Arts and Culture in U.S. Virgin Islands
The cultural life of the U.S. Virgin Islands is filled with contrasts and connections. Players of cutting edge soca and ska music might walk on streets designed by Danish settlers 300 years ago, while tourists from a 21st century cruise ship shop for island-made crafts in a building built in the 1800s. While music and theater and business and tourism abound in the cities, there are also quiet beaches, archeological sites that give hints of life in the islands before Columbus made his way to the Caribbean, remains of sugar plantations and the houses of masters and of slaves, and connections to cultures of Europe and of Africa. Today the islands are crossroads for tourists from all nations, but their own distinctive history lives through music, buildings, and art.
The Water Island Classical Music Festival brings top-level classical artists to the islands for a three-day festival every February. Recently, jazz artists have been added to the program. Claude (Bennie) Benjamin (1907–1989), born in Christiansted on Saint Croix, was a successful jazz songwriter. Many of his songs, including Our Love (Will See Us Through), were recorded by legendary singer Nina Simone.
The Fort Christian and Virgin Islands Museum in Charlotte Amalie offers exhibits pertaining to the history and ways of life in the islands. Items include a cane press, historic documents, and exhibits on natural history. The bright red building, once a fort, is the oldest building in the islands, dating from the mid 1600s. The Seven Arches Museum, also in Charlotte Amalie, is a restored 18th-century Danish crafters’ house. Blackbeard’s Castle, which sits on a hill overlooking Charlotte Amalie’s harbor, is the remains of a Danish era fort, rumored to have an association with the famous pirate.
Villa Notman, Brittannia House, Haagensen House, and Hotel 1829 are 19th-century townhouses restored to museum status. The French Heritage Museum in Frenchtown focuses on the history of the French community on Saint Thomas. On Saint Croix, several of the plantations that defined the island’s life and economy in earlier centuries have become museums. The Whim Plantation Museum is a restored 18th-century sugar plantation with great house, sugar mill outbuildings, and grounds available for touring. Northeast of Frederiksted, the Lawaetz Family Museum in Estate Little La Grange is a 19th-century Danish farmstead.
Cruzan Rum offers tours of their rum factory. There’s also a heritage trail that winds through the island marking more than two hundred historical sites. Saint John presents its history in the Elaine Ione Sprauve Museum, which is in a restored 1757 building in Cruz Bay. Though not set up as a formal museum, the remains of Carolina Point Plantation on Water Island are available for exploration.
There’s a regional poetry group in the islands called Callaloo, after an island dish in which many flavors mix and mingle. That idea describes the music community as well. Quelbe, cariso, scratch band, calypso, ska, soca, reggae, fungi, salsa, and zouk are the most prominent flavors and accents, though others find a place in the mix now and then as well. Quelbe, the traditional folk music of the island, originated in the music of slaves brought over from many parts of Africa to work on sugar plantations in the 1600s, and is still popular today. Slaves improvised what instruments they could—seeds rattling in a dried squash for percussion, a flute made of cane for melody, and their voices—to make their music, and this tradition lives on in the scratch band, in which players often use improvised instruments and still play gourds and cane flutes as well. Lyrics of quelbe, which are sung in English or most often in island dialects of English, tell news, spread gossip, and offer comment. Cariso is a more vocal style, closer to African call and response. Today it is mostly found in folklore presentations, though until the early years of 20th century, there were respected cariso singers active in the islands.
Calypso also had its origins in slavery times, and came to the Virgin Islands with people from Trinidad and Jamaica. Today it is very common to hear locally originated calypso music, both traditional style with lyrics of social commentary, and a looser, dance hall style. In the 1950s, when calypso was very popular in the mainland United States, several musicians and bands from the USVI toured often there.
Seventeen Plus is known for integrating electric instruments into soca music. Soca’s musical cousinreggae is also a part of Virgin Islands musical culture, with the bands Midnite and Dezarie being well known. Fungi, which is a sort of British Virgin Islands version of quelbe; zouk, dance music from the French Antilles; salsa and merengue, popular with the large number of islanders of Hispanic descent; and rock steady, a slower version of reggae, are also part of the music mix in the islands. There is, in addition, a history of marching band music, dating back to days of Danish rule and continuing on through U.S. military presence.
THEATER AND PERFORMING ARTS
The Pistarkle Theater (the name comes from a Danish word meaning "spectacle") is a resident professional theater company in Tillett Gardens on Saint Thomas. The company presents a year-round schedule of plays, as well outreach programs, programs for children, and workshops. Most of the actors are residents of the island, but guests artists and directors from other places are also invited on occasion. Plays presented include Broadway hits, musicals, and newer works. They also invite submission of plays by local residents for production consideration. In addition to live productions, the theater offers a regular series of independent and art films.
The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), Trading Places (1983), and Open Water (2003) indicate the wide range of commercial films shot in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Reichold Center on Saint John hosted the Virgin Islands International Film & Video Festival in 2000, where top regionally produced films were screened, including the Academy Award-nominated documentary Speaking in Strings.
There are a number of books dealing with the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands, many of them in Danish, as the islands were for so long under Danish rule. Vore gamle Tropekolonier, first and second editions, are noted by the State Archive of Denmark as essential works in this category. These edited volumes, with contributions from many scholars, are rather academic in tone. The archives suggest Palle Lauring’s Dansk Vestindien. Historien og øerne, also in Danish, as a more popular treatment of the subject.
In English, Charles Edwin Taylor’s 1888 Leaflets from the Danish West Indies is notable, as is William W. Boyer’s America’s Virgin Islands: A History of Human Rights and Wrongs, from 1983. The Virgin Islands Humanities Council has a publication program offering writings related to the islands’ history and culture. Books published include Yellow Cedars Blooming: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Virgin Islands Poetry (1998) and Legacies of Upstreet, by Ruth Moolenaar (2005). V.I. Callaloo, a collection of poems from writers with connections to the Virgin Islands, takes it name from an island stew that blends many flavors in one dish. Poets represented include Tremis Skeete, Linette Rabsatt, April T. Glasgow, V. Celeste Fahie, and Earold O’Kieffe. Herman Wouk lived in Saint Thomas in the 1950s, and set his novel Don’t Stop the Carnival there. Bob Shacochis wrote an award-winning collection of short stories set in the islands called Easy in the Islands (1986).
John Holub mixes representational and impressionistic techniques to create his paintings of Caribbean landscapes, while Gregory Samuel chooses folk art and daily life as subjects for his more representational work, marked by his use of the vivid colors of the islands. Lynn Paccassi-Berry is a third-generation potter whose raku fired wall-hung sculptural pieces are shown in many galleries in the Caribbean and around the United States. Both from natural inclination and in response to interest by visitors to the islands, many painters and sculptors focus on local landscapes and themes.
Camille Pissarro (1830–1903) is usually associated with his adopted country of France, but the well-known impressionist painter was born in Charlotte Amalie, and with the exception of a few years at school in France, lived in the Caribbean until he was 25, and during this time constantly drew and painted scenes of island life. His later work, often depicting laborers or scenes of French landscape and cities, is widely represented in top art museums today, and both his work and his articulation of impressionist theory were influential in his own time. He was a mentor to Paul Cezanne, among other painters, and exhibited in many shows with other impressionists including Paul Gaugin and Edgar Degas. One of his best-known works, the winter street scene Avenue de l’Opera, Paris, which he completed in 1898, is often reproduced on holiday cards.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, several European nations had populations on what are now the U.S. Virgin Islands. They brought their building styles with them, and they also brought slaves. As with other aspects of island culture, these different people influenced each other and were in turn influenced by landscape and location.
The Danes designed and built many of the settlements, and even today many of the buildings that remain are from the three centuries of Danish rule. Fort Christian in Charlotte Amalie is one of the oldest buildings still standing in the islands, dating from the mid-17th century. The distinctive building is bright red brick with light-colored ornamentation. The Legislative Building is also from the Danish period, but it is more subdued in appearance, reflecting the styles in favor when it was built in the late 19th century. Frederick Lutheran Church in Charlotte Amalie represents a transition between these two styles. It has crenellated decoration like the fort, but a less flamboyant color scheme featuring golds and tans, and a curving staircase at the entrance. Hotel 1829 has a balcony and shows the meeting of French, Danish, and Caribbean influences. Beracha V’Shalom V’gemilut Chasadim Synagogue andSaint Thomas Reformed Church, as well as Government House, all in Charlotte Amalie, date from the early 1800s, and are examples of classical revival architecture. On hilly streets in towns, the Danish often built steps, and to construct these they used bricks brought over from Denmark as ballast on trading ships. In Charlotte Amalie, one example near the harbor is called 99 Steps.
On Saint Croix, Frederiksted has another red brick fort, but with rather more subdued decorative elements than Fort Christian, and dating from almost a century later. The customs house building in Frederiksted is from that same period, and features a balcony style often found in the tropics. Along the waterfront in Christiansted, also on Saint Croix, there is a historic district with a fort, churches, and government buildings, which are examples of Danish colonial architecture. On Saint John, much of which is part of the Virgin Islands National Park, prehistoric settlements of native people have been found. There are also remains of slave settlements, showing community organizations and building practices similar to those in areas of Africa. Remains of three sugar plantations, Annaberg, Catherineburg, and Reef Bay, are also in the park.
HANDICRAFT AND FOLK ARTS
As a tourist center and cruise ship destination, the U.S. Virgin Islands have many shops selling crafts, but their wares are often from other parts of the Caribbean, or consist of items made specifically for the tourist trade. The Native Arts & Crafts Cooperative, located on Saint Thomas, sells original work by amateur and professional artists and craftspeople, while Gallery Saint Thomas offers high-end crafts among its paintings and sculpture. Into the Sea sells arts and crafts by native artists. On Saint Croix,Many Hands sells local crafts. Wooden bowls, brooms, bracelets of various metals, and pottery are items commonly made by island craftspeople, as are folk food items, such as jams and jellies with hot peppers, and rice dishes. Justin Todman is known for his date palm frond brooms. Larry Lipskycreates metalwork that treads the line between art and craft. Gwendolyn Haley makes fabric crafts.
-World Trade Press