Elliott “Ellie” Mannette
Founding member of the original Oval Boys Steel Band, Ellie Mannette’s genius was undoubtedly a major catalyst in the development of the steel pan, earning him the appellation ‘Pan Scientist’.
It was Ellie who in 1946 first sank the 55 gallon oil drum into its concave form, thereby changing the pan’s very structure and opening the door to the revolutionary innovations in pan that followed. He became a pan tuner by profession, and is still counted among the most knowledgeable and respected pan tuners alive. He is credited with having perfected the double second – considered by pan connoisseurs to be a work of pure genius because of its great versatility. He also developed the cello pan which has become a standard in the pan assemblage. Most bands still use the style of double seconds and cello pans based on Ellie Mannette’s arrangement of the notes. He is also credited with having first placed rubber on the pan sticks. Musicologist, Newman Alexander recalls that it was Barbadian-born Lieutenant Joe Griffith, once a member of the Trinidad Police Band, who initiated chromatic tuning of pans. At the time he was musical director of the St. Lucia Police Band. His pioneering work extended the steelband’s tonal range to five octaves and invested pan with a higher level of musical maturity.
Ellie Mannette and Griffith toured England with TASPO in 1951. Ellie has also enjoyed very early the distinction of performing in the Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Centre and at the Town Hall in New York. Ellie, the oldest of the Mannette boys, had been employed in the east end foundry where he developed a special feel for working with iron and steel. It was this feel for steel that helped to propel him to the forefront of pan-tuning in Trinidad and Tobago. To the envy of many other steelbands at that time, his tenors were better than anyone else’s in volume, range and timbre, and his cellos sounded like organs. In fact, it was generally conceded that Ellie tuned the sweetest pans. According to Francis “Peacock” Wickham. Co-captain of Invaders, “in spite of Ellie’s genius as a pan tuner, one of his greatest delights on J’Ouvert morning (Carnival Monday), was to join the rhythm section of the band. Ellie would put on his red fireman hat and join Drayton, Ossie Best and myself.” Wickham went on, “We used to heat the iron-and tune the pans to C – so the iron had to start there – in those days you could jump up with the rhythm section alone.”
Ellie Mannette was also an outstanding leader and many pan aficionados rate his leadership qualities among the most outstanding in the history of the movement. Rudolph Charles had the greatest respect for Ellie both as a leader and as a pan innovator and often consulted him on the science of the metallurgy as it relates to the pan. In fact, during the pan movement’s era of violence in the ‘forties’ and ‘fifties’- although he could take good care of himself in physical combat – Ellie’s preoccupation with the improvement of pan was strong enough to leave him virtually insulated from the effects of warring with pansides; and as a consequence he maintained a good relationship with many of the leaders and members of Desperadoes, Casablanca and All Stars among others.
Ellie Mannette’s love of pan extends to anyone who shows a genuine interest in the instrument. So it is no surprise to learn, that he assisted the first female steel pan orchestra – Girl Pat -supplying its members with well tuned pans, as well as showing them the techniques of playing. In his own right, Ellie is a good tenor pan as well as cello pan player and a ‘mean’ iron beater!
The introduction of pan music on the curricula of schools in Trinidad and Tobago, was one of Ellie’s earliest goals – pursued so relentlessly that it even led to strained relationships with the government of the day.
Ellie Mannette departed his homeland in 1967 to work with ghetto children in Brooklyn and Harlem, leaving his brother “Birdie” Mannette to carry on his work. Good job, too! The fierce loyalty of the early Invaders’ followers for the band with “the best-tuned pans in the world”, has in no way diminished with the passing years. It seems that wherever they may be, even in the far-off migration capitals of the world, they all “make pilgrimage” to Invaders’ panyard every J’Ouvert morning in an extraordinary renewal of faith and friendships.
Meanwhile, Ellie continues to do Trinidad and Tobago proud: he has helped to organise the US Navy Steelband as well as steelbands in Boston, New York, Washington, Baltimore, Montreal and Toronto as well as in high schools, colleges and universities throughout the United States of America.
Thanks to the dedication of men like Ellie Mannette, pan music has earned its place in our hearts and on the world stage.
Source: The Trinidad and Tobago Steel Pan
History and Evolution
By: Dr. F.I.R. Blake