For multi-faceted local musician Gylchris Sprauve, creating a song that commemorated this year’s Centennial Transfer Day while still honoring the complex nature of the territory’s move from Danish to U.S. ownership was a “mixed bag of emotion.”
“The Centennial in general is a loaded topic for a lot of people, so what I sought to do, as we try to come to terms with what took place during that time and the aftermath and how we move on from there, is look at this year’s Transfer Day as the perfect opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of Virgin Islanders independent of who laid claim to the Virgin Islands,” Sprauve said during a recent interview with the Source.
Sprauve’s “Valiant Virgin Isles” has, for all intents and purposes, been adopted as this year’s Centennial song, and Sprauve said he came up with the content – which celebrates each of the three U.S. Virgin Islands and those historical figures who contributed to its evolution – after doing his own research on the history of Transfer Day and the impact it has had on the territory.
“In all that I’ve read and in all that I’ve heard from other people, I’ve seen common threads of resistance, determination and courage, and that was what I had in mind when I started writing,” Sprauve said. “I know that a lot of people feel that there is nothing to celebrate and I can understand and respect and agree with them on certain points. A lot of the information I’ve gathered is alarming, and I thought that rather than me falling in line with those who look at this thing as some great, romanticized story of rescue, I preferred to focus my attention on those local heroes whose stories don’t get told often enough.”
The song was first performed at the swearing in ceremonies for the 32nd Legislature and Sprauve said that since then, he has received continued feedback from residents who’ve said how much they identify with the lyrics.
“This is the time to look at our real needs, and the Centennial offers us the opportunity to shine the light on the Virgin Islands, not on Denmark and not on the United States,” Sprauve said. “And the feedback so far has all been so overwhelmingly positive. People have told me that they were moved to tears because they could identify with the story on a deeper level, so the mission, in this case, was accomplished.”
Working to find a balance between the history and emotion, Sprauve said he concentrated on the unique aspects of all three islands, including the makeup of the society a century ago and what each was primarily used for. The first section, for example speaks about the geographic beauty and “unique placement” of the islands, Sprauve said, and how the experiences of the citizens on each were all different.
“On St. Croix, slavery was probably at its worst, St. John, too,” Sprauve said. “On St. Thomas, though, there was a lot of livestock being raised and a lot of trade, so slavery wasn’t as bad. So, in finding the balance, it was important to talk about the qualities of each island and how these commanding figures, like the Three Queens for example, worked to free the people from these hateful conditions.”
Sprauve said he was able to set “himself free” in the music, and escape the “need to sweeten anything.”
“This was my chance to be honest and talk about things that probably, 100 years ago, would be frowned upon by the government taking over these islands,” Sprauve said.
Adding another level to the music, Sprauve recently combined the “Valiant Virgin Isles” with a new song, “Fanfare for the Virgin Islands, Transformed” that also gave musicians from Puerto Rico a chance to play and symbolically represent the connection between the two territories and the integration of its residents.
The concert, held on March 19 at the St. Thomas Reformed Church, was the third in a series that started at the Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral, where Sprauve is the organist, and was more about the history of the Virgin Islands than a Centennial celebration.
“It was more of a musical history of the Virgin Islands for the past 100 years, where we were able to talk more about us and point out a few things about the transfer,” Sprauve said. “The new piece, ‘Fanfare,’ I wrote in honor of the residents of the Danish West Indies that were transferred over to the United States. Not enough has been done to honor their legacy, what they were actually able to ‘enjoy’ in the territory after the transfer and what their accomplishments were.”
Sprauve, who said he has been coming back to the territory on and off since he first left in 1992, said he is now in “legacy mode” himself and sees these contributions as a chance to also mentor young local musicians – such as the Bertha C. Boschulte choir and steel pan orchestra members that performed at Sprauve’s March concert – in the language of music.
“Last year, my father died and I made the decision to come back home and to take one more shot at trying to prepare other musicians,” he explained. “I’m now in legacy mode and recognize the challenges the community has had in keeping fine music alive, I felt that after receiving so much and have so much of this community invest in my career, it is the right thing to return to my home and share this gift of music and the joy of music with those who want to know but don’t have the tools to figure it out. I would say that being here is more for love of country than anything else, and hopefully that comes through in the music.”