Quelbe the official music of the Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands have always had a rich culture that has historically resonated worldwide and continues to do so in the 21st century. In the time of Danish rule and the institution of slavery, The Virgin Islands served as the birthplace to the incredible sound of Quelbe, or Scratch Band Music, and in 2004 legislature was passed to make Quelbe the official music of the Virgin Islands. Primary installations of the style include call and response style vocals, lyrics that speak to historical events and daily island life, and instruments scratched’ together from whatever could be found for their construction.
Quelbe began with West African slaves who worked the Danish sugar plantations in the Virgin Islands. Drums were strictly banned for slave use by plantation owners. However, Scratch Band Music was developed to accompany the rich tradition of storytelling and musicality that slaves had brought with them. Taking cues from European colonization band’s melodies and instrumentation, slaves began putting together improvised groups with improvised instruments, or scratch’ instruments, containing at least one lead, such as a flute, and one percussion instrument. Speaking to both the beauty and brutality of island living, Quelbe is still very much alive today, with one group, Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights, carrying the flag for the music style more than anyone into the modern age.
Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights
When Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights began their career in the early 1970’s Quelbe was losing its notoriety in the Virgin Islands to more modern mainstream tastes from the U.S. Stanely Jacobs says Quelbe is all he and the band members knew growing up in Saint Croix in the 1940s. The Ten Sleepless Knights features players from all walks of life including a psychiatrist, firefighter, and racehorse owner, and under Jacobs’ leadership have become a leading group in the revival of the style.
Indeed, even Stanley is surprised by the resurgence of his homeland’s beloved folk music. In 2010, Stanely and his Sleepless Knights were recognized as being one of the leading causes of this revived interest in the style and celebration of a genre which had once been looked down upon. The band’s most recent release, Quelbe! Music of the U.S. Virgin Islands’, is a testament to the staying power of the style. Being released on the Smithsonian’s Smithsonian Folkways record label, the album presents a variety of Quelbe favorites in the style of the main modern protagonists of the genre and is an excellent introduction to Quelbe for any music lover.
Visiting the Birthplace of Quelbe
Though Stanely and the Ten Sleepless Knights are one of the most renowned Quelbe bands, several more notable names have heralded the traditional style in the Virgin Islands over the years including groups such as Billy and the Kafooners, Blinky and the Roadmasters, and Jamsie and the Allstars. The British Islands deliver a variety of Quelbe bands for fans at the Fungi Festival in November and the Senior Citizens Quelbe Tramp, in Rothschild Francis Square, is an excellent way for elder visitors to absorb some of the traditional culture of the islands. Still alive and well hundreds of years after its inception, it’s easy to see why Quelbe is still without a doubt the signature sound of the majesty of the Virgin Islands today!