Father Of Modern Steel Drum Ellie Mannette Dies At 90

Sep 3, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 10:34 am
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

If you bang on a metal can, most people only hear a racket. Ellie Mannette heard much more.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEEL DRUM MUSIC)

CORNISH: Ellie Mannette, the father of the modern steel drum, the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago, has died. He was born in Trinidad in 1927 and banged on oil barrels as a teenager.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERCUSSION MUSIC)

CORNISH: But he imagined a symphony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELLIE MANNETTE: I listened to classical music all day. And I always say to myself, one of these days, I'm going to build a symphony of steel, all steel drum, to sound as good or better than that symphony that I'm hearing on the radio.

CORNISH: He took his vision, and, using the skills learned working at a foundry, he tweaked the surfaces of metal cans. Eventually, he could use his new drums to make a melody.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MANNETTE: They could play, like, a...

(SOUNDBITE OF STEEL DRUM MUSIC)

CORNISH: Ellie Mannette founded a group, the Invaders Steel Orchestra, with two of his brothers. As his invention caught on, he left Trinidad to travel, to play and to teach. In 1963, he was asked to help develop the United States Navy Steel Band. Four years later, he'd made the U.S. his home. He settled in Morgantown, W.Va., making it the epicenter of steel drums in the U.S. He started an instrument business there and trained students at West Virginia University. Some of them have since built their own steel drum programs at other schools. That was his hope when he spoke to NPR in 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MANNETTE: Because this instrument is going to blossom. And for me to fade away or retire, die tomorrow with the skills in my hands and in my mind, it will be a loss for the art form. And these young people's going to take it on, and they're going to move with it. And I expect them to carry on my work for the future. I expect that to happen.

CORNISH: Ellie Mannette was a member of the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame and a recipient of the NEA National Heritage Fellowship award. He died last week in Morgantown of kidney failure. His former students and apprentices say they plan to keep his steel drum business open.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEEL DRUM MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.