Music of the Virgin Islands

The music of the Virgin Islands reflects long-standing cultural ties to the island nations to the south as well as to various European colonialists. Though the United States Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands are politically separate, they maintain close cultural ties. From its neighbors, the Virgin Islands has imported various pan-Caribbean genres of music, including calypso from Trinidad and reggae from Jamaica.
The major indigenous form of music is the scratch band (also called fungi band), which use improvised instruments like gourds and washboards to make a kind of music called quelbe. A Virgin Island folk song called cariso is also popular, as well as St. Thomas’ bamboula. The quadrille is the traditional folk dance of the islands, and include varieties like St. Croix’s Imperial Quadrille and St. Thomas’ Flat German Quadrille. The Heritage Dancers are a respected dance troupe that perform traditional folk dances from the Virgin Islands and beyond.
Virgin Islander culture is syncretic, based primarily on African and European cultures. Though the Danish controlled the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands for many years, the dominant language has been an English-based Creole since the 19th century, and the islands remain much more receptive to English language popular culture than any other. The Dutch, the French and the Danish also contributed elements to the island’s culture, as have immigrants from the Arab world, India and other Caribbean islands. The single largest influence on modern Virgin Islander culture, however, comes from the Africans enslaved to work in canefields from the 17th to the mid-19th century. These African slaves brought with them traditions from across a wide swathe of Africa, including what is now Nigeria, Senegal, both Congos, Gambia and Ghana.
Folk music
Virgin Islander folk music has declined since the mid-20th century, though some traditions, such as scratch bands, remain vibrant. Trends that contributed to this change include the rise of the tourism industry, the switch of American tourists from Cuba to the Virgin Islands following the 1959 revolution, and the growth of industries based on mass radio, television and recorded music. These changes (diluted) local traditions and (diverted) younger generations from becoming involved in folk music, because popular styles came to be viewed as having more prestige, class and income.
Scratch bands and Fungi music
Scratch bands, also known as fungi bands and formerly string bands, are a distinctive form of folk ensemble; they have survived the decline of other Virgin Islander folk traditions, through adapting to newly imported instrumentation and songs, and becoming a part of a more general revival of interest in folk culture on the islands.The name scratch band may derive from the sound produced by scraping the squash, an instrument similar to the Puerto Rican guiro, but larger, or from the word squash itself, used to refer to the bands first by American visitors and then by locals.
The traditional scratch band ensemble varied, but always used a percussive instrument, either the squash, tambourine, or a local form of double-headed barrel drum similar to the Dominican tambora, as well as an accordion, cane flute or violin as a melodic instrument. String instruments were also common, including the banjo, ukulele or a six-string guitar. The ass pipe, made out of a car exhaust tube, often provided the bass, and was played similar to the tuba. Since about the 1980s, the instrumentation for scratch bands became more rigid. The alto saxophone became the most common melodic instrument, replaced sometimes by a silver flute. Conga drums, squash, electric guitar or bass guitar, and a steel (a triangle). Banjo or ukulele, keyboard and additional saxophones or other melodic instruments are more rarely found in modern bands.
The music of scratch bands are a type of folk music that dates back to the days of slavery. The slaves on the islands used found objects to fashion instruments, such as by making strings out of twine salvaged from old sacks. Lyrics traditionally function as oral history, spreading news and gossip.[3] Modern scratch bands play a wide range of dances, including calypsos, boleros, quadrilles, international pop songs, merengues, mazurkas, waltzes, jigs and other styles. They perform at church services, private parties, public festivals, local dances and fars, christenings and weddings, and also perform for tourists. The scratch band tradition remains most vibrant on St. Croix, where the bands Bully & the Kafooners, Stanley & the Ten Sleepless Knights, and Blinky & the Roadmasters are well known. Scratch bands are less common on St. Thomas, and in the British Virgin Islands, though the popular Elmo & the Spark plugs hail from Tortola.
Quelbe is a form of topical folk song, and is the official music of the Virgin Islands. Quelbe is commonly performed by scratch bands, Stanley & the Ten Sleepless Nights being the most popular throughout the Virgin Islands, though their folk origin lays in individuals, who sang the songs in informal settings, celebrations and festivals. These songs typically contained sexual innuendos and double entendres, as well as other hidden meanings; common topics included political events, such as a boycott.
Other folk styles
The quadrille is a folk dance that was formerly an important part of Virgin Islands culture; it is now rarely performed, except on St. Croix. There, locals dance the quadrille at public performance venues, such as St. Gerard’s Hall, or as educational spectacles for schools, festivals and holidays, or as entertainment for tourists. Educational and entertainment quadrille troops both wear traditionally styled clothing reminiscent of authentic attire.
The Afro-Virgin Islander bamboula tradition is now only performed in a reconstructed fashion. It was a style of song, drumming and folk dance, performed by two drummers on one drum; one drum used his hands and heel, and the other two sticks. African-styled dance and group song with refrains were a constant part, with verses frequently improvised by a soloist.
Traditional Virgin Islander folk music festivals were performed until the late 1950s. Masquerading (mas’ing) was an important tradition, and consisted of groups wearing costumes based around a theme, and playing melodies and rhythms that suggest their identity. Instruments included a fife-and-drum ensemble that featured a cane fife, double-headed bass drum (known as keg or boom-boom) and snare drum (known as kettledrum).
Modern and recently imported styles
Until the mid-20th century, the Virgin Islands were largely culturally isolated from international popular music. In the 1960s, a growth in tourism caused an influx of immigrants to fill the service positions the tourism industry created. These immigrants brought with them many styles of popular music, which were popularized by the growth of mass media in the islands, including television and radio.
By the 1980s, Virgin Islands was home to many imported styles, especially reggae, soca, merengue and rock. Jazz, Western classical music and musical theater, along with international pop stars, were common mainstream interests, while the islands’ youth formed bands and dance troupes that played styles popular across the Caribbean, such as reggae, steelpan and soca. The large Puerto Rican population in the Virgin Islands kept popular music from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic a major part of the Islands’ industry.
[edit] Calypso
The first calypso star from the Virgin Islands was Lloyd Prince Thomas, who moved to New York City in the mid-1940s and continued performing for some twenty years. Charles Harris, the Mighty Zebra (a well-known Trinidadian calypsonian) influentially performed in the Virgin Islands in the 1950s; he came for the Carnival in 1952, and stayed, playing at the Virgin Isles Hotel with the LaMotta Brothers Band. The LaMotta Band, led by Bill LaMotta, was a very popular group that recorded several albums and backed Mighty Zebra on a 1957 album for RCA Records. The remaining major early calypso band from the Virgin Islands was the Fabulous McClevertys, who toured widely across the East Coast of the United States at the height of the calypso craze in the late 1950s.
The Virgin Islands has been home to a number of well-known soca bands. Among the oldest and most respected are Milo & the Kings , Jam Band(formerly Eddie & the Movements)and the Imagination Brass. More recent popular bands include VIO International, World Famous Xpress Band (St. Croix Festival’s 2006-2007 Roadmarch Champions), Starlites, and the Musically Dangerous Xtaushun Band (St. Croix Festival two-time Road March Champions). Recently, the JDPP Jammerz, have rapidly made a name for themselves, even winning the 2007 St. Thomas Carnival Road March with the song Bunny Train.
Another largely popular soca band as of the last decade(2001-2007) on St Thomas is the P’your Passion Band. The original Jam Band has also slowed up with the tragic death of the bands main front man Nick ‘Daddy’ Friday who died back in 2006. At present, P’your Passion draws major crowds and has a giant following on the island.

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