Jan. 30, 2004 – With the stroke of a pen on Friday, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull declared quelbe to be the official music of the Virgin Islands. The three-hour ceremony, was held in the ballroom at Government House on Christiansted, was an elaborate affair featuring traditional music, culture bearers, dancers and the youth who are being prepared to carry on the traditions.
Calling St. Croix the "culture capital of the Virgin Islands," Turnbull predicted that "this day will one day be seen as a momentous occasion for future Virgin Islanders."
"In the next 1,000, years I pray that quelbe will still be instilled in the hearts and minds of Virgin Islanders and the world," he said.
The act making quelbe the territory's official music also charges the Education Department with making quelbe "a component of the instruction on the Virgin Islands and basic Caribbean history."
While governments for the most part rightly shy away from mandating curriculum, he said, "it is right for us to make sure that our children learn our traditions and culture; that is highly appropriate." He then commended the teachers who will be charged with teaching students about such traditions.
Glenn "Kwabena" Davis and Helen I. Joseph were master and mistress of ceremonies, respectively. Davis said that "quelbe chronicles the events of the society." Joseph said she was happy that the music is finally getting the recognition that it deserves. "It was ours, but we stuck it away," she said. "It is time we reclaim what is ours."
Dimitri Copemann described his research findings on the origins of quelbe music. Quelbe is a mixture of European and African music, he said, noting that the music and other expressions of culture that Africans brought with them to the Caribbean were banned by the plantation owners.
Quelbe, Copemann said, is a fusion of bamboula rhythms and chants, cariso songs, European military fife and drum music, and the various quadrille, minuet and jig dances. The playing styles were developed by self-taught musicians using mainly home-made instruments including the tailpipe — a cylindrical metal tubing bent on both ends and blown, steel triangle, and squash — a dried gourd with serrated sides that is scraped with a wire pong.
Quelbe songs expressed humor, satire, cynicism, moral virtues, social commentary, protest and revolution, Copemann said.
Tourism Commissioner Pamela Richards said declaring quelbe the official V.I. music will serve to propel the Virgin Islands into "cultural heritage travel," a lucrative niche tourism market. The legislation, she said, will "enrich and ensure a sustainable cultural project." Richards used the occasion Friday to urge the Legislature to appropriate money to ensure that schools have the instruments needed for instruction in the new curriculum.
At least two schools already are reaping the benefits of the new legislation.
Stanley Jacobs and his Ten Sleepless Nights band have been teaching Claude O. Markoe Elementary School students the rhythmic styles of quelbe music. "Each band member teaches a group of students to play the instrument they have been taught to play," he said.
Calypsonian Camille "King Derby" Macedon teaches about 52 children quelbe songs and the banjo each year at Eulalie Rivera School and in the Weed and Seed program in Estate Grove Place. He called Friday for a radio station that plays cultural music. "We need our own station to play our own music," he said.
Kathleen McMannus, a local on-air personality and producer of the documentary "The Jamesie Project," chronicling the life and times of cultural icon James "Jamesie" Brewster, showed a the trailer of the film at the gathering.
Sen. Shawn-Michael Malone, the quelbe bill's primary sponsor, expressed pleasure at the ceremonial proceedings. "The music of a people identifies its culture," he said. "This is a significant step in the right direction."
Malone said quelbe music should be played in hotels and at airports and featured in all of the territory's audio advertising. "Many aspects of our culture have faded into the background; this legislation serves as reminders" he said.
The ceremony also featured performances by the St. Croix Heritage Dancers and the Claude O. Markoe Quelbe Band and remarks by Lt. Gov. Vargrave Richards, Senate President David Jones, and Sens. Douglas Canton Jr., the majority leader, and Sen. Usie Richards, the minority leader.
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