June 6, 2004 – St. John people love and honor their elder musicians. They love their words and their music.
An overflow, standing-room-only audience crowded into the performance room, the portico, and the steps of the St. John School of the Arts Thursday night to listen to music and words of their "grand old men" of music.
The Alton Augustus Adams Music Research Institute, a St. Thomas branch of the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, sponsored the evening's Summit on St. John Music Traditions. Earlier summits were staged on St. Thomas and on St. Croix, all of them to honor tradition bearers of music.
Master of ceremonies Dr. Gilbert Sprauve set the mood as he reminisced, along with Elroy Sprauve, about the 1948 V.I. celebration of a hundred years of emancipation. The Coast Guard buoy tender Sagebrush came to Cruz Bay to carry everyone interested to the Emancipation Garden on St. Thomas for the ceremony. Both Sprauves – and a band – made the journey. Later, many gathered round the panel's table to look at an old photograph of that band.
The audience listened intently as five St. John tradition bearers reminisced about playing music on St. John back in the 1940s and '50s, and spoke about how they had learned to play.
First to speak was Godfrey Smalls, who said he started on clarinet about age 17. It took him two weeks to figure out how to play a scale, so he switched to saxophone.
Next up was Jimmy Boynes, who started his music career in 1920 at age 8. He listened to musicians play, especially on flute and guitar. He made a papaya-stem flute, punching holes, learned to play. "You play," he said, "then you are a musician." In the 1940s he played sax with a band "for all occasions," and remember Loredon Boynes, panelist Warren Smalls, Theovald Moorhead, and others playing.
Warren Smalls learned to play on the mouth organ — since that's what his mother played. Then he borrowed his father's piccolo to practice, until his father finally gave it to him. He played clarinet, sax, and ukulele (made from a sardine can) with an early band at Caneel Bay for 15 years. He disappeared along about then, he said, and then surfaced in New York with a band – an audience speaker later identified the band as Tropicana, out of New Jersey.
Oscar James recalled that John Sewer was his teacher/mentor.
When Sewer was asked how he learned music, his response was that he just watched others play and when they put down their instruments, he picked them up and practiced. One musician said Sewer played better than he himself did, so he gave him a guitar, saying, "This is for you, not for me."
Sewer at age 15 or 16 enrolled in a course through the U.S. School of Music, but dropped out three months short of completing the two-year program. He also dropped out of school, and his principal Mrs. [Bertha] Boschulte, he said, refused to give him his dismissal card, insisting that his mother come in for it. He dropped the learning because, he said, he was making a little money with his music and it kept him busy. He traveled, but found he didn't like too much traveling, so he settled in New York City to play for five years, and then came back home.
He said the 1975 inauguration of Gov. Cyril E. King was the last time he played in public. At that point, he picked up his guitar and held the audience spellbound with his playing – his fingers really flew, and the sound never faltered. It was a rare, unexpected treat for the audience.
St. John Musicians, Living and Passed On, Honored
As he came forward for presentation of plaques, Elroy Sprauve called that all of these musicians deserve the honors. St. John at the time was one big family, and musicians came, sometimes walking overland on foot, for maypole, boat christening, party, birthday, wedding and baptism — bringing "music full of joy and happiness."
Dr. Rosita Sands, director of the Center in Chicago, and Elroy Sprauve presented plaques to the five tradition bearers who had participated in the panel. Then certificates were given in tribute to more musicians: Steadwin Frett, Vernon Parsons, Jens Pickering, Melbourne "Mello" Thomas, and Randolph Thomas. And family members came forward to accept certificates for in memoriam tributes to Wilmot Blackwood, Loredon Boynes, Basil Harley, Emile Jurgen, Eustace Richards, Herman Sprauve, and Ludwig Sprauve. Program organizer Sis Frank whispered, "You have no idea how many months it took to get all these people to promise to appear.
Then, along with eats, the listeners were treated to performances by Chester "The Mighty Groover" Brady, who sang "Crucian Fungi" and elicited looks of wonder from the seated panel); Koko (Mahlon Pickering) and the Sunshine Band; and Rudolph "Pimpy" Thomas. That continued for some hours, but the gathering stayed round.
Dr. Kenneth Bilby Lectured on Junkanoo
The evening commenced with a lecture by the CBMR Rockefeller Scholar presently in residence at the Adams Institute. Dr. Kenneth Bilby, author, anthropologist, and ethnomusicologist, has been doing research in the Bahamas, Jamaica and Belize on John Canoe – junkanoo. He stressed the common threads in festivals throughout the Caribbean, including the three Virgin Islands festivals. He showed slides and gave drumming demonstrations of the common rhythmic cell used in live performance at junkanoo festivals, and Eddie Bruce of the audience praised Bilby for playing and pounding out demonstrations of drum patterns as something seldom heard. All three of the sites under examination by Bilby, slides showed, had commonalities in masque of early junkanoo: large headdresses shaped like houses and the "cowhead," with two-foot horns.
The lecture and Summit were supported in part with funding from the V.I. Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The premises and program planning were provided through the St. John School of the Arts and its director, Sis Frank.
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