, with its tuners spreading Mannette’s innovations to other bands. He also introduced rubber on the tip of pan-sticks to help acquire this tone.
The breakthrough opened the door to greater experimentation in paving the way for steel orchestras. Ellie Mannette continued his work, bringing a sophisticated approach to pan tuning by using a stroboscope to analyze and shape the harmonic blend.
In 1967, Ellie Mannette migrated to the United States where his work continues under the University Tuning Project at West Virginia University, consolidating the science and pedagogy of the pan making and tuning process.
In 2000, he was awarded the Chaconia Medal (Silver) for outstanding cultural achievement.