Every Caribbean island has its own signature soundtrack, a distinctive distillation and evocation of its native spirit. So a few bars of mento can transport us to Jamaica; a halting accordion intro, joined by the syncopation of scraper and shallow tambou drum, conjures up the rivers and rugged terrain of Dominica and its joyful jing ping. If you hear a plaintive bamboo fife, piping over a multiple string section of banjo, guitars, cuatro and mandolin, accompanied by loping percussion, your ears do not deceive you – you’re in Nevis.
Like Trinidadians who claim calypso for their own, Nevisians refer to their home as “the land of the string band”. Without igniting an ethnomusicological controversy, suffice it to say that like calypso, which evolved from a complex of influences and is now a regional genre, the string band exists in many forms throughout the Caribbean, from the Spanish-influenced parang groups of Trinidad and the eastern Caribbean to the funji and scratch bands of the Virgin Islands and the trova ensembles of rural Cuba. But the fife-led string bands of Nevis are a sweetness unto themselves.
From the late nineteenth century through to the early decades of the twentieth, string-led ensembles provided the musical accompaniment for most social functions of the Caribbean middle classes. The use of European instruments, rather than the rhythm-based African drum and percussion, was a sign of social aspirations in territories where the elites took their cue from Europe. But the African influence, with its ancestral rhythms, was irrepressible in popular music, so that by the 1920s, Afro-Cuban son, forerunner of salsa, was making the transition from low to high culture and the hybrid nature of creolised music became acceptable.
The other music form indigenous to Nevis, the Big Drum, which has its origins in the seventeenth century, exhibits a similar pattern of adaptation, with the fife, bass, and snare drums adopted from European military bands, but played to distinctively African beats. Before the larger jazz or dance band became the norm in popular music worldwide, it was the string band which played the hits of the day, or accompanied the latest dances in the Caribbean; and, fortunately, in Nevis this musical institution has survived successive waves of jazz, rock, reggae, and everything in between.
What puts Nevisian string bands in a class of their own is that most of the instruments are made from local materials by island craftsmen like Owen Bossue Hendrickson, son of master craftsman Cyril Bossue of Butlers Village, who is still active. Hendrickson was a keen banjo player as a youth and bought his first instrument from a Mr Will Lanns of Hanley’s Road, who is credited as one of the earliest local instrument-makers. Having mastered his instrument of choice, Hendrickson learnt to repair his own banjo under his father’s supervision and then graduated to making a banjo from scratch, using local white cedarwood for the body and neck and goatskin for the head. Besides learning to play all the instruments, including the fife, Hendrikson became adept at making them and is now known as the only maker of all string-band instruments.
Up until the 1960s almost every village in Nevis had its own string band (usually named for a bird, after the lead fife), and despite drum machines, synthesizers, digitisation, Internet downloads, and the ubiquitous DJ, the island can still boast active groups like David Freeman’s Honeybees, Santoy Barrat’s Majestic Oualians, the Hummingbirds, and the Canary Birds.
Until very recently the string bands played for no more than the joy of the music, a plate of food, and a drink. A new generation of heritage-conscious Nevisians active in the Ministry of Culture has sensitised islanders and visitors to the importance of ensuring respect and hopefully remuneration for these folk heroes. Having established a schools education programme, Nevis is rearing a new generation of string-band players, preserving and developing one of the region’s most distinctive and delightful hybrid musical forms.
From banjo to bottle and spoon
A full-complement string band could also double as a cricket or football team, with its 11-plus members.
In this quintessential Caribbean combo, the prototype of the lead melody instrument (the bamboo flute, or fife) might be the Amerindian flute, rather than an adaptation of the European military fife.
Accompanying either vocals, or – in instrumentals – the fife, the string-band ensemble comprises: three guitars, one mandolin or banjo, one cuatro, maracas, triangle, geero (or guiro), baho or baha (bamboo bass pipe) and as many bottles and spoons as come to hand. Conjecture again has it that it was Nevisians returning from work in South America who brought back the guiro (metal scraper, a common Latin percussion instrument) and the baha (from the Spanish flauta baja – low flute).