Sept. 13, 2002 – A small group of Virgin Islands residents, armed with tape recorders and cameras, is on a mission to help capture a bit of history that otherwise might go unrecorded — the fascinating life stories of some of the territory's renowned and lesser known musicians who are keeping V.I. traditional music alive.
This cadre of researchers represents a cross segment of St. Thomas and St. John communities. It includes actors, university professors, an elementary school principal, a steel pan musician, an historic preservation planner, and a self-described local food manufacturer entrepreneur. Despite their diverse backgrounds, they all have one thing in common and that is a genuine interest in preserving the stories of Virgin Islanders who are the musical tradition bearers of the culture.
For four hours each day for a week in June, these nine residents attended the free "Documenting Living Treasures" workshop sponsored by the Alton Augustus Adams Music Research Institute (AMRI), the Caribbean branch of Columbia College Chicago's Center for Black Music Research. AMRI will be located on St. Thomas and will serve as a research facility to discover, study, and document black music in the Caribbean region and in particular the Virgin Islands. The workshop, the first in a series to be conducted throughout the Virgin Islands, was held at the V.I. Cultural Heritage Institute and funded in part by the V.I. Humanities Council.
Workshop instructor Johann Buis, the Center's International Initiatives coordinator, gave the participants a crash course in conducting field research as well as training on ethical issues that may arise when recording the life stories of the local musicians. The goal is to have each workshop participant complete an oral history project on a local musical tradition bearer by October. The projects then become part of the resource libraries of both the Center and the Adams Institute.
Two St. John residents, Carla Sewer, Carabana Theatre's artistic director, and Cheryl Miller, owner of Mango Mamma, made the daily trek to the workshop.
"I wanted to do it because I wanted to document our culture. Our culture is diminishing with each generation," Miller said. Miller also plans to use the same research approach to document the cultural heritage of Virgin Islands foods, particularly how they are used medicinally.
For one participant, the timing of the workshop couldn't have been more perfect. Steel pan musician Aben Marrero was asked earlier this year by the Carnival committee to write a paper on the history of steel pan in the Virgin Islands. Marrero took advantage of the opportunity to attend the workshop, believing that it will help him develop and shape his project.
In addition to the workshop's historical value to the community at large, this seminar had a unique hook for drawing applicants. Unlike most workshops in which participants pay to attend, AMRI paid the participants to attend. Each person who completed the workshop received $100 and will then receive an additional $100 for completing an oral history project. Those who choose to present their project at the next workshop, which is expected to be held early next year, will receive an additional $100. The tradition bearers who agree to be subjects of the projects will also be compensated.
"We value the time and effort of the resident researchers and the tradition bearers. The stipends are just small tokens of our appreciation and recognition of their work. These payments pale in comparison to the value of the tradition bearers, and researchers' contributions to their communities, the V.I. culture, and the importance of documenting and preserving these treasured stories as historical accounts," said Rosita Sands, Director of CBMR.
Wanda Mills, one of the workshop participants and the territory's historic preservation planner at the Historic Preservation office, is conducting projects on two tradition bearers: radio personality and drummer Irvin "Brownie" Brown and saxophonist Alwyn "Lad" Richards.
"I am really excited about this project. The documentation of oral histories is something that we really need in the Virgin Islands. It also gives me the opportunity to use my skills in documenting oral history," Mills said.
The Summit of Tradition Bearers
To culminate the workshop, the AMRI held a free public Summit of Tradition Bearers honoring five local musicians for their lifetime contributions to the V.I. musical heritage. Dr. Gilbert Sprauve, who recently retired as a University of the Virgin Islands linguistics professor, served as the moderator and paid tribute to five musical treasures: Richards and James "Jamesie" Brewster of St. Thomas, Delita O'Connor of St. John, and Stanley Jacobs and Eldred Christian of St. Croix.
The summit was an opportunity not only to honor the dynamic five but also to allow the public to interview the musicians and hear some of their rich and colorful stories of their lives. The musical talents of the honored tradition bearers ranged from spiritual to secular. Whether the songs were hymns, quelbe, or calypso, those attending the summit at the Frenchman's Reef Hotel were certainly entertained.
O'Connor, known for her powerful voice, is recognized for her spiritual singing at churches and particularly funerals in St. Thomas and St. John as well as for hospital shut-ins. To show what type of spiritual singing she enjoyed, she warmed up the audience with "Stay Between the White Lines" and then later sang "What Will You Be in a Million Years?" On both songs, her a cappella singing was quickly augmented by her fellow musicians, who joined in by drumming on the table and playing their instruments, creating an impromptu spirit-filled jam session.
Richards, the V.I. dean of saxophone who never leaves home without his instrument, was asked to play one of his favorite songs. Given his diverse musical background and training, having been a member of the V.I. Orchestra and the V.I. Community Band in the 1930s and '40s playing classics and marches, Richards graced the audience with the famous Irish evergreen song, "Danny Boy." But he quickly returned to his calypso roots with its social commentary and colloquial double entendres and challenged the audience to name the tune after playing a few bars of "Pum Pum in de Air."
Sprauve told the audience made up of friends, musicians, educators, historians, and supporters of traditional music, young and old, that Stanley Jacobs has dedicated his band to the preservation of the indigenous music. He explained that the 10 Sleepless Knights, which includes Eldred Christian as the lead vocalist and one of the band's original members, is the band of choice for quadrille dances and cultural events throughout the territory.
When asked for their views on the changes in music today, particularly with regard to the growing popularity of electronically produced sounds, Richard responded by saying, "Everything has to change, but the music of Stanley and 10 Sleepless Knights will be around for a long, long, time." Jacobs' Six Pack band, a smaller band comprised of only traditional instruments, provided the musical entertainment and demonstration for the Summit.
With everyone warmed up from O'Connor's and Richards' musical performances, it didn't take a lot of coaxing to get Jacobs and Christian to duet on an old-time favorite, "We Ain't Start No War," a song from the 1960s referring to Muhammad Ali's opposition to the Vietnam War. Not to be outdone, Christian eagerly jumped at the opportunity to imitate the fancy foot work of Alphonso "Phonsa" Williams, a famous quadrille dancer. Jacobs and Brewster, without missing a beat, provided the back-up music.
The most colorful storytelling of the evening, however, came from Brewster, the King of Quelbe. He recounted how as a little boy he used to scrape the squash
behind his grandmother during the scratch band practices with his father in St. Croix. He also explained that the reason he decided to make his own signature banjo-guitar out of a sardine can was because he was not allowed to touch his father's banjo guitar.
Although the tradition bearers had different musical backgrounds and journeys, they all played one single chord. In perfect harmony, they called for the inclusion of the traditional music in the school curriculum and stressed the importance of passing on the tradition to the younger generations. They also expressed a need for a musician's union that will ensure that local musicians are hired to play at the hotels and events where outside musicians are now almost exclusively used. But until that happens, Brewster's commitment to his music typifies the dedication and drive of tradition bearers.
"Only time I will stop playing this music is when my two eyes close. I am not giving up this cultural music," Brewster said.
A videotape copy of the summit will also be part of the reference material holdings at the Adams Institute. AMRI will be located at the Alton Adams original family residence at the head of Education Street and is expected to open later this year.
Editor's note: Janet Mescus was site manager of the Alton Augustus Adams Music Research Institute, St. Thomas, when she wrote this article.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.