Musical Traditions of St Lucia

Dances and Songs from a Caribbean Island - Various performers

Smithsonian / Folkways CD SF40416

Zoop Zoop Zoop

Traditional Music and Folklore of St Croix, St Thomas and St John - Various performers

New World Records 80427 - 2

The commercial category 'World Music' may not have been intended as a liberal euphemism for 'foreign' music.  Inevitably, perhaps, that is what it soon became, as if white English-speaking musicians were somehow not in the world.  Fascination with the novel and alien has passed for cultural investigation for as long as some people have sought an alternative to whatever the commercial entertainment industry had to offer.  But the point of 'a wider perspective on traditional music' is surely not to wallow in the exotic for its own sake, but to appreciate what popular musics around the world have in common.

The latter approach - true eclecticism as opposed to culture collecting - has had some encouragement during the past two decades.  This is not due to the self-conscious 'fusions' indulged in by bored musicians, but to the musical miscegenation that arises naturally out of historical reality; or rather, to the long overdue recognition of that process, and of the fact that any music that has ever been popular enough to become traditional is likely to be a product of it.  'Purism' has long been a term of abuse, mainly because it has been taken to denote excess, a purely relative matter of over-enthusiasm.  Now it is increasingly acknowledged that concepts like 'pure' and 'authentic' have little useful application.  It seems obvious, once uttered, that the notion of a 'true folk artist', reliably representative of his / her community alone, has been a nostalgic one, at least since the spread of the domestic phonograph and wireless.

Where traditional music retains its vigour it does so because it is allowed to develop and adapt, by cross-fertilization with related traditions and by a recurrent dialogue with the entertainment industry.  Some of the most striking examples of both processes are to be found in the music of the New World island communities.  Both the plantation islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific's most celebrated centre of cultural pillage have produced some of the youngest musical traditions worthy of the name.

They have also had a startlingly fruitful relationship with the pop mainstream.  If it is possible to identify a single exotic musical culture that has shaped American music, it is not African (whatever that may mean) but Hispanic - not only via all the obvious Hispanic-American influences but, more intriguingly, via Hawaiian music, which was transformed by Hispanic influence during the 19th century, and supplied some prominent features of western pop music throughout the early decades of the 20th.  As a result, it was a seemingly international vogue through the 1940s and '50s.

The subsequent prominence of reggae has been, if not greater, then more widespread, and continues to grow, to the extent that it has not only regained its place in British pop charts, but is apparently considered a suitable form of expression for native Australasians and various African cultures.  The impact of music from Hawaii, Trinidad and Jamaica (and, to a lesser extent, Cuba and the Bahamas) has been out of all proportion to the size and importance of those communities.  So there's one reason for taking a special interest in these offerings from the more obscure quarters of the West Indies.

These two CDs extend our knowledge of the Caribbean cauldron, serving as an introduction to the musical traditions of communities at either end of the lesser Antilles.  The U.S. Virgin Islands - St Croix, St Thomas and St John - are represented by Zoop Zoop Zoop, while the Smithsonian Folkways album presents the larger and better known island of St Lucia.  Both are excellent productions, containing a great deal of arguably important material, as well as much that is highly entertaining.  That may seem a strange distinction to anyone who claims an interest in traditional music, but is not an unfair one.  It is reasonable to assume that the readership of Musical Traditions includes those whose interest is anthropological in only the widest possible sense and whose preferences are determined largely by what bears repeated listening in an ordinary home.  By such standards, Zoop Zoop Zoop is certainly more approachable than Musical Traditions of St Lucia.

What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians?  Right - so what do you call someone who hangs out with drummers?  An ethnomusicologist, perhaps.  Certain basic forms occur in social - especially ceremonial and ritual - music virtually everywhere in the world, and they serve their purpose very well.  That doesn't necessarily make them good listening unless of course, you happen to like call-and-response chants in an unknown language accompanied by relatively simple percussion.  It is often said, even by people who appear to like music, that traditional, popular or 'folk' musics can be appreciated only in their social contexts.  The simplest and most repetitive forms, on their own, may well justify that view; but applied to popular music in general, it is an insulting attitude.  After all, no-one ever suggested that Mozart's music could only be appreciated in Vienna, or while wearing a powdered wig.  Similarly insulting, on the other hand, is the persistent assumption that the simplest and most repetitive forms are characteristic only of certain cultures, especially prevalent in the continent of Africa, and the consequent enthusiasm for identifying such forms in any music made by black people, wherever they happen to be.

These remarks are not intended as an attack on the St Lucia record in particular.  Essentially the same familiar principles inform both collections, though the St Lucian material seems to offer more support to the Africanist tendency (and, for some people, will of course be all the more interesting for that).  It is claimed in the accompanying notes that the St Lucians 'are famous in the Caribbean for keeping alive their oral traditions', so, perhaps, that, together with the greater American influence on the US Virgin Islands, accounts for the more familiar pan-Caribbean impression created by Zoop Zoop Zoop.  It is a pity, perhaps, that the St Lucia collection is ordered by contextual category, starting with 13 tracks of participative (play, work and religious ceremonial) music, in which the only instruments are drums, apart from one example of bamboo flute.  There's nothing here of no interest, but it (with the other voice and drum material) would be easier to take, interspersed with the contrasting tracks.

The gems of this collection come halfway through and at the end.  The first is half-a-dozen dance tunes performed mostly by Rameau Poleon's group, a leading 'Kwadril' band on the island.  Joseph McLawrence, 'a St Lucian fiddler in London', told Keith Summers that he played 'old waltzes, polkas and quadrilles' (MT 10).  Here on this record is a small selection of the sort of music he was talking about.  Rameau Poleon plays fiddle, accompanied by the classic local combination of guitar, banjo, cuatro and chakchak (rattle).  Interestingly, the St Lucians are said to regard the banjo and cuatro as native instruments because they have always been made on the island.  The local bwa poye or skroud banjo is a tiny, four-stringed instrument.

Joe McLawrence also mentioned that his wife had been Queen of La Marguerite in 1957.  St Lucia's Anglo-French heritage is strangely personified and commemorated in the rival Societies of La Rose and La Marguerite, ceremonial representatives of the two nations who warred continually for the first 160-odd years of the island's colonial history.  St Lucia changed hands 14 times during the actual wars; now her own independent government sponsors both 'Lawoz' and 'Lamargrit' events.  The Societies demonstrate and celebrate their difference in contrasting behaviour and accomplishments.  La Rose, in spite of its English association, values noise, movement, rhythm, participation and showing-off in general .  La Marguerite favours restraint, decorum and melody.  The other highlight of the album is a small sample of both group's songs, performed mostly by women.  They are introduced by the triumphal march, The Flower, the Flower, the Rose are in Dismay, sung by the women of the Lamargrit Society of Laborie.  It's a march only in musical terms; the Lamargrit chorus sings sitting down:

We all are here for unity and peace
We all are here for justice and for right
We all are here to celebrate our feast
In the most beautiful Flower of St Lucia.
This is the outstanding track of the entire collection; splendid uplifting, and far too short at 1 minute, 29 seconds. 'Viv Lamargrit,' as they say in St Lucia.

In the US Virgin Islands apparently, they say 'Zoop Zoop Zoop'.  The title song, according to the notes contains 'nonsense syllables perhaps based on African language'.  For what it's worth, they sound more like they may have started out as French.  In any case, the substance of this song, and of all the songs on this record, is in English.  There is, as it happens, no direct French influence on these islands, whose European antecedents are typically complex.  St Croix, St Thomas and St John were a Danish colony for 200 years, until purchased early this century by the USA.  Most of the planters during the first half of the Danish administration, however, were Dutch, and Dutch Creole was the language of the islands until it was replaced by English Creole during the 19th century as a result of mass immigration from Scotland, Ireland and the British West Indies.  Labour migration has continued, in from India and from the rest of the Caribbean, and out to the USA.  By 1980, less than half the population was native-born.  The Danish and Dutch appear to have left no lasting mark on the musical culture of the islands.  The only example here of Danish influence is a nursery rhyme, a version of Baa Baa Black Sheep sung by an old woman who learned it at school when some teaching of the Danish language was compulsory.

That is not to say, of course, that the obvious European content is entirely British.  Roughly half of this album is social dance music of the kind found throughout the Caribbean region, courtesy of the polite dance fads of 19th-century America.  The relevant titles here are Mazurka, Polka Mazurka, Quadrille, Seven Step and French Polka.  These are instrumental, but similar music accompanies songs, largely of a topical or local-historical nature.  It is played by 'scratch' or 'fungi' bands, fairly typical Caribbean-style ensembles that have apparently enjoyed a revival since the early 1970s.  The scratch band is led by a singer and / or a single melody instrument, with the usual rhythm accompaniment of strings and percussion.  The percussive string part played in St Lucia by the skroud banjo is performed here by the banjolele in all the bands but one, which includes the far less discernible cuatro.  The traditional percussion instruments which survive are the triangle and the guiro (ridged gourd scraper), though these are now supplemented by congas and other modern percussion.  The fiddle has apparently fallen out of use entirely in these islands, and was replaced during the first half of this century by flute or accordion, both of which have played a small part in the scratch band revival - there are several examples of flute here, and one of the accordion.  The usual lead instrument today, though, is the alto saxophone, while guitars and string basses now tend to be electric.

There is some fine singing on this album, notably by James Brewster, who sings with both his own Jamesy & the Happy Seven, and the Joe Parris Hot Shots.  The other good singing is largely unaccompanied, and done mostly by women, who perform a fascinating variety of ridicule songs, boasting songs, and songs commemorating local scandals and political events such as The Great Fireburn, a fieldworkers' uprising of 1878.  The most exciting of these performances, perhaps, is not one of the obviously local songs, but a Creole member of a family that any Musical Traditions reader will recognize.  Beatrice Mapsey Johnson of St Croix sings, with some chorus participation and clearly unnecessary prompting, a song whose first and last verses go like this:

One bright morning, as I was walking,
One bright summer morning, so early one morn,
Whom shall I met up, my dear darling damsel,
She was wrapped up in flannel, most colder than clay.
Six jolly young sailor, come and carry my coffin,
Six jolly young sailor, come and walk by my side.
And a bunch of primroses to put on my coffin,
For the people will smell me when I'm passing along.
For my name is Loretta, but don't call my name.
The tune is just as familiar.   The accessibility and simple pleasure of this collection is in no way compromised by the inclusion of several spoken tracks.  These are a short tale about how the crab and the garlin came to look the way they do, an account of quadrille calling, by the celebrated Crucian floormaster Adam Petersen and group reminiscences about the masquerading and mumming which evidently no longer take place in these islands.  The notes warn that the instrumental 'Jig' that follows these reminiscences is a couple dance sometimes used in a quadrille set, not one of the solo 'jigs' which once punctuated the King George Play just discussed.

These Creole vestiges of English culture are recalled with fond amusement, but there is clearly little chance of their being continued or revived in these islands.  The same goes for the bamboula and cariso song styles which are considered native to St Thomas and St Croix respectively.  The scratch bands fit the bill for today's seekers of local music, and it is for them to continue using the songs and tunes of the area.

Enthusiasts of Caribbean music will certainly enjoy both of these collections. If your interest falls somewhat short of zeal, try Zoop Zoop Zoop anyway.

David Campbell - 15.8.97

keton.jpg - 35.5 K

We went to St Lucia in 1995 and heard, far too briefly, another Kwadril or Chak-Chak band [photo above] led by Keton Flook [fiddle], which was slightly rougher, and far more exciting, than the Poleon band's music on this CD.  They let us have an apallingly recorded tape which really does not do justice to what we heard of their live playing.

The only commercial recording we could find was of the Poleon band [augmented to eight players], and this is very enjoyable indeed.  Given the difficulty we had in getting it in St Lucia [we tried every record shop in the north of the island], I can't imagine that it's available in the UK.  But, for anyone with contacts there, the cassette is: Sweet Sounds of St Lucia, 'Rameau' Joseph Poleon and band, Dave Samuels Promotions DSP K002

Rod Stradling - 15.8.97

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