Memorial Concert for the Legendary Ellie Mannette

by Emily Lemmerman

A When Steel Talks Exclusive

Eille Mannette
The late Ellie Mannette - photo by WST Pan Photographer

USA - When Ellie Mannette died in August of 2018, the steelband community worldwide grieved along with his family. He had made it clear that he did not want a funeral, but we, his apprentices, friends and family, knew we would soon hold a tribute fitting of his stature, and one that reflected both the impact he had on our lives and how much we loved him. Over the following months, it became clear that this tribute should coincide with the annual summer steelband festival in Morgantown - the “Ellie Mannette Festival of Steel.”

Directed for the last six years by Dave Longfellow, the weeklong festival first began at West Virginia University (WVU) in the early 1990s. Every July, it brings pan players, builders, tuners, educators, and professionals together in a small college town in the Appalachian Mountains. This event was a highlight of Ellie’s year, and he was always profoundly moved to see the outpouring of interest in the instrument that he championed. It was a bittersweet and surreal experience to be in Morgantown without him, but I know he would’ve been proud to know that the momentum he created so many years ago continues in his absence.

Over the course of this week, three bands of 25-45 players immersed themselves intensively in the steelband world, with classes beginning each day at 8 am. They rehearsed new music, attended lectures and masterclasses and performances, and had the opportunity to work with and learn from world-class faculty like Andy Narell, Jeff Narell, Victor Provost, and Duvone Stewart. These bands would showcase the music they learned during the week on a Saturday afternoon performance, in a sunny outdoor concert. We decided that Ellie’s Memorial Concert should be held the Friday night before, in the 900-seat Metropolitan Theater.

Duvone plays ‘The Hammer’ for Ellie
- video by Phil Hawkins

Over the preceding week, I pulled together players from the Festival staff to join a group of other panists that loved Ellie and knew him personally. We called this the “Memorial Band,” and each night, after the last Festival lecture ended at 9 p.m., the band would rehearse music late into the evening. Included was an arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” arranged by Chanler Bailey, which was specifically requested by the Mannette family. We also worked up original music, written in honor of Ellie, by guest composers Chris Tanner, Tom Miller, and myself, Emily Lemmerman.

Old Time Band
Memorial concert faculty - Old-time band
 from L to R: Tom Miller, Dave Longfellow, Duvone Stewart, Victor Provost, Jeff Narell, Andy Narell - photo by Phil Hawkins

The concert opened with the Festival faculty performing on historical instruments, in homage of the early days of pan. To hear these early instruments in contrast with an orchestra of modern steel drums, an orchestra that featured some of Ellie’s best contemporary work, underscored the incredible evolution of this artform in which Ellie was such an integral part.

Both Victor and Jeff chose to include their Festival student bands on this debut performance of their work. Victor conducted his composition, “The Alchemist” - a beautiful, artistic piece that included tamboo bamboo in the percussion section and the stochastic sounds of hammer against steel. Jeff had collaborated with David Rudder on a musical elegy titled “El” - short for Ellie - a “celebration of his lifetime of invention and innovation in the steelpan artform and the far-reaching impact of his work.” On stage, in a sweet hearkening to Panorama format, we first heard the original audio of Rudder’s recording, whose lyrics were uplifting and joyous. The full band performance was just as sweet.

  Memorial Steelband performs  “El” by Jeff Narell and David Rudder at the
Ellie Mannette Memorial Concert -
video by by Phil Hawkins  

In between the ensemble pieces, Victor, Duvone, and Andy Narell performed meaningful, virtuosic solos, and they, along with the other faculty, former tuning apprentices, and representatives of the WVU College of Creative Arts - the school at which Ellie was an Artist-in-Residence for over twenty years - all spoke personal, heartfelt tributes. A short documentary was shown, and this, combined with a pre-concert photo slideshow, brought Ellie’s own person and voice into the theater. In all, over one hundred players performed that night - students of the festival, a local Morgantown steelband, the Memorial Band, and the soloists. Four of the pieces from this concert, along with two others, will next be performed at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis in November 2019 at the showcase concert, “The Ellie Mannette Memorial Symphony of Steel.”

The Memorial Band - photo by Phil Hawkins

Over the course of the evening, tears were shed by the speakers, by players, and by the audience, but we also shared reminiscences and laughter, and felt that this event was a true celebration of Ellie’s life. Former apprentices, colleagues, family and friends all traveled many miles to share in the tribute. The theater was filled with the love and respect we all felt for this incredible person, Ellie Mannette.

Chanler Bailey and I dedicated a lot of the past year to the conceptualization and organization of this event with the hopes of making it a powerful, exceptional experience. It ultimately involved an incredible amount of logistics, guests and performers, cooperation, collaboration, and talent. We are immensely grateful for all the help and support we had, especially from Dave and the Festival staff. We are grateful to have had Ellie in this world for ninety years, and we believe he would have been proud to see his instruments showcased this way, on this concert. He would have been moved to see the profound warmth and love that fills the community that he inspired, and he would feel at peace with his legacy in our hands.

Thank you for the gift, magical teacher.

All across the land, steel is singing.

Emily Lemmerman
Emily Lemmerman

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