At This W.Va. Steelpan Drum Company, A Visionary’s Beat Goes On
It takes about 40 hours of hammering to turn a steel drum into a steelpan drum.
Although originally meant to hold oil, shampoo or ketchup, the metal tube becomes an instrument uniquely capable of evoking island breezes and a slower pace of life.
And believe it or not, this transformation takes place in an old storefront in Osage, West Virginia, population 395.
This is the home of Mannette Musical Instruments, maker of world-renowned steelpan drums.
Each of the company’s five drum builders and tuners has his own small workshop. Each workshop is nearly identical, aside from a few personal effects.
They have tool boxes full of hammers, customized for building steel drums. They have propane torches to soften up the steel when it needs to be a little more pliable. And they have super-sensitive instrument tuners to ensure all the notes on their drums are in perfect pitch.
But there’s one workshop where hammers don’t ring anymore. This room has been mostly untouched for three years, since its owner left and never returned.
This workshop once belonged to Ellie Mannette, the founder of this company and the father of the modern steel drum.
Mannette’s red toolbox and blue propane torch are there. Hammers are laid out on his workbench, along with a stack of promotional posters.
“Some of this stuff, he was just tinkering around with,” said Ron Justice, a friend of Mannette’s who helped him start the company in the late 1990s. “This is just the way he walked out. It’s the way it was when he left.”
There are newspaper and magazine clippings hanging on the back wall. Read them, and you’ll learn how Mannette was born in Trinidad and fell in love with pan music from a young age.
He got what people in Trinidad call “the jumbie” — when pan music takes hold of your soul and won’t let go.
He started playing in local bands when he was just 11 years old. When he got older, he started making records with his band, The Invaders.
But even more than playing the instruments, Mannette’s focus was on building steelpan drums.
His parents were not enthusiastic, especially after he dropped out of high school to focus full time on drum-building.
The steel drum is now Trinidad’s national instrument but, when Mannette was growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s, pan men were viewed as ne’er-do-wells.
“They called you a vagabond. They called you a ‘bad John.’ They called you ‘no ambition.’ They don’t want to see you,” Mannette told filmmakers in the 2004 documentary The Stradivarius of Steel — The Ellie Mannette Story. “But something was driving me to do it. There was some inner sense saying ‘Keep going. Keep going. You’re going to make this work.’”
As he continued to build drums, he began to make significant innovations in the instrument.
Early versions of pan drums were made from lightweight aluminum cans. Mannette was the first to build instruments using a 55-gallon steel drum. Early drums also had domed tops. Mannette was the first to realize the tonal potential of a concave top — essentially inventing the modern steel drum.
But there was a problem. The steel drums he needed to make his instruments cost money. Mannette didn’t have any money, so he began stealing his materials from a nearby U.S. Navy base.
He timed the guards patrolling the base. When he found a window of opportunity, he swam over to the compound, threw some barrels into the ocean and swam them back to shore. There, he cut them in half with a cold chisel, loaded them onto his bicycle and rode the 11 miles back home to Port of Spain
This eventually caught up to him.
One day, American military police showed up at Mannette’s door. They took him to the base. Once there, someone handed Mannette a phone.
“It was the commander of the Atlantic fleet,” Mannette protégé Chanler Bailey said with the air of someone recounting a story he’s heard many times before. “He says ‘I know you’ve been stealing my drums. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll give you drums. You have to make the U.S. Navy a steel band.’”
Mannette flew to Puerto Rico to build the U.S. Navy some steelpan drums. This provided his first exposure to the United States and ushered in the next chapter of his steel drum legacy.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, steelpan drums were gaining popularity in American music thanks to artists like Harry Belafonte, Liberace and Pete Seeger. As a result, universities and high schools started forming steel band ensembles.
But you couldn’t just go to the local music store and buy a set of steelpan drums. You still can’t. If a school wanted steelpan drums, they’d call Mannette, who would tell them how many 55-gallon drums to obtain. He would show up a few weeks later with a toolbox full of hammers.
Before he left for the next school, though, Mannette would give a workshop to teach people how to play his instruments.
This was his life for over 20 years — traveling from coast to coast, giving schoolkids the jumbie everywhere he went, like a Trinidadian pied piper.
His travels led him to Morgantown, West Virginia in 1991.
Phil Faini, head of West Virginia University’s percussion program, ordered some of Mannette’s drums. He built them somewhere else, but when he came to deliver them, he gave a clinic at the music school.
“Faini saw the rapport Ellie had with students and how much joy he got out of talking about what it was he did,” said Bailey, who was in the class. “He took Ellie to the Kroger and bought some Dove bars. They’re sitting there eating their ice cream outside the Creative Arts Center and (Faini) said ‘What do you think about coming on here for a semester?’”
It was quite the feather in the music program’s cap, having the Stradivarius of Steel on staff.
But there was something in it for Mannette, too.
Whenever he’d go back to a school where he taught students how to build and play the steel drums, he found those pupils had forgotten most of what they’d learned.
Mannette, now in his 60s, realized teaching at WVU would give him an opportunity to work with students long-term. It would allow him to pass on his craft in a way that was impossible as a roving pan man.
One semester turned into two. Then two turned into four, until Mannette eventually became a permanent fixture in WVU’s music department.
“I was finishing up school and he said ‘Why don’t you come downstairs and learn how to do this?’” Bailey said.
Mannette was building drums in the basement of the Creative Arts Center at the time. He put a hammer in Bailey’s hand and told him to make the bottom of a barrel 4 inches deep. Then Mannette went away on a two-week trip to tune some steel drums.
“I spent two weeks trying to make that the prettiest 40-inch bowl I could,” Bailey said.
When Mannette returned, he complimented Bailey on the work. Then he picked up one of his largest hammers.
“He said, ‘Now you’ve got to do this!’ And he just goes at it, and beats it and beats it,” Bailey said. “That’s when I understood. I don’t see it yet.”
Building steel drums doesn’t take a lot of super-expensive tools. It just takes a lot of expertise and practice, because these instruments are far more complex than they appear.
A single steel drum head can feature up to 33 notes. That might not seem like much. But consider this: When someone hits a note on a piano, the hammer strikes a set of strings tuned to play a single note. All the notes that aren’t playing remain dampered by felt pads.
On a steelpan drum, the whole head vibrates when you strike a single note. This makes things incredibly difficult, especially when it comes time to tune a drum.
“Every single time you hit one note, something happens to the note beside of it, or in front of it, or behind it. It’s wildly frustrating,” Bailey said.
The craft requires years of apprenticeship with a master. Mannette was finally able to offer that kind of apprenticeship once he settled in Morgantown and began working with guys like Bailey.
“His passion was not ‘how much can I make off of a steel drum?’ His passion was, ‘I want to teach these guys everything possible I know, that they’ll be better than me and leave a legacy,’” Justice said.
In 2013, Mannette was getting ready to hang up his hammers when another steel drum-obsessed kid entered his life.
Ryan Roberts grew up in Virginia Beach. He got the jumbie in middle school, learning to play on a set of steel pans his school inherited from the U.S. Navy.
When it came time for college, there was really only one choice. He came to WVU to learn at the feet of the master.
So Mannette put off retirement. Over the next 5 years, he stuck around the shop to continue teaching Roberts and the rest of the crew as much as he could about his beloved steelpans.
“He would walk around and go in all of our rooms while we’re working. He’ll tell you straight up if it was a good note or a bad note,” Roberts said. “Then he’ll go to the next room and the next room — make his rounds — then he’d go back in his room and work on whatever he was working on.”
Although he was now in his ninth decade, it was clear Mannette was still in charge. He signed off on every drum that left the factory.
“Up until the day he passed, Ellie was always talking about what he could do with each of us,” Bailey said. “‘If (I) had another month, can you imagine how much information I could put in someone’s head?’”
But then Mannette’s health began to deteriorate.
His apprentices — who had become his family — would take him to the grocery store and to doctors appointments. They helped him around his house. And they were with him in the hospital as his life ebbed away.
Ellie Mannette died in August 2018 at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia. He was 90 years old. His obituary ran in the New York Times and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
His apprentices still grieve his absence around the shop, but Mannette’s presence can still be felt among the music and the noise.
Builder and tuner Keith Moone has picked up where Mannette left off and has continued training Roberts.
Bailey is carrying on another piece of Mannette’s legacy. He recently opened a studio next door to the drum factory where, five days a week, kids and adults come to learn the steel drum.
It looks like a high school band room — except instead of saxophones and trombones, it’s filled wall-to-wall with different sizes of steelpan drums.
“The one statement he always said was, ‘What does it profit a man to keep what he knows to himself?’” Bailey said. “I think that’s always in the back of our heads.”
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a partnership with West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.
Jesse Wright, with 100 Days in Appalachia, contributed to this story.