Words by Kaya.lah—
As the Caribbean Carnival calendar goes, after the March Madness of Brazil, T&T and Dominica, it’s up to Jamaica, then St. Maarten and Rock City—that’s St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.— to carry the load of the road into May. As on our sister islands across the Caribbean, carnival on St. Thomas—also known as VI Carnival— is a celebration of life, with music, food, bacchanal and general revelry coming together to produce festive fun, joy and community togetherness. Of course, it has its own distinctive traditions and sounds.
The modern calypso music of St. Thomas and the Eastern Caribbean evolved from the same grassroots as reggae and soca: kaiso, the foundation of all Afrocentric Caribbean music. With the Virgin Islands’ close ties to the Latin-based culture of Puerto Rico, Eastern Caribbean kaiso maintained an uptempo beat and eventually spawned quelbe, the national music of the Virgin Islands. In the ’60s and ’70s, the emergence and influence of Lord Kitchener, King Short Shirt, Mighty Sparrow and, locally, Milo & the Kings and Tremile engendered a shift from kaiso and quelbe to soca and calypso, just as kaiso morphed into ska—and on down the line to reggae—over in Jamaica.
With 21 Road Marches and 19 albums to their credit, it was Nicholas “Daddy” Friday & the Jam Band, who revolutionized calypso in the Eastern Caribbean during the 80s and 90s. Generally, calypso in the Virgin Islands had been slower, in the original kaiso framework. In an interview before his death, Daddy Friday said he was told, “’You playin’ too fast. You got to play slow like the Trinidadians.’ But we kept that tempo. Jam Band kept that speed and changed the way Calypso is being played throughout the entire Caribbean.” During his time, the electronic rhythm box started to be utilized in addition to the drumset—a crucial evolution in present day calypso, introduced by another important Virgin Islands calypso band, the Imaginations Brass.
Jam Band’s distinctive sound brought a consistent inoculation of musical adrenaline inclining the body to move regardless of age, race, or gender, and it’s a style that has since been integrated across the Caribbean. You can feel it in the popular power soca of Trinidad and Antigua. When Daddy Friday passed in 2005, soca/calypso luminaries including Machel Montano and Claudette Peters descended upon St. Thomas for his State funeral.
1994’s “Showtime” is considered by many as the defining Roadmarch of the Daddy Friday era, a time when brass (horn instruments) ruled and that sweet Jam Band tempo provided the perfect backdrop to his larger-than-life vocals:
But let’s get to the present day: Rock City Carnival has several major events already under her belt and much more to go. The St. Thomas Carnival Princess of 2014 has been selected: 11-year-old Sh’Nyah Bacon from St. John. (Though St. Thomas and St. John each have their own carnivals, the two islands, separated only by four miles and a $6 boat ride, celebrate together too), and the list of challengers vying to unseat reigning king Soulja at Calypso Monarch is now set. Things really turned up this weekend with the 2014 Carnival Queen Selection Show; now it’s mass and splendour until May 4th. Check out the full happenings, including dates and times over at www.vicarnival.com.
The sounds of 2014 are showing promise. Ladies first: Virgin Islands soca diva Rudy is ready to step into the spotlight again. A familiar face on the soca scene, Rudy has performed at Caribana in Toronto, Party Monarch in Antigua, and Groovy Monarch in Trinidad; songs with Machel and Shurwayne Winchester are included in her portfolio. Her latest release “Heatwave” is a hit with major crossover appeal. Stream below, and check out more from Rudy here.
Next up, we’ve selected a tune from one of the young bands currently pushing boundaries and taking Virgin Islands soca/calypso on new tangents with their hits and live performances: Volume International. With its innovative production, their latest release “Carnival Recipe” is creating a huge buzz and looks like it might be headed for Roadmarch status. And when the Volume International Band perform live….the girls. go. crazy.
Rounding out our Rock City Carnival selection, we have a mixture of the old and new. Recent Roadmarch champs the Spectrum Band have taken on the task of culture bearer with “Bump,” an ode to quelbe and dem old time sometings. For this one Spectrum Band got the assistance of singer Eldred “Edgy” Christian, of one of the last remaining original quelbe scratch bands, Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights out of Tortola, British Virgin Islands; as well as famed kaiso writer Fitzroy “Figgy” O’Garro and quelbe saxophone great Dr. Sax. This combination is an instance where time collides beautifully, as the riddim box meets the banjo in blissful celebration. Looks like another Roadmarch 2014 contender. Check out more from the Spectrum Band here.
You still have time to make it! If not LargeUp will be providing more coverage as these weeks of St. Thomas Carnival 2014 pass by for your enjoyment. We on di road!