When Steel Talks

Everything Related to the Steelpan Instrument and Music


Much is known of Ellie as a pan tuner and popular steel-band man, but not many people know of his academic side. Ellie as a young man was very ambitious and at an early age became an apprentice in machinery and graduated at the top of his class as a Lathe Operator. He was well recognized for his work in Trinidad in that field, as a valued employee at the Acme Engineering Co. on Richmond street. His first encounter with Navy would come when US Navy forces staged a maneuver in the Gulf and in so doing broke a propeller. The job to repair the shaft was sent to Acme Engineering and no other that Ellie was given the task. On the completion of the job the Admiral wanted to know who in this Island was responsible for doing such good work and Ellie was invited to meet the officer. This meeting started a collaboration between them for a navy steel-band. The rumor has it that he was the number one tuner in the Country at that time.
Ellie brought a meticulous manner of application into the pan arena, using dividers, compasses and more precise measurements that was not present before. He changed the method of shaping from convex to concave. He introduced for the first time the full-size drum to apply new measurements for the first chromatic pan, and changed the method that was used for the initial sinking of the drum. Instead of cutting the pan off the barrel at the desired length and placing it on the ground and hammering into the ground, thereby causing a rough surface, the pan was worked entirely with the whole barrel until it was completed and then cut off at the desired length.
He was someone that liked to dress a lot and from time he would come into the yard well dressed in very light color clothes, two tone shoes and decide to make a pan. He would fold his shirt and pants halfway up, put some slippers on and begin the process of sinking, burning and tuning at the end of which there was a well-tuned instrument and impeccably still well-dressed Ellie. I would take his lunch to him at his job many times and noticed everybody had overalls except Ellie who was in his flannel pants and butter colored shoes. To me that was an example to be always neat and clean.
There was always something new happening in the yard that would pique your imagination like the way a note had to be tuned after many attempts without any results. For instance, once, during the sinking of a drum a small tear appeared in the material. He said, “Oh, don’t worry.” He circled that area with a punch, made that spot a note and repositioned the entire pattern around that note. Another time, there was a pan that he made for a friend. When the guy showed up to pick up the drum, he told Ellie there was a note missing. Ellie asked what was the note. His friend said E. There was a D note. Ellie grooved the D in half and tuned it to E. Being around Ellie you never ceased to be amazed.
Once I observed that Ellie was working on a pan while some other gentlemen in the yard were placing pram wheels on a stand to carry a pan on the road. One of the legs was shorter than the other and they were having trouble making it level. Ellie must have been watching them struggle while he was working although he never spoke to them or asked what was the problem. He simply excused himself and said he would be right back. When he returned he came back with a large u staple that was hammered into the shorter piece of pipe making it level with the other leg thereby finding the solution to the problem. That was the way his mind worked. See the problem, figure out a solution.
“Don’t use those drums to make basses” he would say to Emmanuel “Jack” Riley. Of course, Jack would do differently only to find out in the end they could not be tuned as basses which Ellie already knew and was the reason he told Jack not to use them in the first place.
Ellie had that feel about steel that I have never seen in anyone. He had an uncanny way of note placement and combinational balance of tones which he combined with the idea of playing across the pan as compared to playing around the pan. He developed the engineering that went into making two or more pans come together as one instrument which was user friendly in accommodating the universal left and right hands application.

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