History of Steel Drums

Steel Drums originated in Trinidad, an island country 7 miles off the coast of Venezuela. They were invented by the "father of the modern steel pan instrument", Dr. Ellie Mannette. 

Ellie Mannette was born in 1926 in Souci, Trinidad. In the 1930's percussion bands (beating on different lengths of tamboo bamboo) were competing in an event called Carnival. A few boys got the idea to bang on dust bins, paint cans, and brake drums. Ellie Mannette, along with a slightly younger boy named Winston Simon, discovered that if they reshaped a dust bin, they could get different notes out of one dust bin. The instrument, if you could call it that, was affectionately called a "ping pong" because of the sounds it made.

While still a teenager he formed a band called the "Oval Boys" (which he later renamed "The Invaders") and created a 6 note drum. During World War II, Carnival was halted. During that time, Mannette developed a new concave drum out of 35 gallon barrels. This allowed him 9 notes (or pitches) on his drum. In 1946, using a 55 gallon oil barrel, Mannette developed a new “lead drum” that contained 14 pitches. He showed the drum to no one, but unveiled it at a competition, drawing it from a sugar sack and playing Beethoven’s Für Elise and Brahms’ Lullaby. He won the competition. This pan eventually became the “lead” pan which is the mainstay of steel bands today. Furthermore, he invented the rubber tipped mallets that are used today to plan the pans (which are far less damaging to the pans than the wooden mallets of the past).

In 1951, Mannette traveled to Great Britain as a member of and tuner for the Trinidad All Steel Orchestra. He turned down a scholarship to study music in London so he could build more steel pans and perfect the instrument. To be accepted in Great Britain, Mannette had to modify the notes on the pans so they were chromatic (producing all the notes of the standard half-step scale). The original pans did not have all the notes of an octave on them. Also during the 1950’s, Mannette developed many of the other styles of pans including the Double Seconds, Double Guitars, and Triple Cellos.

Mannette visited the United States in 1963 to help develop the US Navy Steel Band and eventually returned in 1967 to stay. At that time he was asked to start a steel drum program in the ghettos of New York City.

Since that time, Ellie Mannette has perfected his craft by catering to the American ear, tuning the pans using newer strobe technology. Mannette now has a company, Mannette Steel Drums, where he leads workshops in the manufacturing, tuning, and playing of the pan. Almost 20 years ago now, he earned artist-in-residency status at West Virginia University.

In 2000, Ellie Mannette returned to Trinidad for the first time in 33 years and received an honorary Doctorate from the University of the West Indies. In 2003, he was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame.

Dr. Mannette has received numerous honors and awards including the Hummingbird Medal Silver of Trinidad and Tobago and the NEA National Heritage Fellowship Award which is the highest honor given in the traditional arts in the United States.

Today, Dr. Ellie Mannette remains at the university of West Virginia, teaching others about the pan – the only acoustic instrument invented in the 20th century.