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.
Ray Holman has an assured place among the all-time greats of Steelband arrangers and composers. He has enjoyed extraordinary longevity at the top of his game and holds the distinction of being the only arranger among the current crop to have participated in the very first Panorama competition in 1963.
The pannist was a mere 17 years old in 1961 when Ellie Mannette’s Invaders Steel Orchestra recorded “Ray’s Saga,” a tune that the teenager had composed for the pan. Under the watchful eyes of his mentor, Holman would go on to capture the Solo Ping Pong title in the 1964 Trinidad and Tobago Music Festival at age 20, a feat unmatched for three full decades.
Having come into pan with the band at age 13, Holman eventually became the arranger for Invaders, specialising in classical pieces but treating as well with the calypso arrangements necessary for participation in the annual Panorama competition. In 2013, he took San Fernando’s Skiffle to victory in the South competition, placing fifth in the national finals. But conformity must have sat uncomfortably on the shoulders of this pioneering spirit. In 1972, the Starlift Steelband, which Holman had founded nine years earlier and had guided to a handful of top three Panorama finishes, entered the competition with a calypso tune composed by him. Despite predictable opposition from the conservatives who argued for the monopoly of the traditional calypsonians, “Pan on the Move” earned Starlift third place and Holman a coveted place in steelband history.
Starting with that daring sortie down a road until then not travelled, Holman, who holds a UWI Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and History, continues to compose “own tunes” and has brought his compositional talents to a number of lesser known bands. The experience has allowed him to develop, in the words of one commentator, “a clearly identifiable, even unique musical voice and style (which) transcends the boundaries of the steelpan and the steel orchestra.” Thanks to Holman, steelbands now have a growing number of composers who have embarked on the “own tune” trail blazed by him, one of them having enjoyed multiple Panorama success.
Holman gradually attained “a level of harmonic sophistication reached by few other calypso composers” and leveraged his command of the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic content of pan music into a successful career as an international artiste. He has arranged for, performed and recorded with bands and individual musicians on several continents, and has been a featured performer in _lm and television and at venues such as Madison Square Garden, the Super Bowl and the St Lucia Jazz Festival. He has also regularly conducted workshops at American universities and at the end of the 1990s had a three-year stint as Distinguished Visiting Artist in the University of Washington’s Ethnomusicology programme.
In 1991, he composed the highly acclaimed score for the Crossroads Theatre Company’s performance of Black Orpheus in New Jersey.
In 1988, Trinidad and Tobago honoured him with the Hummingbird Medal (Silver).
Anthony Williams is a scientist of the Steelpan whose innovations transformed the rhythm of the old Ping Pong pan into the percussion instrument now hailed as the only one invented in the 20th century. Among pan pioneers he stands tall for the revolutionary impact of his inventions on the development of the Steelpan and the Steelband.
Anthony Williams was a little boy growing up in St James when he discovered that he could beat four notes out of a biscuit pan to get the tune of Mary Had A Little Lamb and even more notes from a sweet oil tin. His next major breakthrough came at the age of 15. While others dismissed the idea, he was convinced he could do something with oil drums discarded by the US Navy. He was right. Better tone and more space to add notes were his rewards.
By 1950, with oil drums becoming the norm among Ping Pong bands, an era of experimentation began in which Anthony Williams was a clear leader — experimenting, observing, analysing and problem solving. By 1952, other Williams innovations were being showcased in his new band, North Stars, which had evolved out of Sun Valley with Anthony Williams as its leader. The innovations were that of a mind on the cutting edge of Steelpan technology: the Double Strumming Pan had emerged to replace the Alto Pong and, to solve the problem of weight and mobility, the Double Pans were on wooden stands, the Double Cello had legs and the Ping Pong were on metal stands instead of the old neck strap. Two years later, he put both Pan and stand on wheels, making the bands more mobile.
In 1956, he presented his most revolutionary invention of all in his design and note-placement of the “Spider Pan” which opened up a world of new possibilities for Steelband music. Years of quiet research had led him to a mathematical formula in which each ascending note was precisely one eighth of an inch smaller than the preceding note. Out of this research came the “fourths and fifths” Tenor Pan, which is recognised today as the international standard for the tenor and many other steelband instruments. Anthony Williams never stopped experimenting with the Steelpan. In his search for more perfect working material, he invented a Pan mould from metal sheets welded to a skirt.
In the competitive arena, he led North Stars to victory in the _rst two Panorama competitions (1963, 1964). For his contribution to the development of the Steelpan, In 2008, Anthony Williams was honoured with the nation’s highest honour, the Order of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
Jit Samaroo lives in the valleys but has scaled the heights of Steelband music and competition to write his name into the history books as the most successful arranger in the 50-year history of the Panorama competition.
Jit Samaroo was born in Lopinot Valley in east Trinidad, miles from the steelband milieu of Port of Spain. In Lopinot Village, the music came from his mother’s dholak drum and from parang groups around him. At age 10 he played pan briefly with the transient pan-round-the-neck group, Village Boys. He was just 11 when his mother died, leaving him and his siblings to look after each other. Jit found the solution in
music. With two sisters, two brothers and himself, he started a family combo side, playing parang at first. At age 15, he had a life-changing encounter with Landig White, the musical director of the Lever Brothers Canboulay Steelband in Tunapuna. He joined the band, quickly mastering all the instruments while trying his hand at arranging for the band. The family band got into the act when he took home some discarded pans and taught them to play. After its debut at UWI in 1967, the Samaroo Kids Steel Orchestra became the perfect showcase for Jit Samaroo’s talents, prompting the Pan world to take notice.
In 1971, Bertrand “Butch” Kelman, tuner for both the Samaroo Kids and Renegades Steelband, introduced Jit Samaroo to Renegades, launching one of the most fertile Pan partnerships of all time. Together they have won the national Panorama competition a record nine times, including a historic hattrick in 1995, 1996 and 1997. In 1984, they romped home with an astounding victory margin of 17.5 points.
Jit Samaroo has also been a prolific composer whose work captures the cross-cultural influences of his life. In 1997 and 1999, the family band, by then known as the Samaroo Jets, put on two full-length concerts consisting solely of his work. In 2007, Jit Samaroo retired from Renegades, having sealed his reputation as one of the most successful, accurate, clinical arrangers ever. On the basis of his body of work, the University of the West Indies awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2003. Earlier, in 1995, he was awarded the Chaconia Medal (Silver).
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Len “Boogsie” Sharpe was a child prodigy of the Steelpan who actualized his gifts for composing, arranging and performing through the Steelband, adding new dimensions to the music.
Born in Benares St James to a Jamaican father and Trinidadian mother, Boogsie, as he is popularly called, started playing pan at the age of four in the yard of Crossfire Steelband, where he practically grew up. He was 10 when he crafted his first arrangement for a steelband. The piece, “Theme From The Sons of Katie Elder”, was performed at the Christmas concert of his school, Woodbrook Presbyterian Elementary. His life since then has been devoted to the creation and performance of music on this instrument.
As a teenager, he joined the mother-band of west Port of Spain, Invaders, which he would leave to team up with visionary composer Ray Holman in Starlift Steelband. Alongside Holman, Sharpe acquired sufficient competence and confidence to launch out on his own. In 1972, he formed Phase II Pan Groove, the band that continues to give breath to Sharpe’s innate and urgent talent.
Sharpe remains the premier example of a musical genius in the post-Independence era of the steelband movement. Without reading a note of music, he has been able to compose complex melodies and arrangements that have taken Phase II into the winners’ circle of the Panorama competition. Phase 11 has emerged champions six times, run second 11 times and third five times — a total of 22 times in the top three. Among his most memorable Panorama compositions were “I Music” (1984), “Musical Wine” (1985), “Pan Rising” (1986), “Dis Feeling Nice” (1987), “Woman is Boss” (1988) and “Birthday Party” (1993).
He is also in high demand as an arranger for other bands, many of which make it all the way to the top, sometimes competing with each other. In 1987, his arrangements won the north, south and Tobago zones, the Pan-Round-The Neck competition and the national finals.
Outside of the Carnival arena, he composes on original Caribbean themes for the Steelband Music Festival. These full-blown orchestral narratives include “The Saga of San Fernando Hill”, “The Three Seasons”, “Faces” and “Rain Forest”.
Blessed with perfect pitch, Boogsie is a virtuoso player with a gift for improvising. He plays every instrument in the steelband, but his successful international solo career is built on the double-seconds, which have sparkled in many a jazz ensemble. In 2009, he received the Hummingbird Medal (Gold).