“I remember people saying that you shouldn’t be singing that quelbe. It had a stigma on it,” says Crucian flutist, bandleader, and cultural advocate Stanley Jacobs. But in terms of local music of his childhood, “That’s all we knew.” For him, music was quelbe [pronounced kwel-BEH], and quelbe was music.
Born in 1941, Jacobs was raised on St. Croix, the largest of the three main U.S. Virgin Islands. Jacobs loved music from a young age, and since his family could not afford to buy instruments, he and his brothers made banjos out of sardine cans. Later in life, he earned a degree in psychology and began a career caring for the elderly in assisted living facilities. For many of the residents, quelbe had been the soundtrack of their lives, and, as such, a good part of Jacobs’ work was organizing social events with quelbe at the center. Coworker Stanford Simmonds, leader of Simmonds Brothers Band and an accomplished cane flute player, taught Jacobs some melodies and how to make a flute by drilling holes in tubes of metal and bamboo. Jacobs was hooked. “I must have made about a thousand flutes,” he recalls.
He explains the basics of quelbe: “It’s the particular instrumentation—pipe, steel (triangle), squash (gourd rasp), guitar, banjo (uke), flute . . . and also the singing, the type of lyrics and the phrasing of the music.” Over the past half century, the pipe was converted from a length of bamboo or automobile exhaust pipe played like a trumpet to electric bass, and the transverse cane flute was replaced by either the metal flute or the alto saxophone. A conga, drumkit, electric guitar, and electric keyboard round out the modern quelbe band. The typical quelbe repertoire includes jigs, Crucian merengues, and quadrille dance melodies. Both old and new quelbe songs speak to Virgin Islands life and can be sharp-witted with humor and social critique.
After a stint playing flute with the group Joe Parris and the Hot Shots, Jacobs co-founded the Ten Sleepless Knights, which became sought out for more than a half century to play at parties, the annual Carnival parade, quadrille dances, and other cultural events. In recent decades, the band expanded its mission, becoming a nonprofit educational organization teaching the young people of St. Croix their music, dance, and cultural heritage. A scholarship fund was established for music students to preserve the quelbe tradition. Through his artistry and leadership, Jacobs became a bulwark in defense of his culture against the onslaught of pop music and the flood of arrivals from the U.S. mainland and other Caribbean islands. Today, in large part a result of his efforts, the disparaging stigma about quelbe is no more. In 2003, the Legislature of the Virgin Islands declared quelbe to be the “official” music of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and in 2016, Jacobs and the Ten Sleepless Knights’ album Quelbe! was released by Smithsonian Folkways. Ten Sleepless Knights Folklife Festival was established in 2022 for the St. Croix community and celebrates the U.S. Virgin Islands’ culture, history, and traditions.
--Daniel Sheehy, 2015 Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellow