Quelbe music, the official folk music of the Virgin Islands is receiving long overdue recognition and appreciation. Quelbe music was created from the fusion of Bamboula chants, Caruso songs, military fife, jigs and the various quadrilles. Quelbe can be described as a synthesis of Africa and Europe in the Caribbean Virgin Islands, expressed through the language of music, and shaped by the social condition of life in the region during the 18th and 19th centuries.
As early as 1672 and in 1733, the Danish government in the islands passed strict laws against drum beating and dancing. Any pure African practices would have to be camouflaged or done in secret in the hills at night.
Quadrille is the traditional dance of the U.S. Virgin Islands which originated in France in the 1700’s. Although the Virgin Islands are now a United States territory, through its history, the islands have been part of seven different nations, including France and England. Quadrille was brought to the Virgin Islands during the height of its popularity in England, and was adapted as plantation entertainment. Quadrilles were originally performed by two couples. The dance later evolved, and two more couples were added to form sides. The dance was performed by four couples in a square formation, and is a precursor to traditional square dancing. The dance has continued to evolve over the past few centuries, and it takes on a unique and dynamic presentation and personality when performed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
As the dance is performed, the dancers are told what particular moves to perform by the “floormaster” or the “caller,” much like a traditional square dance. In quadrille however, many of the calls are given in French. For example, when the caller says balancez, the gentlemen will move from their partner’s side and position themselves directly in front of their partner. And when the caller says tunez, the gentlemen will place his palm on the ladies left side and turn her to the right. The basic step that you see the dancers performing is called a Polka.
The dancers all wear traditional quadrille costumes made of a madras material. The men wear madras shirts, and the women wear madras skirts, traditionally with white petticoats. The women also wear traditional head-ties also made of madras. The tying of a head-tie is an art in the Virgin Islands. That is because the way the head-tie is tied, is of great significance. For example, a head-tie tied with one point signifies: “I am free.” A head-tie tied with two points means: “I am engaged but, you can still try.” Three points says: “I’m already taken.” And four points means: “I am available.” The music that the dancers perform to is the official music of the U.S. Virgin Islands, quelbe.
Quelbe is a vocal and instrumental musical style, a product of the country reflecting the rural and rustic character of the environment in which its creators lived. Quelbe musicians were self-taught, played homemade instruments and lived and worked on the sugar plantations in the country. When enslaved Africans were forbidden to practice their music and dance, over a period of time they gradually began to listen to and copy the music and dance of the slave masters.
As early as 1672 and again in 1733, the Danish government in the islands passed strict laws against drum beating and dancing. Any pure African practices would have to be camouflaged or done in secret in the hills at night. Consequently, the imported European dance and music such as the quadrille, lancers, minuets and polka-mazurkas, jigs, two-steps, seven-steps, waltzes and schottisches, began to gain popularity among the blacks. This eventually led to a transformation of the original rituals, music and dances. It also led to the creation of a new music and musical style.
The native fife and drum bands, that were in effect percussion bands, were most likely the first native instrumental ensembles to copy and play the quadrilles, jigs and other European dance music. These ensembles consisted of a bamboo (homemade) flute, a homemade bass drum, a steel triangle and squash. As these fife and drum bands expanded and evolved musically and instrumentally, a new kind of native music emerged
At first the musicians probably tried to copy and adapt traditional European songs, but as time went on, they began to compose original music and songs. Many cariso songs evolved into quelbe songs as the musicians expanded, embellished and adapted them to the instrumental ensemble style. The sound, structure and character of the music was shaped by the instruments used. When the old fife and drum bands expanded to include one, two or sometimes three guitars, they became quelbe bands, producing a smoother sound.
As younger and more skillful musicians emerged, quelbe changed and evolved. By the late 1890s, quelbe bands consisted of a pom-flute, one or more guitars, a steel triangle, a tambourine and a homemade bass drum. The pom-flute and the tambourine are of European origin. The steel triangle, sighted in Guinea in the 18th century, probably has its origins in Africa. The squash, a percussion instrument, is a dried gourd with serrated sides that is scraped with a wire prong: the bass drum was made from a wooden barrel or keg [with goat skin heads, ram on one side and ewe on the other].
In the early 1900s, the “pipe” (also called the tail-pipe or ass-pipe) replaced the bass drum in the ensembles. The pipe is literally metal cylindrical tubing, often the discarded exhaust pipe from an automobile, which, bent slightly at both ends, produced single note patterns that provide the bass part for ensembles. In the 1930s, the small banjo, also called a “banjo-ukulele” was added, providing a richer harmonic base, rhythmic variety and color. This classic ensemble form of flute, guitars, banjo, steel, squash and pipe remained unchanged until the early 1970s. Quelbe bands played for country dances, parties, weddings, maypole dances, fairs and carousel rides.
In the late sixties, the alto saxophone became popular as the lead instrument and has virtually replaced the traditional flute. During the 1970s, the electric bass guitar completely replaced the pipe and has helped to further embellish the sound of the quelbe bands. The drums were re-introduced into the ensemble in the form of modern conga drums. Quelbe bands were also expanding their repertoire to include calypsos, meringues, bloleros, in addition to the regular Quelbe and quadrille tunes. In spite of these changes and the use of modern electric instruments and amplification, Quelbe bands have retained their rustic and percussive sound, texture and character. Quelbe music has its pantheon of popular and legendary heroes and lives in the memories and the songs of the people.
Check out this list of floormasters, musicians, singers, and composers to begin your adventure in Quelbe:
- Adam Petersen
- Vincent Harris
- Joseph Levine
- Wilfred Mcbean
- Million Payne Bradley Christian
- Peter Hendricksm
- Joe “Sion-Hill” Jackson
- Elias Waterman
- Charlie Harris
- John Francis
- Alphonoso Joseph Marshall
- Alexander “Ciple” Michael
- Joe “Joey Brown” Parris
- Arnold “Bee” Brown.
- Alexander “Feneye” Lang
- Nathaniel “Soda” Moore
- Cuthbert McBean
- Cornelius “One-Hand Dan” Lucas
- James Miller of the Miller Boss Band
- Alf and Frerdie Simmonds of the Simmonds bros
- Blink and the Roadmasters
- Jamesie and the Happy Seven
- Stanly and the Ten Sleepless Knights
- Bully and the Kafooners
- Ohaldo Williams
- Wilford Pedro
- Joseph “Paddymore” Moore
- Alf Simmonds
- Stanley Jacobs