Ellie Mannette, a Trinidadian musician known in the United States as the father of the modern steel drum, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Morgantown, W.Va. He was 90. The cause of death was kidney failure according to his daughter Juliette Mannette.
Born in Trinidad in 1927, Ellie developed a love of percussive instruments at a young age. The island was alive with music in the 1930’s when rival bands would meet in Port-of-Spain for fierce competition. Bands used various everyday items- from trash cans to buckets- to make music, but it was Ellie who first thought to use empty oil barrels from the local military base.
When Ellie transformed his first oil barrel into a steel pan, history was born. Soon word got out that he had created a drum with the unheard of, ability to create a melody and his steel pans were in high demand. The TASPO (Trinidad All Steel Percussive Orchestra) was invited to Great Britain to showcase the new instrument at the Festival of Britain.
Soon thereafter, he traveled to the United States to create the U.S. Navy Steel Band. Ellie went on to build and create hundreds of Steel Bands all across the US.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Ellie’s travels brought him to the place he now calls home. He came to Morgantown, WV for a guest semester at West Virginia University to teach students to build and play steel drums. Truly connecting with the university and city, he soon launched the University Tuning Project. This venture later evolved into Mannette Musical Instruments.
Ellie has received countless awards of recognitions. A few include the NEO National Heritage Fellowship Award, Hummingbird Medal of Trinidad and Tobago. In 2003, he was admitted to the Hall of Fame of the Percussive Arts Society of the United States. Ellie was recognized by the Smithsonian Institute in July 2012.