The late Ellie Mannette will forever be remembered at West Virginia University as a mentor, master musician and friend. Known as the Father of the Steel Drum, Mannette died on August 29 in Morgantown. He was 90 years old.
Mannette dedicated his life to the steel pan. In his youth, Mannette had a vision of a musical instrument that could grow from humble origins - from discarded metal cans into tonal symphonic instruments. He pursued this vision with a rare single-mindedness, and achieved it through trial and error and invention and experimentation and epiphany. He was a powerful force and an integral part of the evolution of this musical steel drum - not just celebrated as an innovator, but renowned for his exceptional craftsmanship, the brilliance of his designs and his unparalleled quality of sound.
After emigrating to the United States in 1967, Mannette began traveling around the country, building steel pans for schools and communities. When he came to WVU for the task, Dean Phil Faini noticed how well Mannette worked with students and asked him if he would like to teach.
“I saw how well Ellie communicated with our students, and I knew he should be teaching,” said Faini, now dean emeritus. “Ellie loved his students and they loved him back. It didn’t take long for Ellie to become ‘the’ teacher to take classes from.”
Mannette made his home in Morgantown, teaching at WVU for nearly 20 years as part of the WVU World Music Performance Center. He also founded Mannette Instruments, a company designed to meet the needs of today’s steel band performers and educators. His staff, many of whom have ties to WVU’s School of Music, continue Mannette’s legacy building instruments using his legendary techniques.
According to World Music Performance Center Director Michael Vercelli, Mannette’s influences regularly shine through with the current generation of students, although they didn’t know him.
“So many people have learned from Ellie that his students’ students are now coming through our program, and Ellie is part of the reason for their interest,” Vercelli said.
They will never have a chance to meet Mannette, but current and future students still play on the instruments he came to Morgantown to tune more than 30 years ago.
“The WVU Steel Band in itself is Ellie’s legacy,” Vercelli said. “Ellie’s instruments are superior, especially compared to many other universities. The quality of our instruments, and our program, are a direct result of Ellie Mannette.”