Dec. 28, 2003 — Quelbe. Fungi. Scratch band. It's known by a number of names, but its sound is unmistakable to V.I. musicians: It's the "Virgin Islands' own" music.
On Dec. 16, the Legislature passed Bill No. 25-0056 of Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone, Lorraine Berry and Emmett Hansen II, with five more senators as co-sponsors, making quelbe the official traditional music of the Virgin Islands.
The legislation amends Title I, V.I. Code, chapter 7, by redesignating section 105 as 106 and adding a new section 105 to read as follows:
"Quelbe, the vocal and instrumental style of Virgin Islands' folk music which traces its ancestry to Africa and Europe, and which is a fusion of bamboula rhythms and chants, cariso songs and melodies, is the official traditional music of the Virgin Islands."
Musician-historian Dimitri Copemann of St. Croix researched and provided a history of the music for "Quelbe Past & Present," a show which has been presented twice on St. Croix, most recently this past September.
Speaker Willard John traced this history, his words punctuated by music from Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights, Dr. Olaf Hendricks, Copemann, and James "Jamesie" Brewster. Starting with religious African rites, magic and drums, Virgin Islands music picked up portions of bamboula, cariso, calypso, and military fife and drum.
In 1672 and 1733, Danish law forbade African dance and drumming, so slaves incorporated European sounds — the mazurka, Scottish dance, quadrille and polka — into their music and used the music to communicate in code. This "news-carrying" music evolved into cariso, which adapted as time passed into instrumental, smoother music.
Early on, the music used the bamboo flute, triangle and drum. By the late 1890s, flute, guitar, tambourine and homemade bass drum were added. Tailpipe (made from discarded car exhaust parts) came in 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.
Portions of the bill stated:
"Whereas, a popular music form known as 'quelbe' native to the Virgin Islands has been performed for generations and represents a fusion of music forms, and
"Whereas, Quelbe music is an art form that has kept alive the history of the Virgin Islands and therefore it is an art form worthy of preservation, and
"Whereas, although there is a variety of unique, colorful and popular forms of traditional Virgin Islands music worthy of commemoration, quelbe constitutes an excellent representative and synthesis of the various music forms and styles … ",
thus establishing the singularity and appropriateness of naming quelbe the official music.
"This is a major accomplishment for the Virgin Islands," Malone said in his release announcing the bill's passage. "I have always been convinced that unless the people of the Virgin Islands begin to address our 'identity crisis,' as noted by reputable Virgin Islanders such as Professor Mario Watlington and fashion designer Wayne James, we will have a difficult time moving ahead politically, socially and economically This legislation is an effort towards that end."
Mabel Maduro, executive director of the V.I. Humanities Council, wrote her congratulations to Malone.
"This is definitely a positive and timely piece of legislation. It not only establishes a 'sense of identity' for us as a people, but will also contribute to the overall development and success of our 'heritage tourism product,'" Maduro wrote.
Malone's release said he has asked Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, "who has already expressed support for the bill," to sign it into law at a ceremony at a date and time to be announced. Because of the various holidays, the allotted 10 days for the governor to sign the bill will not expire until the first week of January.
The Legislature also honored Stanley Jacobs and his Ten Sleepless Knights in a bill making note of their contributions to quelbe music. "They are to be credited with carrying on the traditional music culture of the Virgin Islands," sponsor Malone said.
Wilford Pedro was another honoree, for "contributing to cultural music and folkways." The bill bestowing this honor also renamed the Whim Gardens home for the elderly in his honor.
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