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Steel Drums in Morgantown

Percussion Pioneer Ellie Mannette

By Michelle Wolford

Photographs by Mark Crabtree

Ellie Mannette
Ellie Mannette, known worldwide as the “Father of the Steel Drum,” with steel drum and tools in his Morgantown workshop in 1996. Photograph by Bob Beverly.


You wouldn’t know it to look at Ellie Mannette, but he recently turned 79. Though his curly hair is gray, his trim physique and high energy give him the appearance of a younger man. His speech is rapid – despite nearly 40 years in the United States, his Trinidadian accent is still thick. His movements are quick and purposeful. He is a man with a mission.

Mannette’s mission is the continued development of the steel drum, a richly melodic percussion instrument first made from discarded oil barrels on the Caribbean island of Trinidad some 60 years ago. The steel of the 55-gallon drums is heated and hammered to produce a broad range of musical tones – a range that is still being expanded.

Ellie Mannette is widely credited with developing and refining the instrument, and its tuning, over the past half-century, and is often referred to as the “Father of the Modern Steel Drum.” For the past decade-and-a-half, he has proudly carried on this legacy from the hills of Monongalia County, as an artist-in-residence at West Virginia University.

The drums are now treasured members of orchestras all over West Virginia, the United States, and the world. And the most sought-after brand of those instruments bears the Mannette name. They’re made at Ellie’s workshop in Granville, just outside of Morgantown.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.