Sunday, June 2, 2013

Tanny and the Boys: Living Monument from St. Martin

Tanny and the Boys is a well-known six-member “string band” from the island of St. Maarten. The members are: George Violenus, manager and tambora player; Jocelyn Arndell, guiro (scraper); Federico “Culebra” Nathaniel Smith, ukulele banjo player and vocalist*; Maxime Emeal Reed, guitarist and lead vocalist; Edward Violenus, accordionist; and James Roosevelt Samuel, marimba. The Violenus brothers were born in Aruba to St. Maarten parents; Culebra in the Dominican Republic, also to St. Maarten parents; Maxime in Anguilla; James in St. Maarten; and Jocelyn in Curaçao. Regarding some of the lesser-known instruments, the tambora is a drum played with sticks and is placed on the player’s lap. It is a standard fixture of the merengues of the Dominican Republic. The ukelele banjo is a smaller version of the familiar banjo but unlike the banjo individual notes are not played with a pick, but rather chords are strummed and serves as accompaniment to the lead instrument which plays the melody. The marimba as used in the Caribbean, not to be confused with the xylophone-like marimbas of Central and South Americahas its origins in the African kalimba or thumb-piano, a series of metal tongs mounted on a wooden resonator board and played by plucking the tongs. The Caribbean version is used as a bass instrument and is known in Curaçao and other parts of the region as the marimbula.
The accordion provides the distinct element to Tanny and the Boys’ music. It is used in other parts of the Caribbean such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Belize, Dominica, Aruba and Curaçao, but this accordion, played against the background of both English Caribbean stringed instruments and Afro-Latin percussion, is a style unique to St. Maarten.

The interview and recording session took place in March 2003 at the house of guitar player and marimba maker Carlson Velasquez. Carlson’s house is just across the border on the French side of the island, in one of the few remaining pieces of countryside. The preferred place for music making at Carlson’s house is under the shade of a mango tree, so the six musicians set up there. Articles previously written about Tanny and the Boys had focused on the musicians and their backgrounds, so instead I asked the group about the origins and rhythms of the songs from their two albums: Fête (1992) and Classic Tanny and the Boys (2000). What I learned was that the diversity of their musical knowledge is truly phenomenal, an outgrowth of the diverse origins of the group members. To summarize, their repertoire includes English Caribbean calypso, waltz, polka, and schottisch (the schottisch is similar to the polka but slower); American country western and blues; Dominican merengue; Spanish Caribbean bolero; Colombian cumbia; French Caribbean beguine; and tumba from Curaçao. Not only do they play these forms well, they also have the versatility to change the rhythms of songs according to their preferences. For example, the song “Fever” is an old St. Maarten calypso which the band plays in a merengue rhythm. “Come Go to Bed” is an original composition of Eddie Violenus in a combination of waltz and schottisch rhythm. “Lanta Mainta” is the tumba that George sings in Papiamentu. Fans of Jim Reeves country music will recognize the song “He’ll Have to Go” although it is listed on theClassic Tanny and the Boys CD as “Your Sweet Lips.” The group also plays the song “When I Grow Too Old to Dream,” which had been sung originally by movie actor Nelson Eddy!
Tanny and the Boys exemplifies the influence of human migration for economic reasons as an unwitting assistant in the development of exciting, eclectic folk music. For example, when employment was scarce in St. Maarten in the early part of the 20th century, many of its inhabitants migrated to the Dominican Republic or to Aruba and Curaçao for work. While absorbing the cultural heritage of those places, they were always conscious of their St. Maarten origins and they or their descendants often returned to the island when its economic fortunes began to improve, particularly during the tourist boom which started in the 1960’s and continues to this day. This is certainly the case with the Violenus brothers and Culebra. What is also remarkable is that St. Maarten seems to stand alone among the nearby islands in this specific diversity. When stepping off the ferry from French St. Martin to Anguilla one can feel the change to a predominantly English Caribbean environment. Unfortunately, this diversity has not been studied to the extent that other Caribbean islands have been studied; for example, little Carriacou, part of the nation of Grenada, has been studied extensively due to the existence of its African-influenced music. However, in sources currently available in the United States, there is virtually nothing said about St. Maarten, Saba and Statia, with the exception of the book by Malena Kuss titled "Music in Latin America and the Caribbean: Volume 2: Performing the Caribbean Experience." This article hopefully is one small step toward rectifying that imbalance.

*Note: Culebra passed away in 2011 at the age of 86.


AVS News, "Federico “Culebra” Flanders-Smith Remembered," December 27, 2011.

Esposito, Michael. Interview with Tanny and the Boys, Belle Plaine, St. Martin, March 30, 2003. 

Sekou, Lasana, ed. Fête – Celebrating the Traditional Festive Music of St. Martin. St. Martin: House of Nehesi Publishers, 1992.

Sekou, Lasana. Liner notes to Tanny and the Boys LP Fête and CD Classic Tanny and the Boys.

Sheehy, Daniel E., “Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.” In Olsen, Dale A. and Sheehy, Daniel E., eds., The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, Volume 2: South America, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998, 927-931.

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