The Steel Drum

When French colonialists came to Trinidad and Tobago, they brought with them African slaves. The slaves had used materials available to them as percussion instruments in Africa and continued that practice in the Caribbean. The French were alarmed that the percussion instruments could be used to send messages and attempted to stop the practice. But local materials were abundant and their percussion practices continued.

At first bamboo sticks were used, and when the French discarded biscuit tins an additional percussion opportunity arose. Again, the colonial overseers tried to squelch the new forms of percussion. Over time the colonial influence waned and performance bands were formed. The one challenge that arose was that the sound quality was limited. There was only so much you could do with spoons, cans, sticks, and other available materials.

World War II provided opportunities that hadn’t existed before. Fifty-five gallon oil drums started washing up on shore as they were tossed overboard by warships.

Elliott (Ellie) Mannette a native of Trinidad who was both a musician and instrument maker started using the oil drums to fashion instruments. He would pound down the top of the drum into a concave shape. That provided more space to place notes. The drumsticks were covered with rubber to provide for a richer sound. The drums were also cut at different lengths to generate different sounds. You can see how the steel drums sound by going to

The steel drum is the only major musical instrument created in the 20th Century and is now the national instrument of Trinidad and Tobago.

Ellie Mannette not only invented most of the instruments in the steel drum repertoire, but began the process of creating several hundred steel drum bands. He moved to West Virginia University to teach students how to build and play steel drums. The drums made by Ellie’s students are now being used by orchestras across the world and are also featured in museums.

What began as an instrument of hope for freedom by slaves is now enjoyed by citizens around the world.

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“I always knew in my heart one day
that my work would find its way,
I could not tell you how,
there was no one there for me to show the way
but I figured it out.
I figured it all through for all of you to see today.” – Ellie Mannette


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