It all started with trash cans and buckets.

As young as 11, Ellie Mannette engaged himself by tapping – ultimately making music – on these ordinary household items.

Can you imagine any of us, as children, sitting around banging on trash cans and buckets all day? Our parents would tell us to cut it out.

But for Mannette, who grew up in Trinidad, nothing could keep him from his fascination with the sound of steel music.

The WVU Steel Drum Ensemble will be featured as part of West Virginia University’s participation at this year’s Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival celebrating land-grant institutions. For a full schedule click here

Now a spry 85-years-old, the “father of the modern steel drum” will be marching on to the nation’s capital this week with the West Virginia University Steel Drum Band.

Mannette and 40 students from the band have been selected by the Smithsonian Institution to participate in its 2012 Folklife Festival at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The festival, titled “Campus and Community: Public and Land-grant Universities and the USDA at 150,” tips its hat to the 150th anniversary of the 1862 Morrill Act. The legislation paved the way for the founding of land-grant institutions such as WVU.

The 10-day festival begins Wednesday and ends July 8 and will take place on the mall between 7th and 14th streets.

Mannette is a National Heritage Fellow and started WVU’s Steel Drum Band in the 1990s.

He came to WVU after a storied career that involved the development and evolution of the steel drum – a journey that took him from Trinidad to all points of the globe.

Growing up, Mannette set his sights on developing this new music instrument, although people mocked and ridiculed him for pursuing such an endeavor.

That didn’t dissuade him.

WVU is not only wonderful and warm, but it has the best ensembles and musical programs in the country. I have no regrets. Teaching is the greatest of all professions, and I think I’ve trained young people to carry on the legacy of the steel drum.”

—Ellie Mannette
Former WVU professor and Father of Modern Steel Drum

Taking a breather from constructing steel drums on a humid June day inside his shop in Osage, Mannette said, “I chose to never give up the steel drum for anything. I will follow it to death’s door.”

As a boy, he’d fall asleep listening to classical music. He would identify each instrument – a flute, an oboe, a clarinet. He’d hear those sounds – the chords and the arrangements – and think to himself, “I want to make drums to sound like an orchestra. I want a drum to sound like a cello or guitar.”

Ultimately, he made it happen.

In the 1960s, he came to the U.S. and helped build up the U.S. Navy Steel Band. He then spent time in New York City building instruments for inner-city youth.

With such unbridled spirit and perseverance, it’s no coincidence Mannette ended up at WVU.

Phil Faini, who taught percussion at WVU for 40 years, had spotted Mannette at a steel drum demonstration and was awestruck by the performance. Faini then invited him to WVU in 1991 to show students how to tune drums. That led to Mannette being asked to teach at the University for a semester, which led to the steel drum revolutionary staying on as a professor through 2008. Mannette served as an artist-in-residence to show students how to build and play steel drums. He eventually became director of the University Tuning Project, a wide-scale steel drum initiative at WVU.

Before settling at WVU, Ellie traveled all over the country for demonstrations and guest lectures at various college campuses. But he found his home here at WVU.

“WVU is not only wonderful and warm, but it has the best ensembles and musical programs in the country,” Mannette said. “I have no regrets. Teaching is the greatest of all professions, and I think I’ve trained young people to carry on the legacy of the steel drum.”

Mannette believes students of the steel drum have a “better sense of orchestration” than other music students.

WVU’s Steel Drum Band will get the chance to prove it over the next couple of weeks on a national stage.

The band will first perform at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Justin S. Morrill Performing Arts Center. Mannette will join the band for a special evening performance at the Center at 6 p.m.

For a full schedule of events, go to

Admission is free.

WVU will also have a tent, where visitors can learn about the history and manufacturing of the steel drums. Visitors can even try their hand at playing a steel drum.

WVU is among more than 25 land-grant and public universities participating in this year’s event.

“We were selected out of everything they could’ve selected from the University,” said Michael Vercelli, director of the WVU Steel Drum Band. “That’s a big honor in itself. The Folklife Festival attracts more than a million people every year. To have this recognition is really outstanding.”

According to the Smithsonian, the festival will focus on four themes that reflect the current work of public and land-grant universities, such as WVU: reinventing agriculture, sustainable solutions, transforming communities and building on tradition.

Provost Michele Wheatly will discuss the land-grant tradition in an informal presentation at the Folklife Festival from noon to 12:45 p.m. Wednesday at the Commons Stage.



CONTACT: William Winsor, associate dean of College of Creative Arts

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