Sept. 30, 2003 – Frederiksted was really jumpin' Saturday night as the St. Croix Rotary clubs hosted "Quelbe Past & Present" for a capacity crowd in the Fort Frederik courtyard area.
Before the music and history lesson started, people lined up at a laden buffet table and in drinks lines. The Rotary hostesses and many in the audience were decked out in traditional madras, in colorful contrast to the red walls of the fort.
At 7 p.m., the conch shell call by Wilfrid "Junie Bomba" Allick announced the beginning of the evening's program.
The Jumbie Productions show had been presented some months earlier before a Rotary International gathering; there it earned such praise that the local clubs — Rotary Mid-Isle, Rotary West, Rotary St. Croix and Rotary Harbourside — decided to present it again as a benefit for the American Cancer Society "Relay for Life."
Following a welcome from Rotary official Rupert Ross Jr., the words and the music began.
Willard John, wearing madras, traced the history of quelbe in the Virgin Islands. Practically every paragraph he spoke was punctuated with a musical selection by Stanley and the 10 Sleepless Knights enhanced by other bandmasters, among them Dr. Olaf Hendricks, Dimitri "Pikey" Copemann, and James "Jamesie" Brewster, sitting in.
(Jamesie, effervescently flitting about the stage, picking up this instrument or that or breaking into song, could hardly be described as "sitting" in.)
Starting with religious African rites, magic and drums, John traced the history of Virgin Islands music as it picked up portions of bamboula, cariso, calypso and military fife and drum. In the 18th and 19th centuries, slaves — mostly women — used the music to communicate in code and discuss issues. The band presented "Clear De Road" as an example.
In 1672 and 1733, Danish law forbade African dance and drumming; so, slaves incorporated European sounds into their music: the mazurka, Scottish dance, quadrille, polka.
As time passed, cariso was adapted into instrumental, smoother music than the vocal "news-carrying" it had been. Among the early instruments were the bamboo flute, triangle and drum. By the late 1890s, John related, flute and at least one guitar had been added, along with tambourine, homemade bass drum and tailpipe.
That's right, tailpipe. And forward came a musician to demonstrate the sound of an embellished piece of a discarded car part — with a bass beat that replaced the drum.
In the 1930s, the banjo was added; and in the '50s and '60s, alto sax and electric guitar — and a merengue beat.
John, a well known mocko jumbie for 24 years, recounted the story of the "LaBega carousel," which was brought by a St. Croix ice plant from Puerto Rico and which LaBega's workers derided and boycotted. And the audience heard, courtesy of Jamesie, the very first workers' protest song: "I'd rather walk and drink rum all night than ride LaBega's carousel."
"Sly Mongoose," "Guavaberry" and "Queen Mary" — the No. 1 Caribbean protest song, about the Fireburn's 16-year-old worker Mary Thomas, were presented by the seasoned tradition bearers.
John pointed out as especially important to V.I. music:
– Sylvester "Blinky" McIntosh, who in 1987 became the only Virgin Island musician ever to win the Folk Heritage Award in Washington, D.C.
– His band, Blinky and the Roadmasters.
– Stanley Jacobs, who was inspired as a boy by bongo drums next door, played an instrument before he ever went to school, and was in later years inspired by the people he met while working at the Herbert Grigg Home.
– James "Jamesie" Brewster, who has played music for 61 years — so far — including in Denmark.
– Dimitri "Pikey" Copemann, a musician for 30 years who formed the band Native Rhythms in 1992 and did much of the research for John's commentary.
The formal part of the program closed with these words from John: "The best way to preserve culture is to live it."
And live it the audience did, to solid music for the next hour, dancing in front of the stage, in the aisles, in a front corner free of chairs, with partners and without: Frederiksted, preserving culture the best way.
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