From Quelbé to calypso, it would be difficult to stroll along a street in the U.S. Virgin Islands and not hear music of some kind. Though quite diverse, the music of the U.S. Virgin Islands is a source of great pleasure and pride among islanders, whose rich history and cultural traditions are intertwined in myriad melodies and lyrics.
Quelbé, St. Croix’s indigenous folk music, is an exuberant expression of Crucian life. Also known as “scratch band music,” Quelbé musicians use hand-made instruments to create music of stunning originality that resonates with the history of the island. Quelbé instruments are varied, ranging from gourds and tin cans, to cane, string and wood – virtually anything that can be “scratched up.” Historical events, everyday news and island life all are sources of lyrical inspiration. For those who appreciate native music and the significance of an oral history passed down through generations, Quelbé is an essential part of any visit to the islands.
Interestingly, scratch music dates back to the 18th century when the islands were under Danish rule. It was brought to St. Croix by West African slaves who worked the island’s sugar plantations. The slaves’ rich musical and story-telling traditions proved an enduring legacy. Influenced by the European colonists’ own forms of music, the slave bands devised instruments using whatever materials they could find. These slave bands were the forerunners to today’s scratch bands.
Quelbé, the official music of the territory, is most often heard at traditional and cultural festivals on St. Croix; but, along with steel pans, calypso and reggae, it can also be heard at night clubs, on the beach and in virtually any informal setting, as well as on St. John and St. Thomas.
Like Quelbé, calypso dates back to the arrival of the first slaves from West Africa. Banned from speaking to each other, the slaves began to communicate through song, using calypso. Today, calypso is heard most prevalently during Carnival, its lyrics often an amusing social commentary.
Equally captivating to visitors is quadrille, the traditional folk dance of the Virgin Islands. Quadrille originated in France in the 18th century as a court dance for Napoleon and first appeared in the Virgin Islands in the early 19th century. The quadrille dance varies from island to island; for example, on St. Thomas, the French German Quadrille is considered stately while, on St. Croix, the Imperial Quadrille is known for its amusing and animated style. Preserving and teaching the islands’ unique folk dancing is the work of St. Croix’s Heritage Dancers, a performing ensemble that can be seen regularly around the island.
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