A report by Andrea Milam for The Virgin Islands Daily News.
The St. John Recovery Choir’s Quelbe and Reggae Revival Concert, set for Saturday at 7 p.m., has been a long time coming. The Caribbean culture-themed presentation was originally scheduled for last spring, when the territory — and the world — shut down in response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The Recovery Choir concert will be presented virtually, which came with a whole new set of challenges for Sing St. John Executive Director Kristen Carmichael-Bowers.
“We thought this concert was dead in the water, then we started with Zoom classes,” said Carmichael-Bowers. “I had to learn a lot of tech stuff for editing recordings. Everybody made recordings on their phones or computers and sent them to me, then I would edit for things that were outright in error, but I left other things in so we still sound like us — not sterile.”
Caribbean culture takes center stage at the spring concert, which will feature quelbe and other music from the region.
Some of the songs were chosen by Virgin Islander members of Sing St. John’s board, Roy “Ras Feba” Reid and Warren “Addis” Smith.
The men coached choir members on the idiomatic expressions and dialect featured in some of the songs, along with the meaning, history, and cultural significance of the songs.
Bringing Caribbean songs to the fore was an important part of the Recovery Choir’s spring concert, explained Carmichael-Bowers.
“People tend to hang out with people who are like them, there’s this commonality where we instinctively understand where we’re coming from,” she said. “It’s super important for us to reach across, to reach out and expend the energy to have understanding across cultural differences. It’s a part of our mission at Sing St. John to support and honor the local culture.”
Another challenge faced during the compilation of the upcoming concert was the unexpected passing of Sing St. John board member and quelbe musician Mahlon “Koko” Pickering. Carmichael-Bowers used recordings of three songs Pickering sang in her living room before he passed in October.
“He was so excited about this concert, and all I had were these recordings from when we sat in my living room,” said Carmichael-Bowers. “When he passed, I thought, ‘Oh no, what are we going to do?’ Recordings are a little unpredictable and when you sing quelbe you speed up, you slow down, you repeat something just because you want to. It’s going to be a little weird because the quality of his recordings aren’t the best and our recordings sound different because they’re digital. It will be interesting to see what it sounds like in the end, but it’s really important to honor Mahlon and to bring quelbe out.”
The 10-member select children’s choir, Ocama!, also faced the challenge of virtually compiling the songs along with the difficulty of keeping young ones focused and engaged on the task at hand.
The Ocama! Concert, set for May 1 at 7 p.m., will also be presented online. The group will perform seven songs, of which the choir members chose the majority.
“It’s really uplifting, fun music,” said Carmichael-Bowers. “They’ve got a Caribbean song, Coconut Woman by Harry Belafonte, along with popular songs from the radio or from YouTube that they really love that I arranged for them. ”
Links to tune in to both concerts can be found at www.singstjohn.org. Attendance is free but donations are appreciated to help defray the costs of recording and engineering.