Quelbe, the Official Music of the Virgin Islands – Past, Present, Future

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The spirit of Quelbe music was evident on Saturday afternoon, December 3, as musician Olaf “Bronco” Hendricks suddenly joined Koko and the Sunshine Band by blowing across the top of his bottle of water, providing additional sound to the band’s performance. The band was playing as part of the Quelbe Traveling Exhibit and Colloquium, which stopped at the St. John School of Arts on Saturday.

Hendricks’ impromptu musical stylings showcased one element of Quelbe, which is the official music of the Virgin Islands – improvisation.

“Quelbe music as we know it today really came about as a fusion of music that was done by the slaves,” said Edney Free-man, project director for the exhibit. “When Europeans were having their social functions, the slaves would mock them and that music developed as a result of them mocking the European music.”

Slaves were enrolled in European military drum and fife bands, which helped shape Quelbe as we know it today, Freeman added.

“The natives were enrolled in those drum and fife groups, and that was really where they grew out of,” said the project director. “The original Quelbe band had those basic things – the flute, the drum and the pipe.”

Quelbe music originated from the St. Croix area, according to Freeman.

“My personal feeling is that it is a music that is predominantly from the St. Croix area; the practitioners and historical ante-cedents go back to St. Croix,” he said. “A lot of the music has been passed down orally to our present day tradition bearers – we can only trace what we have.”

Along with performances by Koko and the Sunshine Band, the colloquium featured five panelists – Dimitri Copemann, author, musician and educator; Stanley Jacobs, tradition bearer and flutist; Willard John, moderator for the event; Georgia Francis, 2005-2006 Teacher of the Year and bandleader, and Hendricks, a musician, educator and psychiatrist. The panelists discussed everything from the social status of Quelbe to strategies to preserve this unique form of music.

“Oral History”
Quelbe music was a kind of “oral newspaper” used to spread gossip or share the day’s events, panelists noted.

“Quelbe recorded the history of the day,” said Freeman. “If you did something controversial, you’d end up in a song.”

One popular Quelbe song, LaBega Carousel, shares the story of a Puerto Rican man named LaBega who brought a carousel to St. Croix in the 1930s.

It was known that LaBega believed laborers were not worthy of a pay raise, and the song, still popular today, suggests banning the carousel:

I rather walk and drink rum whole night
Before me go ride on LaBega Carousel
You no hear what LaBega say,
‘The people no worth more than fifteen cent a day’
I am walking, I am looking, I am begging
Before me go ride on LaBega Carousel.

The tradition of passing on Quelbe songs and history by word of mouth may present a problem when it comes to preserving this unique form of music, panelists said.

Exhibit Available
“There are some documents out there that you might be able to look at,” said Freeman. “There isn’t that much and the information is very sketchy.”

By organizing the traveling exhibit, Freeman said he hoped to bring Quelbe music to the the Virgin Islands’ children. “The intent of the traveling exhibit is to bring Quelbe into the school system,” said the project director. “We would like to see the infusion of Quelbe music into the music curriculum.”

Now that the exhibit is finished, the written forms and archival pictures and images have been turned over to the V.I. Humanities Council, added Freeman.

“The artifacts and the instruments are all part of the exhibit and will be used in the school system,” he said. “The exhibit is going to be in the public domain for any club or organization to check it out or rent it – contact the Humanities Council.”

Freeman is also hoping to educate music teachers on the importance of Quelbe music, he said.

“We hope to get the musicians involved to teach the music instructors how to teach Quelbe and that particular genre,” said Freeman. “That’s a direction we want to go now.”

Growing Respect
Despite being the official music of the Virgin Islands, Freeman said Quelbe musicians are only recently gaining respect.

“The status of Quelbe is rising up – the musicians are gaining more respect in terms of what their value is to the community,” he said. “The popular bands get paid three and four times as much as a Quelbe performer; that’s not right.”

Freeman said he was satisfied with the knowledge the traveling exhibit brought to Virgin Islanders.

“We have to start to discuss the status of Quelbe and we did that – we were able to put as much information as we can in one place about Quelbe,” said the project director. “If people take the time to delve into the information they’ll know a little bit more about Quelbe.”

Freeman hopes to help raise the status of this genre of music by using it at activities such as government meetings.

“That’s what we hope to do – make it a part of any official government function,” he said. “Let’s put it in its rightful status; since it is the official music of the Virgin Islands, let’s use it as such.”