Stanley Jacobs, bandleader of Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights, embraced quelbe music at a young age in the 1940s. “That’s all we knew, ” says the St. Croix musician about the historically overlooked but more recently revered musical style of his homeland. For him, quelbe was music, and music was quelbe.
‘Quelbe! Music of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ (out 2/5) is the Smithsonian Folkways debut for this legendary group that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary of continuing this old-yet-new dance music. The album’s release is part of the Smithsonian Institution’s celebration of Black History Month.
The primary ingredients for quelbe music are call-and-response singing and drumming, accompanied by African-influenced dance. Listeners will hear the squash (gourd rasp), steel (triangle), flute, and banjo ukulele, in the contemporary trappings of electric keyboard, drum set, conga, and electric bass. The all-new recordings are accompanied by a 32-page booklet with photos and extensive notes by GRAMMY winning producer Daniel Sheehy.
Among the standout tracks, “Cigar Win The Race” is a rollicking song that fully embodies the spirit of quelbe. “Sly Mongoose” has a relaxed backbeat, and “When You Had Me” has a melody as cheeky as its lyrics, which tell the tale of a fickle former flame.
As the ninth volume in the Smithsonian Folkways’ African American Legacy Series — a multi-year collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture — this album expands the project’s scope to beyond the 50 states in a spirited fashion.
When Stanley and his Ten Sleepless Knights formed in the early 1970s, quelbe was largely overshadowed by more commercially glamorous styles of music from the United States and other Caribbean islands. Class-based notions of propriety and superiority inflicted themselves on views of lifestyles associated with local, rural people of humble means. Quelbe music was thought by some to be scandalous. The lyrics of quelbe songs often contained sexual innuendo and double entendre, telling stories of clandestine sexual trysts and other lewd behavior. Few people would have guessed how much the genre would climb the social ladder in the Virgin Islands over the next four decades as the Virgin Islands focused on instilling the cultural heritage.
In 2003, the Virgin Islands legislature passed a bill officially making quelbe “the vocal and instrumental style of Virgin Islands.” Then in 2010, the band, whose members include a psychiatrist, a firefighter, an international basketball referee, and a racehorse owner, became recognized as its chief protagonists. It was a victory for a genre of traditional music that had once been snubbed, but is now celebrated.