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Houston Chronicle: World Cup drummers revive memories of Shell's steel barrels

No tin ears allowed
Bloomberg News
Royal Dutch Shell has one word to offer on the subject of its musical oil barrels. “What?” said Shell spokeswoman Alexandra Wright in London. But the World Cup is about to change Shell's tune.
“Oil drum music is infectious,” said Sepp Blatter, the president of Federation Internationale de Football Association, soccer's global governing body and organizer of the 2006 World Cup in Germany in June.
Blatter envisions the rum poured and a conga line ensuing around the 10,000 steel-drum “panmen” expected to follow the Trinidad and Tobago Calypso Carnival Warriors team.
A billion will watch
“Over a billion people will see this on television,” Blatter said. “Fantastic for Trinidad and the World Cup. The audience will go wild.”
And therein lies the corporate dilemma of Gerard Mitchell, head of Shell Trinidad Ltd.
More than a few thousand of those World Cup drummers will probably be beating Shell oil barrels.
“It's officially against corporate policy for us to hand out oil barrels,” Mitchell said. “We really don't know what to do about all this.”
For many of the world's estimated 35,000 panmen, the sweetest-sounding music comes from the 55-gallon, 20-gauge red steel oil barrels made in Shell's lubricant mixing plant on Barracones Bay in Trinidad.
A few miles up the road in Port-of-Spain, beneath the shade of the big breadfruit tree at 147 Tragarete Road, a Shell executive in 1946 made the first steel drum from an empty barrel of tractor lubricant bearing the company's distinctive clamshell insignia.
According to American jazz musician Andy Narrell, Shell oil-barrel pans made between 1946 and 1967 are as renowned and desirable as the Cremonese violins of Antonio Stradivari. Even the barrels made today are in high demand among pan players.
“We kind of have a reputation,” Mitchell said.
Added William Rosales, a Shell Trinidad engineer charged with overseeing the manufacture of more than 42,000 Shell oil barrels annually: “Let me state for the record that our used drums are disposed of properly and that Shell health and safety regulations prevent the use of empty drums for anything but Shell oil products.”
That wasn't always the case. Sixty years ago, Shell bankrolled the invention of the modern pan drum, the only new acoustic instrument to hit the music scene since Adolph Sax came up with the saxophone in 1841.
Records were lost
Shell's archivists in London and The Hague have no record of the pan or its inventor, Ellie Mannette.
Shell executives in Trinidad suspect the company's documentation for both was lost when the government nationalized the oil industry in 1974, and Shell's presence was reduced from 4,000 employees to its current 55-member operation.
Old-timers on the island say Shell got into the music business in 1951 when a Shell Caribbean managing director they remember as “Mr. Alexis” put Mannette on the payroll with an annual salary of $2,000 to stop him and his pals — Birdie, Puddin' and Cobo Jack — from stealing the company's empty and toxic oil drums.
Mannette remained with Shell until 1967, as a sales manager, steel-drum maker and leader of pan band the Shell Invaders.
“They called me Cairo,” said Mannette, now 80 and the artist-in-residence and a professor of music at West Virginia University in Morgantown. “We were teenage gang members, all viewed as social outcasts until Shell took an interest in us and our music. They gave us barrels and money and made the music happen.”
The barracuda
Mannette named the world's first 55-gallon Shell drum “the barracuda.” It was last seen in August 1946, stuck in the high branches of the breadfruit tree.
“The big kids beat me up and stole barracuda because it made a better sound than their drums,” Mannette says. “They threw it up in that tree, and I wasn't going up there for it.”
By the early 1960s, Jeff Chandler, Shell Trinidad's British managing director, and fellow Englishman Michael Smallbone were spending their off hours as managers for the Shell Invaders. The group even played at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Mannette now builds about 100 pans annually from the unsoiled barrels that roll off the line at North Coast Container Corp. in Cleveland.
“Weird thing is, nobody's really sure why a 55-gallon oil drum can be crafted into a musical instrument or why my early Shells have a distinctive sound,” Mannette said.
Back in the lab at Shell Trinidad, chemist Saira Joseph said the sound is in the solvent.
“A lighter oil would lend itself to higher notes and a heavier oil to lower notes,” Joseph explained. “The gauge of the steel is the most critical factor. Shell stayed with the heavier 20-gauge, while the other oil companies mostly went to 15- and 18-gauge steel.”

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