Thursday, May 18, 2006


An open letter to Craig Copetas by Andy Narellposted May 18, 2006

Dear Recipient - The following is a letter I wrote to Craig Copetas in response to his article in the Bloomberg News. Please feel free to pass this on or publish it.
All the best
Andy Narell

Dear Craig:
I finally saw a copy of your Bloomberg News article last week ('Shell Disowns Oil Drums as Panmen Gather for Soccer World Cup'). I have to say that I was appalled when I read it, and not only because you attributed a quote to me that was so inaccurate that I can only suppose that you made it up.

As Terry Joseph of the Trinidad Express accurately summed up in his letter to you, the entire article is misleading, and "appoints to Shell Oil an outrageously exaggerated role in the creation of the steelpan." I wonder why. I think my 'quote' is a perfect of illustration of the point I'd like to make.

Here goes - "According to American jazz musician Andy Narrell(sic), Shell oil-barrel pans made between 1946 and 1967 are as renowned and desirable as the Cremonese violins of Antonio Stradivari, Nicolo Amati and Giuseppe Guarneri. Even the barrels made today are in high demand among pan players."

Wow. In fact what transpired was, you asked me if there was any particular oil company's drums that made the best steelpans, and I explained very clearly that to my knowledge there was no connection between any oil company's drums and the quality of a steelpan, that the critical factor is the skill of the tuner, that tuners search out certain qualities in the barrels and that they come from a variety of sources, and that to my knowledge none of the oil companies have ever taken an interest in developing a barrel that would be better suited to making steelpans.

I also remember telling you that if you were trying to establish a link between the oil companies and the creation of the steelpan that you were barking up the wrong tree. I suspect that your research bore that out, which is why you had to go to such extremes trying to establish a connection between Shell barrels and good pans, like attributing this outrageous quote to me. Or by interviewing people like William Rosales, who supervises the manufacture of barrels at Shell.

Obviously he has spent zero time trying to develop a better barrel for the making of steelpans, as evidenced by the quote "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." And yet you closed your article with another quote from this guy - "I know we make the best musical oil drums in the world."

By the way, who but an ignoramus on the subject of steelpans would refer to these instruments as 'musical oil drums'? How about this one, Craig? "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 history's first steel drum from an empty barrel of tractor lubricant bearing the company's distinctive clamshell insignia."

A Shell executive invented the steelpan? Did I hear you right? Pray tell, what was the name of this Shell executive? Later in the piece you bolster this lie with another fiction: "Sixty years ago, Shell bankrolled the invention of the modern pan drum." This of course is backed up by nothing, but as you say, "Shell executives in Trinidad suspect the company's documentation for both (the pan and its inventor - Ellie Mannette) was lost when the government nationalized the oil industry in 1974," so anything's possible if we follow your line of research.

Just to clear my own conscience again, I'd like to remind you that I told you that Shell, like many other companies, signed on to sponsoring a steelband (The Invaders) in the 1950's, and had no direct involvement with the invention of the instrument. But that was just me talking after all. You obviously have more reliable sources.

How about the story of 'the barracuda'? According to you, '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.'' Now it happens that I have also heard Ellie tell the story of 'the barracuda'.

In fact I recorded him telling it and it was subsequently transcribed by Peter Blood and published in the Trinidad Express. So I find it really offensive that you would distort the point of the story, saying first of all that he named the 'world's first 55-gallon Shell drum "the barracuda".' Was it the first 55-gallon Shell oil barrel (I hardly think so), or are you again trying to bolster your story by implying that the first pan was made from a Shell oil drum?

This is another of your baseless imaginings, but I suppose if a Shell Oil executive invented the pan as you say, it stands to reason. Or is your point that this pan was of superior quality because it was made from a Shell barrel? You're wreaking such havoc on the actual events I can't be sure what your point is. Besides the fact that you're misquoting Ellie to suit your version of the story, you missed the whole point of his anecdote.

In the early years of the steelbands (before Shell and all those other wonderful companies got involved as sponsors), the bands were like gangs. They were extremely competitive and there was quite of bit of fighting between them. So Ellie had made a pan that sounded so beautiful he called it 'the barracuda' and a rival band attacked his band, stole it and put it up in a tree in their neighborhood and dared him to come and get it if he wanted it.

It's a great little story, revealing so much of what it was like to be a panman in those days, but somehow in your hands it becomes another anecdote about Shell barrels. I could go on and on, but I suspect you get my point by now. I also suspect that you think that you can get away with this kind of shoddy 'journalism,' pick up your check and move on to the next subject, that nobody reading your piece cares that much about steel drums anyway.

It's an article for a business magazine after all. Well I've got news for you. You hurt a lot of people with this crap you wrote, and it got reprinted in a lot of newspapers. Ellie Mannette has dedicated more than 60 years of his life to the development of this instrument. I myself have been playing pan for 45 years and my entire working life has been devoted to playing, composing for, and teaching this instrument.

Your libelous and misleading piece has done us both harm, not to mention the legions of others not quoted in your piece who have equally devoted their lives to this artform. There was a beautiful and fascinating story there for you to research, and had you been on a genuine quest for that story you could have written about how Ellie, Spree Simon, Bertie Marshall, Neville Jules, Tony Williams and the others created the instruments that make up the steelband, about how the greatest acoustic musical invention of the 20th century was born in Trinidad, created from oil barrels by a bunch of young guys who had nothing more to work with than hammers and imagination.

Instead you decided to write a piece about Shell Oil, and you ran roughshod over the real story. I'm sorry I spoke with you and got implicated in this folly. I do want you to know that I intend to circulate this letter as widely as possible.

If nothing else, the interested folk in the pan community will know that I responded to your outrageous lies. Sincerely, Andy NarellP.S.: For those of you who want to read the piece to which I refer in this letter, the link is: