Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
After stops in St. Croix and St. Thomas, our Virgin Islands Nice series spotlighting music, life + culture in the U.S. Virgin Islands sails over to St. John, a place truly deserving of the title “America’s Paradise.” Known for its scenic beaches and rugged coast, the island is largely under the purview of the U.S. National Park Service, which operates the 7,000-acre Virgin Islands National Park that covers most of St. John. A popular destination for American tourists, the island has also seen an influx of residents from the mainland in recent years. That influence has grown so strong that it’s easy for some visitors to miss the local culture that has existed on the island for generations, but it’s still there. Here’s a spotlight on one St. Johnian we were fortunate to meet on our visit— steelpan master Lemuel Callwood.
If steel drums float into your earspace on a visit to St. John, USVI, there’s a good chance Lemuel Callwood is behind the sounds you are hearing. A native St. Johnian, Lemuel has been playing steelpan for over 40 years. On most any Tuesday, you can find him plying his trade poolside at the Westin in Cruz Bay, St. John’s largest hotel, though if you spend enough time on the island you’re sure to run into the man and his pan other places, too.
Lemuel’s experience with steelpan began in the early 1970s, when he was 12. That’s when he had the opportunity to join the St. John Steel Unlimited Orchestra, a youth outfit which went on to record a 1974 album entitled Lament. Under the direction of Rudolph Wells, a master pannist from Trinidad who had taken up residence on the island, the group traveled internationally, bringing a sound that originated in Trinidad to the world, with a Virgin Islands twist.
“Back in public school, they had a program for the three-island art council,” Lemuel recalls of his experience with the St. John Steel Unlimited Orchestra. “[Rudolph Wells] was one of the top instructors from Trinidad. He arranged classical music—Bach, Beethoven, Strauss—into steelpan.”
Callwood went on to form one of the island’s first reggae bands shortly thereafter, and has played in numerous local outfits over the years. A keyboardist and bass player, today he can regularly be found playing at weddings and other private events with for-hire groups, In The Sand Band and Tropical Sounds.
We were introduced to Lemuel right before he was to play a private gig playing steelpan at Asolare, a restaurant on the premises of Estate Lindholm, the hotel where we stayed in St. John. Moments before the bride and groom’s arrival, he gave us a demonstration of his skills, which you can hear and see in the teaser video that introduced our Virgin Islands Nice series.
After recording, we spoke to him about steelpan, and life as a musician on St. John.
Click through Martei Korley’s photo gallery to see what he said, and watch the Virgin Islands Nice teaser video featuring the sounds of Lemuel Callwood, below.