U.S. Virgin Islands
The Lesser Antilles island chain separates the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea. Part of that island chain consists of the Virgin Islands, some governed by the United States, and some by the United Kingdom. The U.S. Virgin Islands are a United States overseas possession comprised of the islands of Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John. The island chain consists of St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, and about 50 other small islands, most of which are uninhabited.
The easternmost place in the United States offers a variety of unique diversions, from pristine beaches to fascinating historical sites. Coral reefs and canopied islands, clear tropical seas, colorful coral reefs, white sand beaches, and the remains of centuries-old sugar plantations—these in combination with warm breezes and a relaxed way of living are the qualities that comprise the Virgin Islands.
Columbus spotted a chain of islands. He proclaimed they would be called Las Once Mil Virgenes (11,000 virgins) in honor of Ursula, martyred by the Huns for refusing to marry a pagan prince. The Danes secured control over the southern Virgin Islands of Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Croix during the 17th and early 18th centuries. Sugarcane, produced by African slave labor, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1917, the US purchased the Danish holdings, which had been in economic decline since the abolition of slavery in 1848.
The U.S. Virgin Islands is a paradise with so much more to offer than the traditional beach vacation. Visitors wishing to immerse themselves in a profound cultural experience can enjoy historical tours, culinary encounters, artisan fairs, parades, storytelling and other special presentations. Walking tours on St. Thomas and St. Croix feature the diverse architecture, evidence of nations that colonized the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries. If you’re feeling energetic, walk one of the many street steps, the most famous being the 99 steps on St. Thomas, a common way of getting to higher ground.
In 2003, the Legislature passed a bill proclaiming "Quelbe, the vocal and instrumental style of the Virgin Islands' folk music which traces its ancestry to Africa and Europe. Quelbe is a fusion of bamboula rhythms and chants, cariso songs and melodies, and the official traditional music of the Virgin Islands."
Historically speaking, the scratch band sound that is Quelbe was created by slaves, self-taught musicians who made their own instruments and who lived and worked on sugar plantations. Since strict Danish laws forbade drum beating and dancing, slaves incorporated European sounds and dance steps into their practices. The newly created rhythmic styles produced “persuasion bands” that used homemade bamboo flutes, bass drums, steel triangles and squash (a dried gourd, grooved and scraped with a wire prong) to produce the sound.
As they evolved musically and instrumentally, a new kind of music was born. Instruments changed through the years, including the addition of a guitar, tambourine, the "pipe" (an old tail pipe) which replaced the bass drum and the ukulele. The music offers commentary on such things as current events, cheating spouses and rum smuggling in ladies pantaloons. Modern-day Quelbe or scratch bands have an additional instrument or two and enjoy more popularity today.
Since African dance was also prohibited by plantation owners, slaves copied and adopted the Europeans' quadrilles, lancers, jigs, mazurkas, schottisches and other dances, giving them their own interpretation. The popular French quadrille was loved because of its hip swaying and rhythmic steps. Today’s dancers wear madras costumes and handmade head ties. Groups like the St. Croix Heritage Dancers, who dance the French form of quadrille, perform with local Quelbe bands at special events and dances.
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